Sports is the latest territory for Jubera, a Buckhead resident who chronicled the world of Valdosta High School football in his first book, “Must Win: A Season of Survival for a Town and Its Team.”
“Must Win,” which was released in September, takes a look at the storied Valdosta football program, which has won 23 state championships and six national titles and has amassed the most wins of any high school team in the nation (886) during its 100 years of existence.
For Jubera, however, it is ultimately a study of the ethos of the South Georgia town.
“I looked at it as a way to get into the culture of the place — a small town in the South,” Jubera said. “When I first talked about this with my editor, I said it would be 20 percent about football and 80 percent about not football. I don’t know what the percentage ended up being, but it is more about the culture of Valdosta than it is about football.”
Jubera began his exploration of Valdosta football in 2009 — when the Wildcats were at a crossroads after firing coach Rick Tomberlin following a 7-4 season.
“I left the AJC in 2009 and I was freelancing and doing stories for the New York Times,” Jubera said. “In 2009, I was looking at the TV and there was a high school game on and they mentioned about Valdosta firing their coach. All I knew about Valdosta, really, was that they were a high school football power in Georgia.
“So, I Googled Valdosta and I learned that it was the third football coach fired in eight years and the team had really gone down. There was a lot of political and racial aspects and a lot of other aspects going on.”
Jubera wrote an article on Valdosta for the New York Times in November 2009, and it led to the idea for the book.
“I got an amazing reaction,” Jubera said. “It was the most viewed story on their website when it came out that day, and so I knew there was more there.”
Soon after that, Jubera traveled to Valdosta to meet with new coach Rance Gillespie and discuss the idea of the book with him.
“I was invited to meet him at sort of a booster club meet-and-greet,” Jubera said. “I said to him, ‘I would like to be embedded with your team for a year.’ He had never met me, never talked to me before. He took a second and a half and said, ‘OK’, and that was it. Once I knew I could get inside the program and the coaches and the players, I know I could write a book.”
Jubera went on to follow the fortunes of the Valdosta football team and explore the city’s culture during the 2010 season.
He said he learned a lot about the lives of the players and coaches, both on and off the field, as well as the community in general.
“I was there for practices and school,” Jubera said. “I was around the school. I went to the homecoming dance. I was with players outside of football, just to see what their lives were like, the families and such. A lot of these kids come from pretty desperate backgrounds — not all of them, but a lot of them did.”
“But, also, I tried to find out a lot about the people, the boosters that dealt with the team. I talked to people all over the community, just to get a sense of how this small town in deepest south Georgia provided the winningest high school football team in America and that goes back almost a hundred years.
“I talked to people who were associated with community leaders, people at [Valdosta State University], people in town. I talked to the police about what was going on in certain parts of that community.”
Jubera came away with a strong appreciation of the football program as well as the Valdosta community at large.
“The biggest thing that came through is everyone’s passion,” Jubera said. “The coaches were really passionate about what they did, the players — the game meant everything to those kids. I mean, it’s a huge thing to be able to play for that team. And for the town itself, it’s a small town in South Georgia and it’s always thought of itself as bigger than that and the team was one way that it sort of gained a national reputation and people were really proud of that.”
Jubera’s year at Valdosta was a positive experience for Gillespie, who led the Wildcats to an 11-2 record and a state quarterfinal appearance in his first season at the helm in 2010.
“It was a unique experience, a good experience,” the coach said. “I enjoyed having Drew there to talk to about the team during that time. Drew’s a good guy and he’s a very good writer.”
For Jubera, his time in Valdosta was one of the most memorable experiences of a career that included such events as the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina in ’05.
“It was kind of life altering in a way,” he said. “I was allowed inside so many lives so deeply, kids and parents and coaches, that I got a whole different view of the world in a way. It felt like it was a real gift to be inside a town, to get inside a town, as deeply as I was able to get inside that place. I consider it a second home, now. It’s sort of shifted my outlook in a way that no other story really has.”