Friday, August 1, 2014

the 2004 Laurens County football scandal: all journalism is local

Editor's note: Because of certain career changes currently taking place, I have spent much of the summer not writing. I am now forcing myself to write because it's important to continue doing so. So this blog — which was really only a vanity project on my part in the first place — may become even less readable than before. I apologize in advance.

A decade ago this summer, I became a sports editor for the first time. Actually, that's not true — I was Sports Editor for my senior year in Tuscaloosa for an online-only publication called Dateline Alabama, a project Dr. Stovall started mainly as a place for an eclectic group of journalism students to experiment. To my knowledge, the publication went away when he did.
In any case, the first publication that offered me real money to work was The Courier Herald, an afternoon daily in a place I knew nothing about: Dublin, Ga. In retrospect, I think the main reason they hired me was that the Sports Editor at the time was also from Alabama, and probably liked the fact that I had done some summer intern work* for The Lafayette Sun, in Chambers County.
* In this case, "summer intern work" means I showed up every day, listened to Bill Robinson rant about the evils of my generation, tried to come up with a story to write and ate whatever was on the buffet at Rodgers Restaurant.
After a year, the Sports Editor left to move closer to home — I think she* now sells real estate. Sometimes I wish I knew how to sell things.
* Lots of people work their entire lives in sports without ever working with a female. I have worked almost exclusively with them. This seems noteworthy for some reason.

It is important to remember what the community dynamic in Laurens County, Ga., was at the time. Though Dublin and the surrounding area would never be confused with a metropolis like Atlanta or even Macon, the community supported (and still supports) three separate public high schools — Dublin High, West Laurens and East Laurens — as well as a private Christian academy, Trinity (in this case "Christian" means "white"). Each school had its own identity and community:
• Dublin High, of course, is the city school. Its nickname, naturally, is the Fighting Irish. At the time, Dublin was the sports power of the county and the region. It was also the school with the largest minority contingent; according to local legend, the school always kept green and white as its school colors, choosing to incorporate gold as part of its color scheme following integration (the black school in town wore purple and gold, and the gold was a nod to their traditions and existence). Dublin plays its home games in The Shamrock Bowl — it feels like big-time high school football, small community be damned — and they carried themselves like the most important squad in the county.
• West Laurens had quickly swelled to become the largest school in the county (probably not coincidentally, as black leaders gained power in the city school system). West Laurens was and is an amalgamation of three county schools: Dexter, Dudley and ... I can't really remember the third school*.  West Laurens, at the time, couldn't beat Dublin in anything (they had won the state championship in basketball that spring, but lost twice to their hated rival in the process), and though they would never admit to it, spent most of their energies trying to best them in any way possible.
* Me being unable to remember stuff is probably going to be a theme throughout this entry. Since I left Dublin I've been back there once, and really only kept in contact through the only co-worker I know who still works there, who figures prominently into this story.
• East Laurens is the "other" county school, in every sense of the word. East Laurens is technically located in East Dublin, a separate community on the other side of the river. The community at East Laurens is built on the industrial employees who live there — I have forgotten what industry, of course — and their attitude reflects that. Going to East Laurens games as a reporter always seemed like the best place for something bizarre to happen (several bizarre things did happen to me there, but I should save those stories for some other time).

