VALDOSTA, Ga. — There isn’t any pleasure in Titletown, as this South Georgia metropolis calls itself.
The Valdosta Wildcats are undoubtedly considered one of America’s most profitable highschool soccer groups, with greater than 900 victories, two dozen state titles and its star gamers seemingly on a conveyor belt to soccer meccas like Georgia and Alabama. Greatness is a given right here.
So the Wildcat devoted can solely bemoan the scandal instantly unfolding earlier than them, one involving mysterious hirings and firings, rampant rumors and allegations of soiled dealing by a few of the South’s most well-known school coaches. Poignantly, this racially cut up group appears not sure whether or not it could actually come collectively even round soccer.
For now, Valdosta is plumb out of coaches, with its present head coach on administrative depart after he was caught on tape whispering a few recruiting slush fund and the earlier one, a white man, alleging racial discrimination after he was fired, although a five-touchdown loss to a neighborhood rival can’t be dismissed as an element.
Who hyperlinks these disparate threads?
That could be Michael Nelson, the just lately deposed (which means each fired and positioned underneath oath) govt director of Valdosta High’s Touchdown Club. Nelson boasts that he is likely one of the fiercest Wildcats followers in city historical past and calls himself a “one-armed white Jihadist.” He misplaced his proper arm at 13 and since then has used his different hand to signal his title as “Nub.”
Nelson’s deposition in former Coach Alan Rodemaker’s discrimination lawsuit remodeled Titletown’s household dysfunction into headline information. It was Nub, too, who secretly recorded the present coach musing about corrupt recruiting schemes he mentioned have been carried out by the likes of Kirby Smart, Nick Saban and even Bear Bryant, lifeless almost 4 a long time.
All of this has magnified a few of the space’s longstanding obsessions.
“Valdosta is known for two things: the Mary Turner lynching and winning high school football games,” mentioned Thomas Aiello, an affiliate professor of historical past and African-American research at Valdosta State University.
In 1918, Turner, who was eight months pregnant, was amongst about a dozen African Americans lynched in this group, 25 miles north of the Florida line, in retaliation for the homicide of a white plantation proprietor. Her loss of life grew to become a spotlight of the NAACP’s anti-lynching campaigns by the 1940s.
Racial injustice persists right here as in every single place, however the locals have lengthy seen soccer as a refuge.
“Everybody loves the Wildcats,” mentioned Dominique Moses, a 2004 Valdosta graduate who’s Black and owns Fit Fighters Fitness, the place lots of the Wildcats practice. “Football is the one thing that brings both sides together.”
Or used to, anyway.
A Helmet for a Car Seat
Not many individuals know that Nub Nelson’s actual first title is Michael. He received the nickname after his horse stepped in entrance of a pickup truck with him in the saddle. That was the top of the horse and may need been the top of Nelson if the medical doctors hadn’t taken off his gangrenous arm on the elbow. Nelson, 65, mentioned that he has by no means thought of the loss a tragedy.
His solely remorse was that he by no means received to be a Valdosta Wildcat.
“It kills me; I’ll never get over it,” mentioned Nelson, who carried his firstborn son residence from the hospital in a Wildcats helmet.
How massive a deal is it to be a Wildcat? When a famed coach died instantly in 1996, 7,000 mourners packed Cleveland Field to pay their respects as his physique, dressed in the Wildcats’ gold and black and cradling a soccer, lay in repose on the 50-yard line.
In 2002, Nelson joined the board of the Touchdown Club, a now-70-year-old booster membership. After some lean years for the Wildcats, he reckoned that if the group was going to carry its sport, the Touchdown Club needed to do the identical.
Nelson determined that what Valdosta actually wanted was a $500,000 scoreboard, and he got down to get it, promising the Board of Education it will pay for itself as native companies purchased promoting. A barrel-chested bantamweight with a salt and pepper hair, Nelson made on line casino greeters look lazy, becoming a member of lunch tables uninvited and dealing his Bluetooth like an air visitors controller touchdown jets at Kennedy Airport.
It didn’t take him lengthy to hustle up half the cash and it took no time in any respect for the college board to kick in the remainder.
When then-assistant coach Rodemaker was elevated to move coach in 2016, Nelson was on his solution to tripling the Touchdown Club’s finances to almost $250,000 a yr. He quickly grew to become its salaried govt director.
“It meant better equipment and allowed us to feed our kids a full breakfast and supper each school day all year round,” Rodemaker mentioned.
Valdosta gained the state championship in Rodemaker’s debut season, its first title since 1998. It appeared the brand new coach and a revived Touchdown Club had paid dividends.
