He is brought as a lamb to the slaughter.
- Bible, Isaiah Liii. 7
These were dire times at Cumberland. The school had already sold off Divinity Hall, which housed the university’s theological school, and had to let go many of their top professors due to unfortunate circumstances and hard financial times. Their faith was being tested. Now there was a new threat and it was coming from the Georgia School of Technology. It was a threat that could quite possibly bring an end to the Cumberland law school, all over a football game. Whether they liked it or not, George “Fullback” Allen would need to be the school’s David. He would have to bring down this mighty giant, even if he had to resort to a bit of artfulness to do so.
There were hopes they wouldn’t even have to play the game. As student manager, it would be Allen’s job to reason with John Heisman and convince the coach that merely “placing” men on the field would be sufficient in honoring the contract and, thus, avoiding the $3,000 penalty. If this endeavor were to somehow fail, however, and Cumberland were to be forced to play in the game, Allen knew he would need an alternate plan. Not cheating, mind you. They would never have any of that. The team would merely bend the rules a bit. After all, didn’t David himself bend the rules a bit? He would need to be equally prepared. Where the young shepherd boy used a sling to bring down the mighty giant, Allen would use something equally effective - ringers.
One of Heisman’s most quoted football adages was, “when you find your opponent’s weak spot, hammer it.” That was how Allen intended to turn the tables on his adversary. John Heisman was all about fair play. His greatest strength was also his greatest weakness. According to Everything a Georgia Tech Fan Should Know & Do Before They Die, the legendary coach “believed in fairness above all things.” In spite of his open advocacy of trickery and deception, on as well as off, the field, Heisman had a reputation for honesty and principle. His teams played the game the way it was supposed to be played. With honor and integrity. Allen could exploit this. He didn’t like fair play. Didn’t respect it. Fair play was for losers. Heisman was not what anyone would call a loser, but that was beside the point.
If you weren’t working an angle, you weren’t trying. Angles were there for everyone willing to find them. You learned this lesson in the billiards hall. You don’t get far playing pool being a straight shooter. You need to find the patch of wall to bank it off to get the desired ball into the pocket. Allen spoke on this decision in autobiography:
President Robert Hutchins of the University of Chicago was years behind the authorities of Cumberland in his decision to banish football. In 1916, either because they thought the sport was being overemphasized or because Cumberland couldn’t afford the kind of talent it would need to compete successfully in its class, the powers that were decided against football. My youthful spirits were so outraged by this decision that I determined, if possible, to overrule it.
The chance came when John W. Heisman, then the coach of Georgia Tech, proposed a Cumberland-Tech game at Atlanta. In my capacity as manager I accepted the challenge on behalf of Cumberland and proceeded to get up a team, which I did by adding a few ringers to the Cumberland roster. After some secret practice sessions, my Cumberland irregulars looked pretty hot to me, and I went to Atlanta on the big day full of high hopes for an upset.
The team was set to pass through nearby Nashville en route to their game in Atlanta. They would stop off briefly at Union Station to switch trains. Allen hoped to pick up a few aces while he was there to give his team a fighting chance, just like he had done the spring before when Cumberland put a 22-0 thumping on Georgia Tech in baseball. Allen had allegedly turned to semi-professional baseball players to bolster his roster, but the pro players, he believed, had perhaps “over performed” by running up such a terribly one-sided score. They also most assuredly cost him a fair amount of money. Allen had no interest in sharing the $500 guarantee with a bunch of money grubbing pro players who were unable to restrain themselves from pouring it on when given the opportunity. He had no interest in explaining how his team had beaten the mighty Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets by such a big score. No reason to risk it. He would instead turn to Vanderbilt University to enrich his team.