Many strange things were happening across Laurens County as football season neared. Dublin, West Laurens and East Laurens had been thrown together into a 14-team region in Georgia's Class AA, because the GHSA at the time (as I recall) was attempting to keep something resembling competitive balance among its five classes. The region made little geographic sense — it stretched from Macon all the way to Savannah down I-16 — and the swollen nature actually forced a subdivision, in which the teams agreed to play six "sub-region" games, two "crossover" games (with teams in the opposing sub-region) and reserve Week 10 game as a play-in for the postseason (the top-4 from each sub-region played elimination games, effectively adding another round of playoffs).
Meanwhile, many people — like me — saw the power dynamic among the three local teams shifting. In 2003, only one of the three local high school football teams had even qualified for the postseason: East Laurens, under a first-year head coach who was emphasizing a wacky multiple defense that confused his players almost as much as the opposition. West Laurens had struggled under its first-year head coach — the head coaches at West and East had worked together as offensive and defensive coordinators, respectively, prior to coming to Laurens County —but they were brimming with optimism as the new year dawned (at the time they were also cultivating an as-yet unknown sophomore named Demaryius Thomas, who everybody called "Baybay").
And then there was Dublin. In 2002, Dublin's board had hired a head football coach who bailed on the school and the city following spring practice (I can remember neither his name nor the reasons he left town). So they cast their net for a new head coach, and a guy from Tennessee named Roger Holmes rode into town as a result.
Holmes was a brash guy with an Appalachian accent — he pronounced his "a" words with an extra vowel, so words like pass and grass sounded more like "paiss" and "graiss" when he said them. With the benefit of very little prep, Holmes took a senior-laden team to the promised land — DHS ended the season in the state title game, one victory short of a ring.
The 2003 season — my first in the area — wasn't so happy. Beset both by injuries and locker room troubles, Dublin finished with 3 wins. In that last loss, a despondent Holmes invited me into the locker room, didn't like my questions and basically invited me to leave. As a reporter I was ill, but I could hardly blame him — his team had quit on him. That sort of thing isn't easy to take.

So that's where we were going into 2004: the two county school programs were on the rise, and nobody knew what they were getting from the city school program.
Anybody who's grown up in a football mad area like ... well, most of the Southeast (and Texas) knows that the local newspaper cannot do anything more important than cover high school football. At that time, I was taking over a sports section with a robust staff of two (if you count me), and 12 schools to cover, spread out across several counties. Our paper delivered in the afternoons 5 days a week, and in the morning on Saturdays. So Fridays were never-ending: Come in at 7, finish the day's paper (which was hopefully close to finished when you left the day before, if no other news broke), start building the Saturday section, break for lunch (and maybe a nap), do more work on the paper, put in the requisite 45 minutes on the local radio pregame show ... write your game, come back, duck the carriers (angry because it's Friday and they already ran routes once today and they're ready to get their damn papers and be off), write your game, try to flag down results from other games, edit copy, finish pages ... you get the idea. Most Friday nights ended with me and a group of drunks from the bar next door stumbling to our cars after 1 a.m.
Criticism of the newspaper, of course, is one of the reasons newspapers ever existed in the first place. "You never cover (our school)," is the most common thing a local newspaper's sports editor will hear. "You cover (our rivals) all the time, but you only cover us when we lose. What do you got against us, anyway?" It's a part of life; often it makes us angry, but there's no silencing the noise; the best eventually just learn to live with it*.
* I am not the best, and that's probably why you're reading this now. Assuming anybody still is.

I should at this point note that my partner, Jason Halcombe, had joined the sports staff not long after my previous boss had departed, and was basically a de facto member of the paper's staff anyway while he was still in school at Georgia Southern. Halcombe is a native of California but did a good bit of his growing up in Dublin; he's been the Managing Editor for the Courier Herald for several years now, is married and is apparently attempting to father a baseball team. Anyone who's read the old "Gameday Texts" posts will note that he is a recurring guest there.

Halcombe and our photographer — a perpetually flustered guy named Joey who was also a native to the area — got an inkling that something was happening at Dublin over the summer of 2004. I don't remember all the details, but the basics were simple: the 2004 Irish were getting an influx of transfers, and some of them could really play.
This might be the point where I note that these types of shenanigans in high school football are the hardest things in the world to police. Opelika, my hometown, and their archrivals, Auburn, fight these battles pretty much all the time. Leeds, my adopted hometown, and its neighbor, Moody, lob shells back and forth every so often about the same thing. Hoover is pretty much constantly accused of recruiting outside its already swollen attendance zone. How are we supposed to track where every person lives and where they should be attending school? What if the guy moves in with his dad? His mom? It gets complicated in a hurry*.
* Here's one thing I do remember from this whole thing: One of the administrators at one of the county schools confided in me that Dublin's region rivals were keeping a particularly close eye on the Irish that summer. In the case of one transfer, he told me a sheriff's deputy was riding by his house every day "just to make sure they actually move."

