Cumberland - Chapter 14: The Second Half

We can’t run. We can’t pass. We can’t stop the run.
We can’t stop the pass. We can’t kick.
Other than that, we’re just not a very good team right now.
- Bruce Coslet, football coach

     “You're doing all right, team," Heisman told his players at halftime. "We're ahead. But you just can't tell what those Cumberland players have up their sleeves. They may spring a surprise. Be alert, men! Hit 'em clean, but hit 'em hard!” The Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets were up by 126 points. Cumberland had not scored a single point. Nor had they gotten a single first down. In the visiting team locker room, the boys from Lebanon were injured and tired. They had been the recipients of a beating never before administered in intercollegiate football, if in all of sports. Worse yet, they still had a half to play.

     Coach Heisman continued with his platoon system that unleashed in waves his two squadrons of well-rested gladiators on the wounded and worn-out Cumberland volunteers. But Cumberland had something that Heisman had not counted on. They had righteousness on their side. They were playing but to save the school they dearly loved from financial ruin. Those lads on the Cumberland team needed only to look to their own school’s history to draw inspiration: The charred wood from a war-torn column where, a half century earlier, a student scrawled the Latin phrase “Resurgam”, which translated means “I Shall Arise”. At that precise moment, all the Cumberland players felt they too would arise from the ashes. The feeling, however, was short lived.

     In 1916, the life expectancy of a man was 48.4 years of age. On that day on Grant Field that number may have declined measurably. In their first possession, the Cumberland offense was swarmed by the Yellow Jacket’s suffocating defense, resulting in a turnover on downs way back on their own 10-yard line. “Time and again the big tackles and guards would break through and down the Cumberland back in his tracks,” wrote Morgan Blake after the game, singling out the efforts of senior end Jim Senter in that regard. The takeover on downs was followed up promptly with another inevitable Georgia Tech touchdown, the fifth of the game for halfback Everett Strupper. Fullback Tommy Spence scored the next two touchdowns for Tech, one on a kick return and the other following a Cumberland fumble by “Murphy”. Murphy, as speculated earlier, was the unconfirmed name the ringer was playing under for Cumberland, also known as John M. “Johnny Dog” Nelson. Spence also relieved Jim Preas (who had been obliged to kick eighteen straight in the first half of the game) of his PAT duties.

     From the sidelines, where he preferred to be, George Allen reminded his battered brethren of the $500 guarantee. They just had to make it to the end of the game to collect. With dwindling resources on the Cumberland bench, that was not going to be a given. Injuries were piling up. Eddie “QB” Edwards had been out most of the game at quarterback. Haysler Poague was out of commission with an injured leg. Everyone in the game was limping and breathing hard. The team might have been in a little better shape had they not misplaced three of their players in Nashville during their stopover. Their only consolation prize was a newspaper reporter, who had played ball for Cumberland several years earlier.

     Vanderbilt was the team Allen had been counting on to provide quality ringers for his team. The Commodores were loaded with standout players, like All-American quarterback Irby “Rabbit” Curry, who Allen would have been more than happy to borrow for the game. He and a few of his teammates could have made a difference. Unfortunately, “Johnny Dog” Nelson proved a poor substitution for “Rabbit” Curry. It’s not even clear as to whether Nelson got a chance to get in a practice with the team before participating in the game. That is to assume Cumberland actually got in a practice in the first place.

When Strupper scampered for his sixth touchdown of the game, which went around the right end from 15 yards out, the PAT by Spence put the score at 154-0, breaking the previous world record of 153 points scored in a college football game by Michigan in 1912.

     While they didn’t stop the game to award Heisman with a game ball to mark the occasion, with the popularity of football, there would likely have been those in the crowd, outside of the geeky sportswriters, who knew a record had been broken.

     The players on the losing side of the high scoring affair were already finding it difficult to continue. Particularly those who were being asked to carry the ball for the team. “Cumberland lost all interest in the proceedings after Tech had scored her first hundred points,” recalled Heisman. “Among those enjoying it least were the Cumberland backs. None appeared to care where the ball was - as long as it wasn’t near them.” The Tech coach recalled one instance, late in the game, where he discovered an unfamiliar face joining him on the Georgia Tech sideline. “You’re on the wrong bench, son,” said Heisman to a Cumberland player taking a short break from the action. “I’m on the right bench, sir,” the player replied. “If I go on the other side of the field they might send me back into the game.”

     Despite the one-sided score, the crowd of 1,000 spectators reportedly stayed until the very end. Not sure what it was exactly. Maybe folks simply got some sort of guilty pleasure out of watching a bunch of aspiring lawyers get annihilated for three hours straight without letup. Or maybe they were inspired by Cumberland’s ability to hang on despite the savage beating they were enduring without letup.

