Tradition haunts Bazemore-Hyder Stadium

VALDOSTA, Ga. -- As best as anyone knows, Jimmy Hoffa is not buried underneath the stands in Bazemore-Hyder Stadium, nor anywhere else near here. But someone or something may be under its Cleveland Field.

The locals want it dug up.

Since 1913, the Valdosta Wildcats are 842-194-34. They've won 23 state championships and six mythical national titles, with Wright Bazemore (1941-42, '46 to '71) and Nick Hyder ('74 to '95) as head coach for 21 of the state crowns and all of the national championships.

In state championship games on Cleveland Field, sometimes referred to as "Death Valley," the Cats are 14-2-2.

The Ghost of Cleveland Field, which usually has been a helpful apparition for the home team, frequently has been credited for fateful plays that have gone the Wildcats' way in many home successes.

But although The Ghost is so locally ingrained that for the past decade the Cats have run the ghost across the matrix scoreboard when Valdosta scores, it looks to be gone. As a result, the home team seems haunted.

Before Bazemore-Hyder was renovated in '03-'04, Valdosta was 813-169-34 (.817) overall. Since then, the Cats have been 29-25. They play against Coffee on Saturday.

The Cats have not won a state title since 1998, the longest drought since they won their first title in 1940, 27 years after they began playing. Crosstown rival Lowndes High has won four of its five state titles since 1999, and three of four since Valdosta's renovation.

Plus, the dreaded Vikings have beaten Valdosta five years in a row.

"I think The Ghost is trapped under the field," said Valdosta historian David Waller, who has attended all but six home and away Valdosta games since 1947. "He hasn't showed up lately."

The Cats received no otherworldly help in '06, when a 1-9 record was the school's worst ever.

Beyond the legend of the apparition, Bazemore-Hyder's history lies largely in the success of teams that have played there since 1922.

The stadium does not sit on a hill or next to a lake, nor is it nestled in the woods. Tall pines surround part of the stadium, but it doesn't have the woodsy feel it did decades ago.

We think he got out, but I wouldn't be surprised if [the ghost is] under the turf. He or she, I'm not sure which. If we knew he was under the turf, we'd get to digging. He's a come-from-behind guy. Or gal.

-- Valdosta historian David Waller

A $7 million upgrade sure put a shine on the place. Capacity grew a little to 11,249, with chair backs on several thousand seats.

Concession stands are efficient, restrooms are nice, lighting is fantastic and the press box is top-shelf. (VHS shares the stadium with Valdosta State University, a two-time national Division II football champ.)

A new, 3,000-square foot museum and hall of fame sits beyond the east end zone. It surpasses many college halls, and Waller -- who played in the first state title game at Cleveland Field, a loss in '50 -- opens it before games and for anyone who asks.

"I've seen high school stadiums everywhere," said Valdosta coach Rick Tomberlin, who has spoken all over the nation in recent years as a strength training expert. "This one's not the largest, but our turf and our seats, the atmosphere, I think it's the nicest. It's just a great, great atmosphere."

But around here, where the Wildcats are 4-3, folks just want The Ghost to come back, and not the three-dimensional version.

That version visited in '83, when Valdosta met region rival Tift County in a playoff rematch of a regular-season game that the Cats won 14-10.

Scott Alderman -- who later became president of the Valdosta booster club in '91-'92 -- decided to make like Casper.

"You have to point out that I was still twentysomething," Alderman said. "We got the idea that The Ghost would manifest it, and during pregame, yours truly put on a sheet and a helmet. I cannot imagine how stupid I looked. I went out for coin toss and did a little dance, and we lost [17-13, and Tift County went on to win the state title]. That was the only physical manifestation. Never again."

Few could have predicted such a colorful career for Cleveland Field, named in '23 after former Valdosta superintendent A.G. Cleveland, and for Bazemore-Hyder Stadium, which was rechristened in '96 after Hyder's sudden death.

Research by longtime Valdosta supporter Sandy Atkins indicates that the first night game was played in '34. Before that, when afternoon games ran long, fans would place vehicles around the field and turn on headlights.

"There's such tradition," said Jack Corbett, a member of Valdosta's first state title team in '40. "When we were growing up, guys who had traveled along before us would tell us stories about the players in the '30s.

"We probably had an average attendance of 2,000, wood bleachers, a press box with a wooden board for a desk. We had nine or 10 showers. Everything was out in the open, no such thing as privacy."

There's more privacy now, as well as new traditions.

In the days of Corbett, who helps keep statistics and still recalls scores from his era with stunning clarity, there was no tin roof.

Now, one hangs over the sidewalk that leads from the Cats' locker room to the field. Before games, Valdosta players bang helmets against it.

Former Lowndes quarterback Ben Morris recalled his first trip as an opposing player to Cleveland Field, where the combination of fans, noise and rosters 100 strong came as a shock a few years ago.

"Man, we got out there and the whole sideline was full of people," Morris told the Valdosta Daily Times. "It looked like the entire Roman army had come down on a small village."

Still, The Ghost had been known to go AWOL even before the most recent renovation.

On a ghastly night in 1974, former region rival Thomasville thrashed Valdosta 40-0 on the way to a mythical national title. Former Atlanta Falcons and Auburn running back William Andrews has said that his Thomasville team's wipeout win at Cleveland Field was the high point of his career.

Thomasville was "ghosted" two years later, when Valdosta kicked off and a Thomasville player fumbled. A Cat scooped up the ball and scored. The exact same thing happened, in the same spot on the field, involving the same Thomasville player, on the ensuing kickoff.

"It must've been that old Ghost they talk about," Hyder had said afterward.

Alderman's children have grown up in the Lowndes County school system, yet he remains painfully fond of Valdosta and its old home made new.

"Many things are different," he said. "It's almost like The Ghost died when they rebuilt the stadium. I really haven't heard much about it since then."

So they're paging The Ghost in Valdosta, where heavily favored Lowndes beat the Wildcats 14-7 on Oct. 10 in Bazemore-Hyder.

A little help from a friendly apparition might have turned matters.

"We replaced the walls when we did the stadium. We think he got out, but I wouldn't be surprised if he's under the turf," Waller said of the ghost. "He or she, I'm not sure which. If we knew he was under the turf, we'd get to digging. He's a come-from-behind guy. Or gal."

Matt Winkeljohn recently left The Atlanta Journal-Constitution after spending 21 years there. He can be reached at mattwinkeljohn@yahoo.com.