ASHBURN, Ga. — Two weeks ago, Michael Nelson got out of his Toyota Corolla in a parking lot on Interstate 75 and walked.
Nelson, 65, former general manager of the Valdosta Touchdown Club, smiles and says: Hi, I’m Nub. Shake my ears!
Nelson turned to a rather large assistant coach from a nearby school, who followed him in an SUV to ensure his safety.
Are you okay?
Yes, I’m fine, Nelson replied.
Nelson knows he can’t be too careful after unleashing a small town storm in the school’s football stronghold, Valdosta. Valdosta is a city of more than 56,000 residents, located about 15 miles north of the state border with Florida. It is home to the 24-time state champion Wildcats.
What Nelson did last May could well end the career of Rush Propst, one of the most controversial and successful football coaches in the country, and also bring to light the SEC’s vicious recruiting allegations against powerhouses Alabama and Georgia. After a taped meeting between Nelson and Propst was posted on YouTube earlier this month, Valdosta put his coach Propst on administrative leave.
It was the most sensational event in the small town’s 15-month football saga, which included a controversial shooting (and subsequent discrimination lawsuit), an even more controversial Propst recruitment, a battle over the touchdown club’s finances, the addition and then loss of an elite quarterback transfer from California, and the beginning of a Georgia High School Association investigation.
That morning Nelson abruptly changed the location of the interview with this reporter from Valdosta to Ashburn, about 70 miles north, for fear of being recognized.
I think the city is divided on what I did, Nelson said. Half the people are glad I did it, and the other half are mad at me. I think most know I was just trying to do the right thing.
When Nelson secretly recorded a conversation in Propst’s office about a year ago, in which the coach unexpectedly insinuated that the Bulldogs and Crimson Tide were paying recruits hundreds of thousands of dollars, he had no idea of the far-reaching consequences of his decision.
I don’t know why, Nelson said. I’ve never written to anyone in my life.
We’ll discuss the controversy over lunch at Chicken Thumbs, but Nelson first wanted to explain how he got the nickname that has haunted him for most of his life.
When Nelson contacted us earlier this month, he didn’t seem ready for a heated discussion. In fact, he seemed completely annoyed that another reporter was on the other end of the line.
I don’t want to talk about it, okay? Nelson said. I don’t want to go back. So many of you call me from all over. I’m standing here frying a chicken with one hand.
To this reporter who called him to ask about the secret recordings he was making, it sounded like a classic South Georgia understatement.
After a few more questions about the data, Nelson said he’d had enough.
Really, he said. I have one hand and I’m roasting a chicken. Can you call me back?
Michael Nelson (right) testified in the lawsuit filed by former Valdosta coach Alan Rodemaker against the Valdosta Board of Education. Michael Nelson
Nelson said the accident happened when he was only 13 years old. He was trying to cross the road while riding his horse and did not see the approaching van. Nelson almost died. He lost his right arm below the elbow, broke his left arm and had internal injuries. He was in the hospital for three months.
Nelson graduated from Valdosta High School in 1973 and, like the rest of the town, loves his college football teams. Nelson estimates he has missed just five Wildcat football games in 47 seasons since his senior year, including one for his wedding and another after his father’s death.
I don’t usually miss playing at funerals, says Nelson, a retired commercial artist. But since it was my father, I decided I had to go. In most cases, I think they can wait. After all, they are dead.
Nelson is not the only avid football fan in Valdosta. The Wildcats are one of the most successful high school football programs in the country, with 939 wins in history. Michigan is the only team in college football with more wins (964).
We had a lot of fun times, Nelson said. I grew up with a lot of great football teams. It enters the bloodstream. It brings everyone together. Winning a state championship makes everyone feel good.
The Valdosta Touchdown Club website boasts that the Wildcats have won six national championships, 24 state championships and 42 regional championships. Much of Valdosta High’s success occurred in the late 20th century. The century. The Wildcats won four state championships in the 1980s and three more in the 1990s. After an 18-year drought, the Wildcats finally got the head coaching job in Alan Rodemaker’s first season in 2016.
That’s why the decision by Valdosta’s board of education not to renew Rodemaker’s contract in January 2020 was so surprising. His teams went 36-17 in four seasons. His last team went 10-3 and advanced to the 2019 state Class 6A quarterfinals for the second year in a row. His teams’ nine postseason victories from 2016-2019 were the most in four years at Valdosta High School from 1995-1998.
It was a total surprise, Rodmaker told ESPN. I got a message from my concierge at 9:30: Unfortunately, your contract has not been renewed. Come see me in the morning. It was shocking, to say the least.
In April 2020, a white Rodemaker sued five black members of the Valdosta Board of Education who voted not to renew his contract. In his complaint, he alleges that they intentionally discriminated against [Rodmaker] by deliberating and voting not to renew Coach Rodmaker’s contract because of his race. The four council members who voted for him were white. The Valdosta city school superintendent and Valdosta school principal have recommended extending his contract, Rodemaker said.