     In a rare act of mercy, Heisman begrudgingly allowed the second half of the game to be shortened by 15 minutes. “We were supposed to play two quarters of 10 minutes and two of 12 minutes,” recalled Chip Robert, a Tech assistant who also served as timekeeper. “When the game got out of hand, we shortened the 12-minute quarter in the second half to 10 and the 10-minute quarter to seven-and-a-half minutes.” The game did not seem shorter to the players on the Cumberland side of the line of scrimmage. “I hate to dispute any recorder or official or timekeeper,” recalled Pete Gray, one of the Cumberland reserves, “but if I recall correctly, we started at 3 o’clock in the afternoon and played until sundown.”

     There would be another Cumberland fumble. Tommy Spence broke free for a 35-yard touchdown gallop. Another fumble by Cumberland followed. This time Walker “Big Six” Carpenter rumbled the ball in from eight yards out. In the first real sign of imperfection, Spence hooked the kick wide on the point after. The mishap would not go unnoticed by Heisman. One of the lessons he instilled on his players was humility. He had to. “Let it be told to him too many times that he is a world’s wonder on the football field,” warned Heisman, “and four times out of the five, that man’s game starts going downhill.”

     Heisman once praised his players for an inspired first half of play when he was at Oberlin. After halftime, they were so flat and unimpressive he barely got out with a win. After that, he never told his teams how good they were until the game was safely won. Even then, Heisman kept his compliments to a minimum. Never to shy away from criticism, even when his players had performed admirably, he could find fault with near perfection. As a senior, Spence knew this all too well. Only thing worse would have been had he cursed when he missed the kick.

     Cumberland ball. With little daylight in the ground game, the Cumberland ringer turned to the air once again, but both pass attempts fell incomplete. When Cumberland punted, Strupper took it 55 yards to the house for another electrifying score. Tech was making it look impossibly easy. “As a general rule,” reported Morgan Blake, “the only thing necessary for a touchdown was to give a Tech back the ball and holler, ‘Here he comes’ and ‘There he goes.’” Nothing was going right for the hapless Bulldogs. “Cumberland was totally unable to stop the Jackets, who were not thrown for a loss or even held for one,” Hal Reynolds wrote in the Atlanta Constitution.

     “On the other hand, all of Cumberland’s plays were smothered completely, they hardly kept the ball at the end of three rushes where it was before the first down.” The hopeless plight of the team was even being felt by those in the grandstands as well the across the line of scrimmage. “My heart felt for them at the time,” confessed Froggie Morrison, the Georgia Tech quarterback. “They were limited in size and number of substitutes, but they bore their burden inside and took it. It was a real display of internal fortitude.” Canty Alexander, the big senior lineman for Georgia Tech who scored his first touchdown in the game added, “It takes a lot of guts to fight on with all hope out of sight.”

     Fed up with being rendered powerless, the team unwisely decided to take desperate measures. They needed a spark, something to get things going for them. As if something possibly could. The decision was made to block the kick for the point after the touchdown. The blocked kick, if successful, would deny the Jackets a single point. Instead of 174-0, Cumberland held them to the much more respectable 173-0. To block the kick, Cumberland used the “climb-the-ladder” play, which required one player to climb up over the top of the other players in order to get a hand on the ball and deflect it away.

     Some on the team argued the play to be suicidal, but Vichy Woods, a fair-haired reserve end for Cumberland with a good-natured smile, volunteered regardless. When the ball was kicked, his extended hand failed to block the oncoming projectile, but his face did not. The thrilling victory of the blocked kick had come at a costly price. The crunching of Wood’s nose was heard as far back as the tenth row of the grandstands. Heisman himself sported a flattened nose he got blocking a punt against Penn State in 1890. As far as Woods went, medical technicians returned everything to its rightful place and bandaged him up for the trip home, but the reserve end was unavailable for the rest of the contest.

The outlook was growing more and more dire as to the prospects of having enough healthy players to finish the game. At some point, the team must have completely run out of capable reserves to put in because the unthinkable occurred: “Before it was over,” recalled George Allen, “I had to leave the security of the bench, from which I had been guiding Cumberland’s strategy, and go in at fullback myself.”

     Legend has it that the clouds parted and a ray of sunlight shined down onto the field as George Allen put down his clipboard, slid on a helmet and marched onto the field. None of which can be corroborated, mind you. He was slight of build and only marginally athletic. And he was the team’s last hope in being able to finish out the game. There was little possibility Heisman could resist the opportunity to inflict a little pain on the individual most responsible for humiliating his baseball team 22-0 using semi-professionals dressed up like Cumberland players. The defensive line Heisman assembled for his football team was loaded with bruising enforcers. There were fellas like “Big Six” Carpenter, “Pup” Phillips and reserve Bill Fincher (with his removable glass eye) to deliver a few “reminders” to Allen to never make that mistake again.