Vanderbilt, as you recall, was coming off their historic point-a-minute season, in which the Commodores had rolled up 514 points in 510 minutes of play. Their proficiency for scoring nudged Heisman’s undefeated Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets out of the southern title despite the team suffering one loss. Coach Dan McGugin had coached for 12 seasons at Vanderbilt, same as Heisman at Georgia Tech, and won 8 southern championships in the process. One can assume he did not appreciate Heisman questioning his team’s claim on the SIAA championship the previous season. Since Vanderbilt had an easy game scheduled against Transylvania (the schedule being almost identical to the previous season’s), certainly there’d be some interest in sending a few star players down to Atlanta to help put a blemish on Tech’s record and ensure another title for the Commodores. At least that’s what Allen hoped.
On October 6, the Friday before the game (keeping their movements as hushed as possible), a group of nineteen young men boarded the luxurious Pullman train car Heisman had promised the team. As the train pulled away, pretty girls were left behind with waves and kisses. They were boys in uniform heading off to war. The real war continued to rage on overseas and the possibility of the United States entering the conflict had to be in the back of every young man’s mind. Today, they were heading to a different sort of battlefield. Prayers would be silently said, but today was a day for foolish optimism. There were bold predictions of gridiron glory, the majority coming from Allen most likely. And even if they were to lose the game, which was an admitted possibility, what was the worst that could happen?
Little could any of them have known the game they would play the next day would come to be known as the “Little Bighorn of Football”. For the players aboard the train, the game would be their Waterloo. At that moment in northern France, the Battle of the Somme continued to rage on as it would for 141 days. On the first day of the battle, a severe underestimation of the Germans led to the “bloodiest day in the history of the British Army”, according to the BBC. They suffered nearly 60,000 casualties. By the time the fighting was over there would be over one million dead. George Allen was not inclined to learn any lessons from the British. As far as historical military references go, he surely preferred the Battle of Edessa in 259 AD. This has been long regarded as the “David and Goliath” battle, which saw a weak Persian army stand up to and vanquish 70,000 Roman soldiers. That’s what he hoped to do the next day on the gridiron. There was a $500 guarantee on the line and he intended to collect it. Not to mention, someone was going to have to pay for the train ride and the hotel they planned to sleep in that night.
Like most other things with this game, accounts vary on the names and numbers of players who were involved. Not to mention what players were injured, got lost on the way or weren’t authentic Cumberland football players (not that you could call any of them authentic football players). As close as can be confirmed, below is a list of the Cumberland players who traveled to Atlanta on October 6, 1916 to play in the game against Georgia Tech:
Charlie Warwick, who played left end for the Cumberland Bulldogs doesn’t recall any actual practices before the game. “We borrowed Castle Heights’ old uniforms,” recalled Warwick. “We rounded up twelve players. No, we didn’t practice a single time. Ernest (Butch) McQueen, who had played halfback alongside Ammie Sikes at Vanderbilt in 1913, was a law student and he agreed to go along as coach. But he wouldn’t get near a uniform. He must have known something.” Allen would not be participating in the game either. Not if he could help it. His talents, he determined, were much better served on the sidelines. There was another likely reason Allen was reluctant to the idea of putting on a Cumberland football uniform. Revealed by the United Press International decades later, Allen “was smitten with hypochondria. Whenever an acquaintance came down with an ailment, Allen found himself carrying the symptoms.” Undoubtedly, he could find a legitimate health condition that would prohibit him from sliding on a helmet.
The team was scheduled to spend the night in Atlanta before the Saturday game. Allen was reported to have scheduled an evening run for his team to keep them loose for the following day. Arrangements were made to travel to Atlanta in luxury aboard a Pullman Train Car with expenses covered by Georgia Tech. The train featured elaborately decorated interiors with plush upholstery, silk shades and a dining car that served gourmet meals. Allen must have been surprised at how many of the porters shared the same given name as him. Two years earlier, the Society for the Prevention of Calling Sleeping Porters “George” (SPCSCPG) had been founded as a joke and membership was open to anyone with the first or last name George. At the time, train porters, who were mostly black, were called “George,” in likely reference to owner George M. Pullman of the Pullman Company. It cannot be confirmed if Allen ever joined.
