In South Georgia, high school football lies “somewhere between iconic and mythic,” writes journalist Drew Jubera in his first book, Must Win: A Season of Survival for a Town and Its Team (St. Martin’s Press). Jubera immersed himself in the 2010 football season of Valdosta High School, once the dominant team in the nation. In 2009 the New York Times dispatched Jubera to write about the fallout from a loss to county rival Lowndes High that seemed to mark the official end of the school’s glory days. Jubera realized right away that the story wasn’t just about football, so he spent a year commuting from his home in Atlanta and eventually took up temporary residence in Valdosta.
Must Win is propelled by characters that are way too colorful not to be true. From the troubled senior prodigies to the one-armed superfan named Nub, everybody in town clearly confided in Jubera. The result is a testament not only to storytelling, but to old-fashioned (and time-consuming) reporting, to listening well and writing like crazy. Occasionally the metaphors come as fast and furious as a swarm of South Georgia gnats. But the depth of detail and craftsmanship of a gifted writer at his peak make up for any stumbles.
You don’t have to know a tight end from a Hail Mary to appreciate this book. Consider this irresistible sketch of the irrepressible Nub: “He was all bright squinty eyes and toothy, hidden-agenda grins—a grown-up version of the kid your mother told you over and over not to play with anymore.” On virtually every page, there is a reason to stop, to reread, and to marvel. This is a book worth cheering about.
Photograph by Ellis Vener