Written by James Washington
Never underestimate the heart of a champion.
Football is a key component of Georgia heritage, and much of that credit is due to Valdosta.
In their storied history, Valdosta High School’s football program has won 41 regional, 23 state, and six national championships.
No successful run comes without a few obstacles to overcome.
From 1968 to 1970, the Wildcats went on a streak of 36 wins, zero losses, and one tie. However, after the team lost a great deal of players to graduation, many people chose to write the team off as an early failure.
They were projected to finish the 1971 season with a 5-5 record and miss the playoffs.
Calvin Lester, 59, played guard for the ’71 Wildcats. During his junior year he barely saw any time on the field.
“I was a ‘pine-rooter’,” Lester said. “Kids nowadays call ‘em ‘benchwarmers’.”
After the 1970 Wildcats finished their season one game short of a state title, young Lester took it upon himself to motivate the team. He credits one particular postgame speech as a major reason behind the soon-to-be success of the 1971 team.
“There were seniors crying on the bus,” Lester said. “That was the only game that those guys lost in their high school careers. I told the rest of the team that we had to win a state title for them.”
Frank Lester, 61, is Calvin Lester’s older brother. He played defensive end for the Wildcats during the 1970 season.
“I never would have thought that (Calvin) had a leadership gene in him,” Frank Lester said. “He always came across as the type that followed along, but I learned a lot about my brother that year.”
The team put forth a legendary run on the field. Coached by the legendary Wright Bazemore, the team forever etched their names into the record books with an undefeated season (13-0), capped with a 62-12 victory in the state championship game against Avondale High School.
To add to their credit, their season total of 629 points stood as a Georgia record for 23 years.
The team’s success, according to Calvin Lester, came from “a perfect blend of speed, quickness and rugged muscle.”
For all the success that the team saw on the field, there was an equal, if not greater, struggle taking place within the school. VHS was fully integrated in 1969, and, as expected, not everyone welcomed the change.
Calvin Lester recalls many painful moments from his experiences with the team.
“Bringing (Black students) over from Pinevale didn’t do much for us,” he said. “We might have been playing together, but at the end of the day we still went to separate locker rooms.”
During the fall of 1969, rumors spread that the voting was being fixed to prevent a Black student from winning Homecoming Queen.
“Soon as word spread, we fixed that,” Calvin Lester said. “A lot of the Black players walked out on the team. We knew they needed us, and they wouldn’t play without us.”
In 1971, he was named a team captain. This appointment also came under controversy. After three Black players were chosen as team captains, the coaches appointed three White players to balance the racial leadership.
“Coach (Bazemore) knew that the boosters wouldn’t accept three African-American captains,” Calvin Lester said. “We had to reach a compromise, and that’s why we were the first team to have six captains.”
To add insult to injury, 1971 marked the first year that the Valdosta Daily Times did not feature a captains’ lineup or photo in the newspaper.
Early in the season, the Wildcats were barely recognized. By the season’s end, their efforts resulted in their twenty-third regional, fifteenth state, and third national titles.
Years later, a story eerily similar to their own was made into a movie. Ironically, however, the movie was not about Valdosta.
The Disney movie “Remember the Titans” tells the story of T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va. Much like the Wildcats, they were forced to face the harsh realities of racism when their school was integrated in 1971.
When VHS was named the national champions that year, T.C. Williams tied for second place in the final polls.
“Everything that they went through, we had done it two years ago,” Calvin Lester said. “1971 was our year because our worst year was already a memory. The only real difference that I saw between that movie and our situation is that their head coach (Herman Boone) was Black.”
While the movie received critical acclaim upon release, the national response in 1971 was quite the opposite.
“We had never even heard of them,” Calvin Lester said. “I didn’t know anything about (T.C. Williams) until I saw ‘Remember the Titans.’ I immediately thought, ‘Why not us?’”
Calvin Lester and his teammates will forever hold a special place in Georgia history. The rest of the country has no problem remembering the Titans. In South Georgia, fans and players use their own unique memories to remember the Wildcats.