Some of the players slept. Others passed the time studying vegetables for running plays. Others still found their way to the bar car. There was certainly a concern the Cumberland players would indulge a little too much before the big game with Tech. One of the big reasons many on the team decided to come was for a night in a big city and the ride in a Pullman car. After all, they attended school in a sleepy Tennessee town that banned saloons back in 1901. When everything about your world is built around being good, it must feel nice to be bad once in a while. “I’m not going to tell you what we did coming down on the train from Lebanon to Atlanta before the game to break training,” said Charlie Warwick, who played left end for Cumberland, “but I will say we didn’t break training and get out of shape. We were already out of shape.”
Just thirty miles into their plush train ride came the stopover in Nashville. Union Station was a majestic railway station that opened in 1900. The imposing Gothic structure supported the Louisville and Nashville (L&N) Railroad as well as the Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis Railroad, and featured lofty turrets and towers. The railroad shed once held the distinction of being the “largest unsupported span in America” according to the official website, “housing up to 10 full trains at once”. The station featured two alligator ponds on the lower track level and a clock tower that ironically measured 222 feet tall.
Whether the attempt was made during the stopover at Union Station or some other time, all reports suggest Allen’s efforts to solicit ringers from the ranks of the Vanderbilt Commodores roster proved fruitless. Worse yet, the Cumberland team was said to have misplaced three of their players during the transfer. Reports suggest nineteen Cumberland players pulled into the Nashville station, but not all of them would evidently be on board when they disembarked. Whether it was a harmless mistake or an opportunistic desertion, this removed three warm bodies from an already depleted team roster. Fortunately, in spite of the brush off from the Commodores, Allen managed to drum up some help from outside the Vanderbilt ranks. While his haul may not have matched the types of competitors he would have gotten from Dan McGugin’s championship team, he was not in a position to be picky.
“The only “ringer” George was able to recruit, however, was J. M. ‘Johnny Dog’ Nelson,” wrote author Jim Paul in his 1983 book about the infamous game. “Johnny had graduated from Cumberland in 1912 and had gone on to become the political reporter and sportswriter for the Nashville Tennessean.” J. M. Nelson is listed in both the 1912 and 1913 editions of the university bulletin as a Law Student out of nearby Murfreesburo. In his account of the game, Cumberland University Historian G. Frank Burns also noted, “Apparently one reporter for The Nashville Tennessean used a phony name and made the trip.”
The former Cumberland standout, who Allen planned to spring on the unsuspecting Yellow Jackets, had been a fierce competitor, known for his scrappy style of play, going all the way back to high school. “Johnny Nelson had received his nickname while playing in a high-school football game,” wrote Jim Paul. “Weighing only 90 lbs. back then, Johnny had a real knack for squeezing through tough, offensive lines and tripping the runners. In one game, after about a half-dozen such trippings, the opposing quarterback shouted, ‘Someone, get that durned little dog outta here.’ Thus, he had acquired the nickname, ‘Johnny Dog.’” Drawing on the former player’s college loyalty as well as his vanity, Allen sold Nelson on the idea of putting on a helmet once again for the maroon and white and reliving those Saturday gridiron heroics. Admittedly, it had been a number of years, and a couple notches on his belt, since he last suited up for the Bulldogs.
As a young journalist, Nelson surely figured there may even be a story here. Of course, he could never admit how he got the story, but maybe he could be his own unidentified source.
Many of the boys who were heading off to do battle on the gridiron would soon head off to do battle in a real war that was raging in Europe. President Woodrow Wilson was running for re-election on the campaign slogan “He kept us out of war!” The slogan helped him achieve a narrow victory in the upcoming election that kept him in the White House for a second term. One month after his inauguration he declared war on Germany and the United States entered World War I. Following the April 2, 1917 war declaration, college football watched many of its players go off to fight for their country. Teddy Roosevelt and John Heisman had called the sport a maker of men. Preparing boys for war. Tech quarterback Froggie Morrison retired an Army colonel. So would Carlisle Cox, who played under his stepfather earlier on the scrub team. Everett Strupper went off to fight for his country. As did many Tech players. Bill Fincher was unable to join on account of his glass eye.
