VALDOSTA, Ga. (AP) _ A light rain falls as a hundred youngsters sprint up and down the field at the approach of another muggy south Georgia night.

This was the time of day when Nick Hyder would walk across the grass at the end of football practice, twirling his omnipresent whistle, dispensing the lessons of life underneath the giant water tower that proclaims this to be ``Wildcat Country.''

``Eat your breakfast!'' he would yell. ``Remember, we love ya!''

As Harvey Moore surveyed the end of Wednesday's practice, he couldn't help noticing what a quieter, sadder place Valdosta High School has become since Hyder's death 3 1/2 months ago.

``It's really kind of strange not to see coach Hyder walking around out there,'' said Moore, who had two sons play for the Wildcats.

For 22 years, Hyder was a giant figure looming over one of the most famous high school football programs in the country. His teams won 249 games, lost only 36 and tied two. Seven times, they won the state championship. Three times, they claimed the mythical national title.

Yet he always insisted that football wasn't the most important thing in his life.

``God, family, country, academics, friends, Wildcats'' were his priorities, in that order, and he preached them constantly to the young men who came into his life each year.

With no children of his own, Hyder became a father to thousands.

``I'll always remember the spiritual values he taught us, the things we could use not just on the football field, but in the classrooms, in the hallway,'' running back Marcus Ray said. ``We've got other great coaches, but I don't know if we'll ever have another coach that preaches to us like coach Hyder did.''

Hyder died suddenly May 16, the victim of a heart attack as he sat in the school lunchroom. At 61, he appeared to be the epitome of health. He had already scheduled offseason workouts for his players and was making plans to carry the Olympic torch when it came through Valdosta.

In these parts, it was akin to the day Bear Bryant died in Alabama.

``I just couldn't believe it,'' quarterback Dusty Bonner said. ``I actually said to myself, `Nick Hyder is not dead. That couldn't happen to him.'''

But it did. When they buried Hyder three days later, more than 7,000 people turned out at Cleveland Field in 96-degree heat to pay their final respects. Country-club regulars mixed with public housing tenants; white men in overalls stood side-by-side with black women carrying fans bearing the likeness of Martin Luther King Jr.

``Black, white, every kind of race came to see him, because he always talked with them,'' Bonner said.

Hyder was white, but he transcended color. Moore remembered telling Hyder that a black player's mother was sick. When Moore stopped by after practice, he found that the coach was already there to check on the family, he said.

Such stories are endless in this town of 40,000 that hugs the Florida border.

The day after the funeral, the players returned to the weight room to begin preparing for the new season, following the schedule that Hyder left for them. Over the summer, one of Hyder's players carried the Olympic torch in his place, with the rest of the team following behind.

That helped everyone deal with the grief, but the players got another jolt when they returned to practice and realized that Hyder wouldn't be there to help them prepare for Saturday's first game.

``I still expect to see him walk around the corner,'' Bonner said.

Hyder was replaced by Mike O'Brien, a quiet man with a cherubic face who served as an assistant for 15 years. The differences between the two are striking, despite their long-term association.

O'Brien is a coach. Hyder was a presence.

``He had a lot of little things he did, some that were real funny, some that were sort of irritating,'' O'Brien recalled. ``He knew how to punch your buttons. He was a good head coach, he really was, and a very intense man.

``I'm very intense, but in a different kind of way. The kids have to learn to understand me. For instance, coach Hyder was a great speaker. He loved to talk and all that. I don't. The kids are having to get used to that, and they are.''

Yes, football goes on at Valdosta High.

The 5-year-olds still head down to the Boys Club to don helmets and pads for the first time, already dreaming of the day when they can wear the black and gold Wildcats uniform.

On Friday nights, Cleveland Field will be packed with thousands of townsfolk, cheering on their beloved team. And by the end of the year, Valdosta likely will be in the running for another state championship.

That's they way Hyder would have wanted it, everyone agrees.

``I just know that every time we walk out there on that field, he'll be sitting up there watching,'' said Bonner, his voice choking with emotion. ``He'll be sitting up there in heaven, probably saying, `Oh, don't do that.'

``He'll be up there twirling that whistle.''