A week before the season started, we got word that Dublin had gone to Washington County for a preseason scrimmage, and whipped the daylights out of the home team. This was a big deal — Washington County is another of that area's legendary high school programs, boasting such alums as Takeo Spikes. Dublin had (reportedly — we didn't go out of town for scrimmage games) beaten them badly. The narrative we had built for the season — the two county schools overtaking our local school — may have to be junked before an actual game was played.
There was another nugget from that scrimmage: The player who stood out the most was one of the offseason transfers.

The news didn't actually break until the day of the third week of that 2004 season. It was either Halcombe or Joey, our photog, who heard it first: Dublin's got an ineligible player. Dublin's got to forfeit its first two games. West Laurens turned them in; this is about to get really ugly.
We found out all of this on the afternoon before Dublin's third game, which was to be on the road, at Metter. Neither of us really knew what to do — the team (and the coaching staff and likely most of the fan base) would already be on the bus to the game, and getting the story from the GHSA seemed equally unlikely.
Halcombe saved the day with a fortuitous phone call — he managed to get the superintendent of the city school system on the phone, and she confirmed what we already knew: DHS had learned of a player who was academically ineligible, had reported it to the state, and had already agreed to forfeit its first two games (both wins)*.
* One thing we didn't find out until later was that all this had taken place on Wednesday of that week — had the school been up front with us as the matter was unfolding, none of what you're about to read would've happened. But it's probably unfair to say the school should've done our jobs for us.
We were facing two issues: The game was on the road, which meant we had hired a freelance writer to cover it for us; Halcombe had assigned himself to shoot photos of the first half, then come quickly back to finish the paper. We had enough material to run with the story about the forfeits, but it seemed a little weak to run without comments from the head coach or the principal.
And so Halcombe decided to take a chance — he drove down to Metter early enough to catch Holmes, and possibly the principal of DHS. He would try to get comments from them for that story, then leave the game for our stringer to handle.
That strategy worked about as well as you'd expect; the principal was amiable enough to help us add meat to the story, but Holmes angrily brushed off any questions about off-the-field matters so close to game time. We asked our stringer — who was a college student, I think — to reiterate the questions after the game, but that went basically nowhere.
"It's no matter," we thought. "We have the story."
Dublin won the game 63-6.

At this point, we pretty knew we were in for a storm. We knew Dublin had forfeited the games, and we were hearing from around the county that the student in question* had actually been enrolled at West Laurens in the spring of the same year (the head coach at East Laurens said that the same family had tried to enroll at his school, but he had seen his transcripts and questioned whether the boy would be eligible). There was already finger pointing, on both sides of the line.
* Honesty compels me to report that I cannot for the life of me remember the name of the boy in question; we certainly would've known his name, though we never published it. I have forgotten it, however, as he was more or less inconsequential to the story.
Two things happened after that:
1. A tropical storm of some description moved inland to our area, and shut down basically everything (including school) for several days. Some basic research (Google) tells me it wasn't Hurricane Ivan, but it was in the same time period.
2. After several days of silence — mostly due to the storm — Holmes came to our office to allow himself to be heard on the issue. Sitting alone with Halcombe in our boss's office — we were on deadline at the time, so I was trying to finish the paper — Holmes read a prepared statement regarding the forfeits. The statement did little to calm tensions around town: the bristly head coach napalmed his local rivals (for not being more forthcoming about the player's eligibility and suggesting they may have intentionally falsified his transcripts), he blasted the newspaper (we pretty much knew that was coming, but he accused us of using the superintendent's statements that were made off the record, which was absolutely false) and essentially laid the entirety of the blame at the feet of everyone but himself. On the way out the door, he shouted down my reporter for "telling lies" and pointedly told me, "Never send that reporter (Halcombe) back to my office."
And here's where I messed up: I reacted like a giant wuss.
In truth, the whole thing knocked me for a loop — the previous year's locker room mess aside, Holmes and I worked together pretty well. He'd actually worked pretty well with Halcombe to that point too, though he later admitted that he took personally his attempt to interview him prior to a game. My loyalty, though, should have been to my co-worker, who I knew had done everything in good faith and was only attempting to do his job; I should've said, "Coach, I don't work for you. What time do we meet for this week's interview?"
Instead, I meekly nodded and said, "Uh ... yessir." Later that same day I went to his locker room for another verbal beatdown; to this day, one of my greatest regrets is not telling the guy, "Look, I went to school and I know how to do my damned job. We did it right, and you can go pound salt." In my defense, I had little to no idea what I was doing; all I wanted at the time was to get my quotes for that week's game preview story, and go home.