     The odds of making it through the game unharmed did not bode well for Allen. He would take a helluva, helluva, helluva, helluva, hell of a beating before the game was over. Making matters worse, his teammates could not have been much happier with Allen than Heisman was for the situation he had talked them into. Any reminders of the $500 guarantee were certainly met by suggestions of locations where he could put it.

     After another interception for a touchdown by Tech, the third quarter of the game ended with the never-before-seen score of 180-0. The score was already 27 points over the previous record. Bill Fincher, who by this point in the game had performed his missing eye routine for at least one Cumberland player, probably two, took over the kicking duties for Spence who had missed one and got another blocked. Heisman was severe in his punishment for less than perfection.

     As the final quarter began however, something had noticeably changed in the air. What had started as soft cheers gradually grew louder and louder. But the cheers from the grandstands were no longer cheering for Georgia Tech to score another touchdown. They were cheering for Cumberland. The crowd who had taken time from their Saturday to take in a friendly football game had grown weary of watching their team brutalize a much weaker one. This was no longer sport. The cheers of “Cum-ber-land! Cum-ber-land!” did not go unnoticed by Heisman. Neither did they go unnoticed by the Tech players. “Tech oughta never played them,” said Noye Nesbitt, one of Heisman’s own players who wrote the words “Tech’s Disgrace” above pictures from the game he later kept in a scrapbook. “The fans thought it was a joke.”

     Heisman did not allow his team to let up. There was one more quarter to play in the game and a steak dinner on the line. There was also a point to finish being made. The second platoon picked up right where the first platoon left off. When Stan Fellers of the second Tech squadron snatched an errant Cumberland pass and returned the interception for a score, the final quarter started out in the exact same fashion as the previous one had just ended. While the Yellow Jackets continued to score touchdowns, the Bulldogs continued to be hit, shoved, yanked, stomped, kicked, pounded, flung, knocked, tripped, pummeled, scratched and battered on every single play. And after each play, the Cumberland players would get up from the turf, wipe off the blood and grass and line back up to go again.

     From the viewpoint of the stands, the boys from Lebanon were something reminiscent of Paul Newman in the boxing scene from Cool Hand Luke. No matter how many times big George Kennedy knocked Newman to the ground, he would get right back up to take some more. The more pounding he took, the more the crowd turned from excitedly cheering on the beating to falling silent and finally walking away. Many told Newman to stay down and end the fight, but Newman wouldn’t listen. Finally, even his big tormentor told him to stay down. No matter how much of a beating he took, Newman got back up for some more until everyone else had all walked away while he was still standing. This was the immorality of the game critics had warned the public about.

     “What then are the sources of the grave evils in this sport?” asked Charles W. Eliot in an article in Success Magazine. “They are (1) the immoderate desire to win intercollegiate games; (2) the frequent collisions in masses which make foul play invisible; (3) the profit from violations of rules; (4) the misleading assimilation of the game to war as regards its strategy and its ethics.”

     Even when Cumberland did something good, like managing to gain five yards, they would end up fumbling the ball. George C. Griffin, the backup quarterback and Dean of Men at Georgia Tech from 1946 until 1964, made them pay for the turnover with a spectacular touchdown run that travelled 35 yards and left Cumberland players sprawled everywhere behind him. The score was now Georgia Tech 194, Cumberland 0. The game would be a test of endurance for the Cumberland players to finish the game, avoid the penalty and collect the guarantee. In the next drive, Tech would again smother Cumberland on defense and easily trample over them for another score to put them over 200 points, the first time a team had ever eclipsed the benchmark.

     Cumberland did not take surrendering such a total lying down. On the next drive, the Bulldogs responded with the team’s longest gain of the day, a 10-yard pass from McDonald to “Murphy”. The play would not, unfortunately, result in a first down since it was third and eighteen from their own 2-yard line at the time. The Tech defense smothered Cumberland runners for losses on the first two downs. Cumberland wisely chose to punt, but it was naturally returned for another Tech touchdown. At this point for Cumberland, it was all about survival. In a letter to Coach Bobby Dodd, the brother of Charlie Warwick, Jr. shed some light in how his oldest sibling managed to make it through the 1916 game against Georgia Tech unscathed:

     Charlie played left end on the Cumberland team and in talking about the game years ago, I asked Charlie if he got hurt during the game. He said no - because every time the ball was snapped, he turned and ran with the Georgia Tech team. In 1936, the late Morgan Blake was covering a golf tournament in Thomasville, Georgia and someone had told him that I had a brother who played on the Cumberland team. He got in the car and drove out on the golf course and asked me if this was so. He asked me if I knew what position he played and I told him left end. He said, “My God, that’s the man I have been trying to locate ever since the game was played.” I asked him why he was so interested in the left end and he replied that every time the ball was snapped that the left end turned and ran in the same direction as Georgia Tech.