Rodemaker compiled a 36-17 report in 4 years, together with a 10-Three report in 2019, when Valdosta made its second consecutive look in the state quarterfinals. After the season, the colleges superintendent, William Cason, who is called Todd, advisable to the board that he be rehired. But the board voted the opposite manner.
“I was blindsided,” Rodemaker mentioned. “I still have never heard why I was not renewed. No one came and talked to me. There were no complaints I knew of. My file was squeaky clean.”
Mostly white fingers identified that the 5-Four vote fell alongside racial strains, with the brand new Black majority voting to oust the white coach. Surely, the pondering went, the board would exchange Rodemaker with a Black man. After all, Valdosta High was 71 p.c Black, but it surely had by no means had a Black soccer coach, and loads of folks in city thought it was about time.
Still, there was enough support for Rodemaker to pressure the board to revisit its determination at a gathering just a few weeks later.
On Feb. 10, 2020, the townspeople packed the 900-seat Valdosta High School Performing Arts Center, chosen as a result of it was giant sufficient for the anticipated crowd. Many pleaded for Rodemaker to maintain his job. But the Rev. Floyd Rose, a longtime pastor and civil rights chief, reminded the Black board members that Black voters had put them there and urged them to reaffirm their determination.
“Whites have made decisions on behalf of the Black community for years, but when a white man is dismissed all of the sudden hell breaks loose,” he mentioned.
The Black board members voted once more to let Rodemaker go, towards the advice of Cason, who can also be Black.
William Love, a former college board member and never a part of the vote, gave a deposition for Rodemaker’s lawsuit. He mentioned that the present member Warren Lee, who’s extensively thought of the chief of the Black majority, made choices on racial grounds.
“One really big example was when he said, ‘What we need to have in our football program is a coach of color,’” mentioned Love, who’s white.
Another white board member, Kelly Wilson, who voted to rehire Rodemaker, mentioned in a deposition that she additionally believed the coach was let go partly as a result of he was white.
“Do I think that was a factor?” mentioned Wilson, who has since resigned. “Yes. Do I think it was the sole factor? No. But I do believe that was a factor.”
Jerry Lumley, the lawyer for Lee and Kelisa Brown, one other Black board member, mentioned Rodemaker was lower unfastened primarily for a purpose any Wildcats fan would perceive: He was 1-Three towards Valdosta’s greatest rivals, Lowndes County and Colquitt County.
Rodemaker’s 71-35 loss to Lowndes at residence in 2018 was significantly painful as a result of it occurred in what is called the Winnersville Classic. Lowndes, in the identical county as Valdosta, opened in 1959 and shortly grew to become the highschool of selection for white households fleeing integration in city. It is greater and extra prosperous, and plenty of former Wildcats from the glory years ship their little kids there.
“Mr. Lee was not pleased with the direction the team was going,” mentioned Lumley. “He believed they needed someone else to get Valdosta back on track.”
That somebody turned out to be a coach with white pores and skin, a historical past of successful and a practice load of luggage.
A Reality Show Coach
Rush Propst has been known as probably the most well-known highschool soccer coach in America, which in 2006 was correct. Viewers of the MTV actuality present “Two-a-Days” noticed Propst use his honeysuckle drawl and televangelist patter to bully, con and cajole his group to glory. Over 9 years at Hoover High, he gained 110 video games and 5 Alabama state championships.
By the time he resigned in October 2007, nonetheless, Propst was America’s most notorious highschool coach.
After months of rumors, Hoover’s Board of Education launched a report that mentioned Propst, who was married with youngsters, had a second household in one other a part of the state and had an affair with a faculty administrator who had modified some grades of Propst’s gamers.
In the South, nonetheless, having an underperforming soccer group could be its personal type of scandal, and Propst quickly landed at Colquitt County High School close to Moultrie, Ga., the place he grew to become the state’s highest-paid coach at $141,000 a yr. He amassed fairly a report: An investigation discovered that he gave his gamers medicine, misused college district cash and owed almost $450,000 in delinquent federal and state taxes.
On the opposite hand, he racked up 119 wins and gained two state championships, with back-to-back 15-Zero seasons in 2014 and 2015.
Which helps clarify why, three weeks after Colquitt fired him, the identical 5 Valdosta college board members who fired Rodemaker employed Propst.
“It’s just an honor,’’ Propst told reporters. “I don’t think there’s a coach in football that hears the word Valdosta and doesn’t think of good football teams. Valdosta is synonymous with winning.’’
Steve Nichols, a local radio personality, said he saw Propst’s hiring partly as a legal maneuver.