The story that ran based on Holmes' statement, needless to say, caused more problems than it solved. West Laurens fired back with a statement of its own, more or less condemning Holmes for making the student's identity public in his rush to exonerate himself. Holmes, incredibly, refused to talk to anybody from our paper, claiming we'd misquoted him in his own statement. At one point both principals wanted to meet with us, to show us what a transcript SHOULD look like (and, conversely, why the opposing school had messed up).
The resolution, it turned out, was a meeting that included Holmes, Halcombe, myself, our boss (a Georgia politician) and the Dublin principal. Our bosses backed us up — a relief for a number of reasons — and essentially told Holmes that he could either talk to reporters from the paper, or see a picture of a closed locker room door on the front page. We replayed the tape of Holmes' statement with an accompanying transcript, as proof that we had misquoted no one, and reminded everyone involved that when the paper is on the line, everything is on the record, unless otherwise noted.

Eventually everything calmed down — Dublin incredibly finished second in the region, and advanced all the way to the semifinals in the state (Georgia plays the semifinals in the Georgia Dome), losing to a pretty powerful Buford team. Along the way they hammered both East and West Laurens, of course, pitching shutouts in both games.
Holmes is still the head coach at DHS, and in 2006 actually claimed half of a state championship (his squad tied Charlton County in a game that inspired the GHSA to do away with ties).

UPDATE: After I sent the link to the original draft of this to my old co-worker, he responded with the following contribution, tentatively titled "Five moments of high comedy from that same 2004 event."

1) Who's banging on my window at 1 a.m.?
During my hasty trip to Metter, I met up with school officials and the booster club president for the football team. He provided me with 10-15 minutes of conversation which included quotes that were all "on the record." I returned and compiled those notes with others to finish the story we were filing for Saturday.

As we were putting the finishing touches on the paper, Will and I both heard a rapping on our office window that grew steadily louder. Will responded in kind, "What in the? Who in the ?" and opened the blinds to see the booster club president's face plastered to the glass like a hopeful peeping tom. The BCP pointed to the adjacent front door Charlie Chaplin style and Will went around the corner to let him in.
"I got to thinking about our talk," (rough recollection), "and I stand by what I said. But is there any way you could NOT put it in the article."
Will: No.
BCP: Oh. Okay.
2) It's your fault. No it's yours. Aw shoot, they're fuh Dublin.
In the days following the story's publication, not only did we receive an unbelievable amount of hate mail from pro-Dublin supporters, but when word trickled out that county officials may have been duplicitous in the construction of the ineligible player's transcript (his failing grades buried essentially), we were immediately attacked by folks from both East Laurens and West Laurens.

The result? An article one day where Holmes and city school officials pointed fingers at the county (which got the county mad at us) and the next an article by county school board members pointing the finger back at Dublin (which got Dublin folks even madder at us).

This necessitated the long-standing belief that Will Heath (Alabama-native) and Jason Halcombe (California-born) were, in fact, "fuh Dublin."