Some players did not return from the war. On November 18, 1918, Tech fullback Tommy Spence was shot down and killed over France. Some twenty-three years later, the fallen war hero became the namesake for Spence Air Base (established just thirty miles north of Spence’s hometown of Thomasville, Georgia), which has been used to train pilots during World War II and the Korean conflict. Today it’s a city owned public-use airport known as Spence Airport. He was posthumously elected to the Georgia Tech Athletics Hall of Fame in 1976.
Irby “Rabbit” Curry, the all-American quarterback for Vanderbilt’s point-a-minute team, was another gridiron great lost in the conflict. After volunteering for service, wrote Bill Traughber in his book Vanderbilt Football: Tales of Commodore Gridiron History, “Curry was shot down over France near Chateau Thierry and was killed during aerial combat on August 18, 1918.”
Famed sportswriter Grantland Rice also volunteered to join the war effort as a Private, but after spending time in Paris running the armed forces newspaper Stars and Stripes, transferred to the artillery division where he quickly rose to the rank of Lieutenant. When the war ended, Rice returned to New York to discover terrible news. The lawyer he had entrusted to watch over his money, an amount exceeding $75,000, had lost it all on bad investments and then committed suicide earlier that morning. “I blame myself for that poor fellow’s death,” Rice was quoted as saying, “I shouldn’t have put that much temptation in his way.” Once Rice got back on his feet financially, he made it a habit of sending his widow a weekly cheek to make amends.
As for George “Fullback” Allen, although he would go to war, he relied on political influence to avoid any real fighting. With the help of his uncle, Private John, he received an officer's commission and served the duration of the war seated comfortably behind a desk. “He got my commission by Governor Theodore G. Bilbo, somewhat to my surprise, because the Allens and the Bilbos were implacable political enemies,” wrote Allen. “The reason Bilbo gave for signing my commission was that he wanted to give me a chance to die for the cause of democracy, on the theory that Mississippi would be better off if the Allen clan were exterminated. I don’t think he meant it. This was merely his way of exchanging pleasantries with Uncle John, who never mentioned Bilbo’s name before ladies. He said it was vulgar.”
When all the losses and acquisitions were sorted, Cumberland arrived in Atlanta with a roster of fifteen players, comprised mostly of law students, along with Allen as team manager and Butch McQueen occupying the role as coach. Those fifteen players included at least one ringer, who wasn’t much of one, and another player, Hayler Poague, who was questionable for play, as he had a non-football related injury. It’s reasonable to surmise the injury may have had something to do with the uniforms stolen the night before from the Castle Heights School, but such speculation would be thrown out of one of Judge Green’s moot courts as pure conjecture and hearsay.
On October 6, 1916, the Cumberland players arrived to big city Atlanta prepared to experience a weekend of rowdiness and revelry. For the boys from Lebanon this might as well have been the Wild West. Everywhere a person looked there were tall buildings, multitudes of people and splashy advertising, usually for refreshing, ice cold Coca-Cola. The hustle and bustle of the booming metropolis must have felt like a nonstop machine producing noise and progress. For all the wondrous and eye-opening things the big city offered, there were dark elements as well. After the 1906 riots, Jim Crow laws were enacted including segregated streetcars. The Ku Klux Klan re-established itself in Atlanta following a lynching the previous year after a commuted murder sentence. There was even a Ku Klux Klan club at Georgia Tech, according to the yearbook. Football, in general, was yet to be integrated at the time. In the approaching decade, Heisman was faced with the choice of leaving his team’s single black player off the roster to play a game against a southern school (by then Heisman was coaching in the north) or calling off the game. Heisman chose to call off the game.
There were plenty of temptations for a group of wide-eyed, weekend travelers from Cumberland with some extra cash in their pockets. Gentry Dugat was attracted to visiting the home of his idol Henry Grady who, as managing editor of the Atlanta Constitution, helped reintegrate the South following the war. In 1927, Dugat wrote a biography about Henry Grady called the Life of Henry W. Grady. The trip to Atlanta must have also been attractive for the one known ringer who was brought along for the game, John M. Nelson. “Johnny Dog” was an aspiring journalist for the Nashville Tennessean and surely appreciated the opportunity to brush elbows with big city sportswriters such as Morgan Blake, Dick Jemison, and Fuzzy Woodruff. Even more enticing was the opportunity to possibly encounter Grantland Rice who was from Murfreesboro, the same as him, and who had worked for the Nashville Tennessean, same as him. They would have so much to talk about.