“There was no reason not to renew Rodemaker,” he mentioned. “The community started screaming foul and at least the board had sense enough to hire a white coach to tamp down the lawsuit.”
Cason, Valdosta’s faculties superintendent, insisted that nobody ever informed him he needed to rent a Black coach. Of the highest dozen candidates, Cason mentioned solely two or three have been Black.
“There were no African-American candidates that applied had a stellar enough record as a coach,” he mentioned.
Black folks in Valdosta had heard that earlier than. Moses, the gymnasium proprietor, mentioned he nonetheless believes Valdosta will get a Black coach sometime. “We’ve been asking for a while,” he mentioned. “If we keep pushing it will happen, maybe not for this coach or the next coach, but soon.”
Nub Nelson goes viral. A recording of the dialog he had with Propst on May 16, 2020 is piling up hits on social media and YouTube and fanning arguments on message boards and sports activities radio.
In 14 minutes of chitchat with Nelson, probably the most (in)well-known highschool soccer coach in America managed to besmirch virtually all the pieces beloved in the South and, in doing so, ended up on administrative depart.
Bear Bryant? He constructed an unlawful recruiting slush fund with seed cash from donors from Mobile, Ala., mentioned Propst: “Coach Bryant had that set up in the 1960s.”
Next up have been Georgia Bulldog Coach Kirby Smart and former star working again Nick Chubb. Smart, in keeping with Propst, paid Chubb $180,000 to return to Georgia for his senior season in 2017: “Three $60,000 donations for him to stay in school.”
Chubb shrugged off the suggestion in a terse social media publish.
The recording continued. From whom did Smart get the thought to pay Chubb to stay round?
“Nick Saban,” Propst mentioned, referring to Smart’s stint as an Alabama assistant coach.
Having implicated a few of the Alabama’s most interesting coaches and athletes, Propst then turned on a few of Alabama’s most interesting. When he was teaching at Hoover High, he mentioned, cops supplied him with the spoils from narcotics raids they carried out on Interstate 20.
“They gave me $30,000 of drug money,” he says.
Nick Saban, Kirby Smart, the Alabama police and the ghost of Bear Bryant didn’t return a reporter’s calls.
Championships, Propst gave the impression to be saying, are costly. At Colquitt, he informed Nub Nelson, boosters sweetened his wage with a further $4,500 a month, choosing up his truck and cellphone funds and a part of his mortgage. Now, in Valdosta, he wanted to handle four- and five-star recruits he was making an attempt to convey to city.
“We have to have some funny money,” Propst could possibly be heard saying in the recording, including that “at least $10,000 cash” felt proper.
Nelson mentioned he didn’t leak the tape. But he did flip it over to Valdosta college officers and investigators for the Georgia High School Athletic Association. He additionally spoke with athletic compliance officers at Georgia and Alabama who’re trying into Propst’s allegations.
Neither Propst nor his lawyer responded to telephone calls, texts and emails.
Fight On, Wildcats
Titletown is a bit unhinged heading into spring soccer. Social media and message boards abound with conspiracy theories.
A maybe extra cogent concept was provided on a Georgia highschool message board by somebody going by the deal with Wildcat521.
“When those 5 black board members voted rod out it rattled a lot of white people. Never have I seen so many mad white folks,” Wildcat521 wrote. “It’s really not about rush. It’s about trying to hold on to the good old boy system that was the downfall of Valdosta football in the first place.”
Rodemaker, the ousted coach, continues to be pursuing his lawsuit. His legal professionals negotiated an $800,000 settlement that will have included a letter saying there was no trigger for his dismissal, however final month, the college board voted to not approve it.
“The statement is a lot more important than the money,” mentioned Rodemaker, now the defensive coordinator at Colquitt. “I want to get hired as a head coach again.”
Nelson can also be on the lookout for work. He mentioned he was fired from his job as the manager director of the Touchdown Club for speaking an excessive amount of about Propst and the issues in this system. Gone is his $32,000 annual wage, together with the nice will of a few of the Wildcat devoted.
He appears untroubled. At lunch at Covington’s, a preferred restaurant right here, he stored having to place down his French dip sandwich as a financial institution president, college district officers and different ’Cat backers stopped by to say good day and ask what he had heard.
After lunch, he was again in his Toyota, punching the buttons on his telephone and musing about teaching candidates who may restore soccer glory. Titletown, in any case, is greater than a faculty board, a actuality TV coach or a “one-armed white Jihadist.”
“We are the winningest high school football program in the country — the Valdosta Wildcats,” he mentioned, a cigarette curled in his mouth. “There’s all kinds great coaches who’d want to come here. This is all going to blow over.”