     This quest for survival was also responsible for the game’s most memorable play. As the game winded down, the official play-by-play reports a fumble on the line of scrimmage by “Murphy” on one of the team’s final drives. What was memorable was not the fact a player fumbled, since the team had been fumbling the ball all game. What made the play memorable was the debate that immediately followed in regards to which player’s responsibility it was to recover it.

     “John Nelson, now manager of the Hot Springs, Arkansas, Chamber of Commerce, who was one of my ringers, testifies to the intrepidity of my play,” recalled Allen. “He says he was skirting end on one play with me behind him, that he fumbled and shouted to me to fall on the ball, whereupon I shouted back, ‘Fall on it yourself. You dropped it.’” The play Allen referred to is the most remembered play of the game. The humorous reply, “You dropped it, you pick it up!” was even the title given to a book about the game published in 1983.

     Who actually uttered those words, if anyone actually did, is up for debate. Despite Allen’s recollection of the incident, with him in the starring role, naturally, and delivering the famed punch line, there are discrepancies over what players were involved or whether the play even happened. Some accounts have Leon McDonald fumbling the football with Morris Gouger refusing to pick it up. Others have Bird Paty as the culprit. Others still feature Pete Gray, who is said to have obtained the nickname “Grayback” during the game as a result of the game announcer routinely shouting, “Gray back” each time Cumberland punted, which was frequent. Dow Cope suggested the play didn’t happen at all, even taking a little offense to the story.

     The boys from Cumberland may have been terrible football players, but they were anything but cowards. To endure what they endured at the hands of Georgia Tech, they couldn’t be. Whatever the circumstances were of the famous fumble, the ball was recovered by Tech who then easily scored in one try. The player who recovered the fumble intercepted a Cumberland pass for a touchdown on the next series to end the scoring. Cumberland received the ball one more time, but the game clock mercifully ran out before any more injuries or touchdowns could occur.

It was over. The shelling had stopped. The score by quarters were 63 points, 63 points, 54 points and 42 points. For a grand total of 222 points scored by Georgia Tech, and 0 by Cumberland.

     “As you can see, we were sorta’ gettin’ to ‘em in that last quarter,” Charlie Warwick quipped. “They only scored 42 points. All that unhindered running wore them down. They figured it was time to quit so they shortened the fourth quarter.” Although certainly tongue in cheek, there was a glimmer of truth to what the Cumberland left end was saying. That had been the strategy behind kicking the ball right back to Tech on first down, which was not entirely unheard of in those days.

     Many teams took advantage of field position by kicking back to their opponents up away from the team’s own goal line. “I am sure the score would have been even bigger had we not stopped receiving and begun kicking off after touchdowns,” confirmed Allen in taking credit for averting an even bigger disaster. “That system, on the occasions when the kicks were not blocked, forced them to run the whole distance of the field for the next touchdown instead of from the place where we fumbled.”

     Despite the shortened second half, the game was still a grueling marathon of athletic misery for the players on the Cumberland team. “Dugat was the only Cumberland player to stay in the entire game,” wrote G. Frank Burns, the late Cumberland University historian. “He later helped organize a 40-year reunion of the players of both teams in Atlanta.” From his position at left guard, Dugat had a front row seat for every unfortunate fumble, interception and miscue. “Little did we realize that we were playing ourselves into immortality that day,” said Dugat decades later. “I never thought in all my speech-making that I would ever talk about a nothing in which I was a principal actor. But we made of you, Georgia Tech, a great football team.”

     This had been a statement game for the sportswriters. Not that they got the message. The controversy would not be resolved in any sort of meaningful way for another ninety-eight years. Heisman, right or wrong, let his players make his statement for him and they responded in record-breaking fashion. His method of platooning two squads (swapping them out each quarter to keep the players fresh and fired up) produced more points than any other team in football history.

     Unable to select a clear-cut winner on which had performed best, Heisman elected to treat both of his squads to steak dinners after the game, but not before he put his players through a vigorous thirty-minute scrimmage. He was unsatisfied that they had received a proper test of their abilities and wanted to make sure they weren’t soft for the game the following week against Davidson.

     “After the game, Tech did give George Allen a check for $500 for our expenses, etc.,” said Warwick. “But we saw only a little of that ‘etc.’ In fact, I’ve always told George Allen that’s where he got his start.”

Written by Scott Larson
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