As Will elaborated on (to great extent, according to his own account), Holmes paid us a visit on deadline Monday morning following our Saturday story. He and I were left to our own devices in the Executive Editor's suite, and got straight to business.

About halfway through the conversation, Holmes started dropping these nuggets, "If you had done your homework like the AJC" and "If you read what the Macon Telegraph published." I finally got him re-focused enough to read his seven-to-10 sentence statement on the issue before getting a, "So are we done here?"

Me: Yes.

As we walked out of the office, Will did, in fact run up on Holmes to speak which suddenly roused the coach's inner-Jules Winnfield and caused him to raise his voice just before our Executive Editor turned the corner.

EE: Well coach, how we doin?
4) Gator calls
Like any small town, Dublin and Laurens County is full of its own characters. And, in some cases, those characters show themselves in rarified fashion when football season kicks into gear. In this case, one of those people happened to be a frequent game day radio show call-in guest who went simply by "Gator."

Gator called in weekly, regularly dogged Dublin, bemoaned lack of coverage for West Laurens and was fairly complimentary of East Laurens and Trinity (simply because I think he genuinely could give a rip about either school)

At any rate, the controversy surrounding the ineligible player had reached this chain-smoking Adam Schefter of hometown pigskin gossip. And, just like Schefty, Mort or that gawd-awful Todd McShay, it was all Gator could do not to spill the beans about the inner-workings of this controversy.

(Around 2 p.m. on a Wednesday. No, not really. Seriously? What day was your birthday on when you turned nine? Saturday? Well, that was easy. QUIT MOCKING ME!)

(Phone rings) Me: Hello?
Gator: Hey man.
Me: Uh, hey?
Gator: Do you know who this is?
Me: Uh, no.
Gator: It's Gator.
Me: Okay?
Gator: So, you wanna know what really went on?
Me: About?
Gator: The ineligible player.
Me: Sure.
Gator: You know he got stabbed like three times in Florida. He's got a rap sheet a mile long. Can you believe Dublin took him?
Me: Well, you know West Laurens took him first. So...
Gator: I know. But at least we learned our lesson.
Me: But y'all didn't feel the need to tell Dublin they might need to steer clear?
Gator: Shoot naw. They had it coming. You know how many times they done this and got away from it?
Me: I have heard stuff, but never had it confirmed. What about East Laurens getting the Dublin basketball player to transfer? Or how about the McLendon brothers who transferred to West from Dublin after staying with their grandmother in Columbus for the summer?
Gator: Well, I don't know about that. But I do know Dublin had it coming to them. By the way, you know my real name? It's Mark Passmore. But don't tell anyone.
Me: I'm sure that secret is safe.

5) Would you like pizza or a turkey sandwich on your school lunch tray?
I saved what I consider to be the funniest part of this whole ridiculous situation for last. Following Holmes' shouting match at our office, and ensuing hate from the community, the Dublin superintendent reached out to our boss and said we all needed to bury the hatchet, "for the kids." Naturally.

He told our boss he wanted to "have us over for lunch" toward the end of the week to work things out and move forward. Now, for many in the business world, lunch would consist of some meal prepared at a local eatery typically pricier than usual because, well, "the expense report is paying for it after all."

Instead of a waitress, or some hipster folding an eight-dollar-burrito behind the sneeze screen, we had three large black women in hair nets asking, "You want a turkey sandwich or a pizza, baby?" as we grabbed a tray and walked through the high school cafeteria.

"Honey, you get a cookie with that too now," said one of the lunch ladies, who remembered me passing through the line six years earlier.

Superintendent: Give him two cookies if he wants 'em. I want him to feel comfortable when he comes to Dublin.
We ate our pizza, fries and cookie (actually were provided sweet tea instead of milk cartons) and began the nitty gritty of working through our minor crisis.

It all worked out in the end.

In fact, I would consider Holmes a friend these days. He even smirked one time retelling it about two years ago.

"You know, I coulda kicked your aiss back then."

Me: Well, I wouldn't go that far. But I know what you mean.

No comments: