by Bailey Basham, Messenger Staff Writer
Almost 120 years ago, the Sewanee Tigers boarded a train and embarked on what became the ultimate 2,500-mile road trip—the footballers were heading out to play five games in six days. At the end of the trip, the Tigers would return to the Mountain victorious, having outscored opponents Texas, Texas A & M, LSU, Tulane and Ole Miss 322–10.
Years later, the full story has yet to be told, but alumni Norman Jetmundsen, David Crews and Kate Gillespie are working to remedy that. “Unrivaled: The 1899 Sewanee Football Season” is a documentary that will tell the complete story of the team.
Jetmundsen, class of 1976, said he first learned about the story when he was a student. The story of the legendary team was something everyone on campus knew.
“A couple years ago, ESPN had this bracket for March Madness and they picked what they thought were the best teams ever, and they had people vote on who would win. The final championship game came down to the Sewanee team of 1899 and the Alabama team from 1961. Of course, Sewanee won. There’s been some stuff like that over the years, but nobody had ever just told the whole story in documentary form,” he said.
After beginning the work on the film, Jetmundsen said he discovered that they were doing something bigger than just telling the story—they were preserving an important piece of Sewanee history.
“When we first started, we just wanted to get the story out there. Later, we realized we’d be preserving a piece of history that would otherwise be lost forever. Luke Lea, the student manager and the organizer of the whole trip, was a student from Nashville. He recruited the coach and got the uniforms and did all the scheduling. We knew he had some relatives in Nashville, and one of them said, ‘Well, you should talk to my aunt.’ So we were able to talk with Laura Knox, who is 91-years-old. We’re at the stage now that the story would almost die out—the player’s grandchildren and great grandchildren won’t always be here,” he said. “And of course you realize in talking to people that you never knew the whole story, just the highlights. The human sides of the story are worth preserving.”
Woody Register, professor of American History at the University, said the story is worth telling for a number of reasons, but like Jetmundsen, he thinks it’s most important to preserve the Sewanee history—and uncover elements to the story that were previously unknown.
Cal Burrows was the African-American trainer on the team, and little is known about his time at the University, about what he did later in life or even about the way he looked. The team hasn’t found any photos of him. Jetmundsen said what they do know about him is that he was an invaluable member of the team.
“We know that Burrows went on the road trip and that the players would wake up in the middle of the night screaming in pain. Football has always been violent, but back then, it was even more so because there was no equipment. He would have to get up and rub them down because of the pain. He’s the unsung hero in all this—even though he never played, he was invaluable to the team. He never got the recognition back then because of the culture, but we’re going to make sure he gets it now,” Jetmundsen said.
Register said the omittance of Burrows’ story was by design.
“To omit the presence and importance of the so called servant class, especially the African-American people on the Mountain who provided such indispensable services, that was by design. They’re not meant to be included in or really acknowledged in the story, but, of course, they leak into the story at points,” Register said. “Burrows is one of a number of guides whose name has been lost and forgotten, though he did the hard labor of washing the uniforms, administering to injured players and was likely even the originator of the mythology surrounding the portage of water on that trip west.”
Register referred to the story of the magical Tremlett Springs, which trickles out of a cave on the domain in Abbo’s Alley. The story goes that the team took two barrels of spring water to ensure their health, and as the team continued to win, the victories mounted, the water became known as “magical.”
“That is one of the stories that indicates the magic of the Mountain and the mountain tiger, but who carried that water? Water is heavy. All we hear about is the young, white players drinking the water, but we don’t hear about those who drew it, who carried, who tended to it,” Register said. “It’s only in some recollections that came much later that the role of the black managers is manifest.”
Jetmundsen said it is stories like that of Burrows that the team hopes to delve into and tell with the film.
“The main thing now is there are treasures out there—diaries, photos, letters—we could use that would tell us about what the players and those involved thought. I’m just hoping there are some others out there that no one has ever found before,” he said.
To support the creation of the film or to tell your piece of the story, visit www.sewanee1899.org