In a lawsuit filed in federal district court in the Middle District of Georgia, Rodemaker’s attorneys argued that the goal of the African-American majority on Rodemaker’s non-renewable coaching board was simply to replace a white coach with an African-American coach. The lawyers accused the defendants of holding meetings in violation of the Public Meetings Act, which were not only improper, but potentially illegal.
In December, U.S. District Court Judge Hugh Lawson denied the defendants’ request to dismiss the case. In the ruling, Lawson wrote that the court found that the remaining allegations were sufficient to move his claim of racial discrimination from the realm of the conceivable to the realm of the plausible.
The defendants appealed the judgment. Rodemaker’s wife, Leah, also sued the board members, the Valdosta Board of Education and the Valdosta City School District in another federal lawsuit, alleging many of the same allegations. The couple also filed two lawsuits against board members and others in state court. The 3rd. In March, the council voted 4-3 against a proposed financial regulation to end things.
Tom Joyce, an attorney representing the school district and black board members sued by the Rodemakers, noted that Alan Rodemaker had been offered a teaching contract for the 2020-21 school year, but turned down the position.
The 14th. In April 2020, the same five Black board members who did not want to renew Rodemaker’s contract voted to appoint Propst White. The vote was again 5-4, divided along racial lines. Propst was hired after other candidates, including black coaches, turned down the job, Nelson said.
Joyce said 10 of the 12 candidates considered to replace Rodemaker were white, and that each of the defendants named in the lawsuit voted to replace him with a coach who is white.
Many felt the program went in the wrong direction under Rodemaker, Joyce said in a statement to ESPN. As a result, Valdosta High lost by a wide margin to its biggest rivals, including out-of-town rival Lowndes County High. Some felt that Mr. Rodemaker was not the man to restore the Valdosta Heights to lasting greatness. The facts show that the decision not to invite Mr. Rodemaker to become head coach had nothing to do with race. It was just time to change direction.
Elite rookie QB Jake Garcia left California for Valdosta to play football this fall before being declared ineligible and transferring. Marcy Reagin.
Propst’s attitude led to a 7-5 season and a loss against Buford in the Class 6A playoff semifinals at Georgia Field, but with it a string of upsets.
I’m just disappointed in the current situation, said former Valdosta quarterback High Buck Belue, a sports radio host in Atlanta. For the first time, I’m a little embarrassed. I’m often asked that. It’s nothing to be proud of.
An unfortunate situation, Valdosta Mayor Scott Matheson added. It is a source of pride for this city, and every time it is tarnished, we all suffer a little. We want to have a stable coach situation as soon as possible. For some of these kids, this is their journey, and we want someone to inspire, guide and mentor them. Hopefully this will be corrected soon.
Controversy combined with success has defined the career of Provost, 63. He has become one of the most successful high school football coaches in the country. At Hoover (Ala.) High School, his teams have won five state championships in nine seasons. At Colquitt County (Ga.) High School, his teams have won 119 games in 11 seasons, including undefeated seasons and state titles in 2014 and 2015.
Despite his teams success on the field, he had to quit at Hoover and was fired at Colquitt. Propst announced his resignation from Hoover High School in October 2007, effective the end of the season, after an investigation into alleged irregularities in his program revealed that he had been quietly supporting a second family in another city. Prost, who was married at the time and had children, eventually divorced and married a woman with whom he shared his secret life.
In March 2019, Propst was expelled from a Colquitt County school after an investigation by the school board found that he had committed ethical violations, including improperly administering medication to players and tax violations. In an interview with ESPN in September, Propst denied the allegations.
Despite Propst’s success, Nelson was reluctant to hire him, but he was willing to give the coach a chance.
Nelson said I also tried the Rush Kool-Aid. I liked it at first. I wanted it to go well. You wanted everything to be okay.
After a few weeks of work, according to Nelson, Propst tried to take control of the Touchdown Club’s finances. In the past, the club has provided the team’s players with food and other necessities. Nelson said Propst had a different vision for the club.
At one point, he was honest enough to tell me what he wanted the Touchdown Club to do – that we support him and his family, Nelson said. That’s not our goal. Our goal is to feed the players.
Before Nelson turned 16. May met Propst in the coach’s office, he decided to secretly record their conversation.
During the meeting, according to Nelson, Propst got up from his chair and closed the door to his office. At the time, Propst suggested that the Georgia Bulldogs and Alabama Crimson Tide pay recruits between $90,000 and $150,000 to sign with them. Propst offered former Bulldogs star running back Nick Chubb a total of $180,000 in three installments if he returns to the team for his final season in 2017.
Chubb, who now has a job with the Cleveland Browns, denied the allegations on Twitter.
Alabama and Georgia compliance officials contacted Nelson two weeks ago to inquire about the authenticity of the tapes and whether he and Prost were talking on the tapes. (Alabama and Georgia declined to comment). Sources close to Propst told ESPN that the coach filed affidavits with officials from both schools, denying any knowledge of recruiting violations at either program.
The man who secretly recorded the tape doesn’t believe what Propst said either.