According to Charlie Warwick, the team certainly enjoyed themselves on the trip to Atlanta. The following day the boys from Lebanon were to be offered up to the football gods, so they might as well enjoy the nightlife in the meantime. They were innocent boys of nineteen and twenty years of age heading into the buzz saw. Although they could not have known it then, what lay ahead for them the next day on Grant Field would change the lives of every one of them. This was their final night of innocence. This was the final night of being young boys without a care in the world. Manhood waited for them on the other side of the breach. Life would be different afterward. A month to the day after the game, Woodrow Wilson would be re-elected. Despite his isolationist campaign slogans, war would soon follow. Their Norman Rockwell world was going to be violently interrupted by trains taking the young sons of America off to fight oversea.
Looking back from a hundred years later, history may view the boys who missed the train in Nashville as the lucky ones. They are the ones who missed getting on board the Titanic before her maiden voyage. Upon their arrival to Atlanta, all the Cumberland players were booked into a hotel to ensure no one else got lost. With such a lean roster, the team would have a very limited number of substitutions if by chance they had to play. Best estimates demonstrate they left with nineteen players and only fifteen or sixteen made it. They lost three in Nashville. At least one ringer was thrown in the mix as well, but it’s unclear if they were paid to play or not. A starting lineup consists of eleven players. Factoring in the coach and manager, that leaves only a handful of reserves. They didn’t have much room for injuries or leeway for players missing the game. As reported by Warwick, the Cumberland players didn’t refrain from breaking training, but the left end did not elaborate and go into any specifics. Apparently, what happens in Atlanta stays in Atlanta.
The Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets under John Heisman did not enjoy the same luxury. There was no drinking alcohol or using tobacco. No rich desserts or spicy foods were allowed. There was no sex. No snacking between meals. Bedtime was no later than 10:30. All players were instructed to get eight hours of sleep. Heisman’s rules were not only meant to put his players in the optimal mental and physical condition to compete in the game, but to form good habits they would carry with them throughout life. “The football candidate learns to obey orders promptly, cheerfully, without question,” wrote Heisman. “Whether he likes the order or not, he has no choice but to obey unfalteringly and at once.”
Just as Allen knew the importance football had on a college campus, so did Heisman. “We all know that by collegians the game is esteemed the king of sports,” Heisman added, “and it deserves no less ranking, for it has the power to create and to arouse ‘college spirit’ as does nothing else from one end of the campus to another.” While he did not advocate his players informing on each other for college pranks and jokes, he did when it came to the breaking of training by a player. “He is liable to undo the whole season’s work of the coaches, to nullify completely the herculean efforts that a hundred men have been making for months to turn out a flawless machine that shall bring fame and honor to themselves and undying glory to Alma Mater.” Rest assured, there would be no late nights out with a bottle of whiskey and the prom queen. Not on Heisman’s watch. When the time arrived for kickoff the next day, the Tech players would be trained, motivated, and well rested.
There was still one last hope for Cumberland to avoid the unnecessary carnage. That hope would lie in the ability of George Allen to make a convincing argument in regards to the wording of the contract. If unsuccessful, the Cumberland eleven would be in store for a very long, painful day. “First thing we did on reaching Georgia Tech’s football field was to dispense Manager Allen to find John Heisman, Tech coach, and explain to him our plight,” recalled Charlie Warwick. “Heisman wouldn’t go for any of that ‘place a team on the field’ stuff and said the game would have to be played. He didn’t even listen to a suggestion that we play shortened quarters. It seemed Vanderbilt had been awarded the Southern championship over Georgia Tech the year before on points scored and Heisman was still mad about it. Anyway, Allen brought the sad news to us and there was nothing left to do but walk into the slaughter.”