I think he was just being arrogant and trying to be a high flyer to get money, Nelson said.
Contacted by ESPN two weeks ago, Propst declined to comment. He referred questions to his attorney, Jason Wilcox, who declined to comment Thursday.
In a nearly 15-minute recording of their conversation made on 6. March posted on YouTube (Nelson refuses to release it), Propst tells Nelson that he needs ridiculous amounts of money to pay rent for the families of players who want to move to Valdosta.
Here’s the thing, Provost says. Whatever you think about me doing this and be honest, we have to have a ridiculous amount of money and it can’t be three or four thousand dollars.
Nelson laughs at the tape. But there’s something, Nub, that you don’t even need to know, you know what I mean? The dean continued. I don’t even tell my assistants. That’s me and the person I’m talking to.
During the recording, Propst said city police had given him money seized in drug seizures on Interstate 20 when he worked at Hoover.
By Hoover, you know where I got my damn money, Propst said. City police drug raids on the I-20 insane asylum. From time to time, they’d give me money from drug busts. Я… I’m not. They probably gave me $30,000 for the drugs. Can you believe it? The Hoover police loved the Hoover Pirates, plain and simple.
So we must have funny money, Nelson said.
Nice money, if we want to do this right? and we had money with us, Propst said.
And how much ridiculous money do you think we need? Nelson asked.
I don’t know, Propst said. Maybe 10,000 the first year, maybe 15,000. I don’t know who is coming, what they need, etc. … They can’t ask for anything. I’m not advertising it.
A source within the administration of the Hoover Police Department, who spoke only on condition of anonymity, told ESPN that his officers were never involved in the scheme to funnel money for the players to Propst. The source said traffic stops are recorded by agents with body cameras and that the department is required to submit an annual report to the U.S. Department of Justice to account for the money seized.
No one here is going to federal prison for Rush Propst and the football player, the source said.
Nelson said he shared the ribbon with two other Valdosta Touchdown Club board members. He didn’t disclose what Propst told him at that meeting until the 22nd. February was fired by the club. Nelson said he lost his job as the club’s chief sponsor after testifying three days ago in Alan Rodemaker’s lawsuit against members of the Valdosta Board of Education.
I was supposed to keep my mouth shut in December, but I never could, Nelson said.
During his testimony, Nelson told Brent Savage, one of the Rodemakers’ lawyers, that Propst had asked the Touchdown Club to pay $2500 a month in rent for four-star quarterback Jake Garcia so the family could move from California to Valdosta.
Do you know if Rush Propst paid for his parents to come here? Savage asked Nelson, according to the 64-page affidavit.
Well, he contributed, Nelson said.
Okay, Savage said. Let’s talk about it. What do you know about the relationship between Propst and Jake Garcia and the founding of the University of Miami?
He asked me to pay him $2500 a month for four months, Nelson says.
In addition, Nelson said Propst asked him to raise $850 a month for transfer quarterback Amari Jones.
The Garcias moved to the other side of the country last summer after college football in California was postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Garcia played just one game for the Wildcats before the Georgia High School Athletic Association declared him ineligible because he and his family had not moved in good faith, which is a requirement under their rules.
In an earlier ESPN article, Randy Garcia, his father, said he and his wife, Yvonne, are legally separated to meet GHSA transfer requirements.
After leaving Valdosta, Garcia transferred to Grayson High School in Atlanta, where he helped lead the Rams to the Class 7A state championship. Garcia, No. 18 in the ESPN 300, signed with Miami and enrolled in January. His father did not respond to calls from ESPN.
The Georgia High School Association has launched an investigation into allegations that Propst charged ridiculous amounts for rent, including moving the families of star players to Valdosta.
Dr. Robin Hines, executive director of the GHSA, told ESPN on Thursday that the league does not comment on ongoing investigations.
Propst] made me do things I’m not proud of, like dig up money for him, Nelson told ESPN. That’s one of the things that worries me – the fact that his amateur status could be in jeopardy. There will be collateral damage, and I want to keep that to a minimum. I have to think of my kids, his kids and the players.
Nelson said some Valdosta High fans criticized him for making the record.
Jason Shavicco, creator and producer of Two Days: Hoover High School, which teamed up with Propst again last fall, documented its first season at Valdosta High School for another upcoming reality series. Shavicco said he still has a team in town to document the aftermath of the recent provost scandal.
When you walk through the city, even if something happens, the city loves it, Shavicco said. Yes, there are those who don’t like what is happening here, but the overwhelming support he has received so far in Valdosta is pretty impressive.
In the version of the recording Nelson shared with board members, and then posted on YouTube, part of their conversation was left out. Nelson said he removed the pieces so as not to embarrass the team’s players and some Valdosta residents.
I tried to fire him before I was fired because I tried to fire him, Nelson said. I didn’t want to change our mission. Our Touchdown Club has been around for 70 years. Our mission has always been to care for children.
I wish we could hire a coach to get us back on track and do things the way we used to do them. I’m sure we’ll get there.