Cumberland - Introduction

For when the One Great Scorer comes
To write against your name
He marks - not that you won or lost
But how you played the game
- Grantland Rice, “Alumnus Football”

   When one hears the word “disaster” many historic events instantly come to mind. There was the great Chicago Fire in 1871. The San Francisco Earthquake in 1906. Then, of course, there was the Titanic in 1912. But in 1916, one disaster didn’t make the front page; it made the sports page. That’s when nineteen unfortunate souls set off on an ill-fated trip to Georgia to take part in a football contest that no one in those parts, or any parts for that matter, would ever soon forget. 2016 marked the 100th anniversary of one of the most extraordinary college football games ever played.

     One hundred long years have passed and people are still talking about this game. Not just in the south, but all over. Every time a blowout of some sort occurs on the football field, or elsewhere, this game will inevitably be brought up by a blogger or sports columnist somewhere. This was a blowout for the ages. It was aptly called “The Game of the Century” long before a multitude of other football games would be given the exact same moniker over the course of the decades that followed.

     The game indeed was a disaster. From its very inception, the game had catastrophe written all over it. On the surface, it was a David and Goliath story. Except in this version of the tale, Goliath lures the unsuspecting David into an ass whooping of a lifetime. Over the past century, the game has taken on almost a mythical nature and events have become a part of folklore. Being so, those events are also prone to embellishment. There are varying accounts and not everything said about the game is true. In many ways, the game has taken on a big fish story quality.

     Cumberland sifts through the historical wreckage to paint a clearer picture of what happened, and what went horribly wrong, to bring about that fateful fall Saturday in Atlanta. This book provides a definitive account of the game 100 years later in hopes of understanding why a game like this one ever had to happen in the first place. And ask why those poor, unsuspecting boys from Lebanon, Tennessee were compelled to board that train that day, traveling 250 miles to their gridiron doom.

     Make no mistake about it. This is not your typical underdog story. The one you’ve heard a million times before; The one where the smaller, weaker opponent somehow finds a way to overcome overwhelming odds to defeat the much bigger, stronger adversary in dramatic, nail-biting fashion. In such stories, the hero of the story is, inevitably, hoisted up on the shoulders of his or her teammates, to the sounds of cheers, and celebrated for their miraculous, game-deciding heroics. There are slow claps. Names chanted. Somehow a love interest is even worked in. And they all live happily ever after.

     This is not that story at all. In this story, there are no happy endings. There is no joy in Mudville. The football game played on Grant Field October 7, 1916 was a tragedy of sports on many levels. All the names, dates and events that fill these pages should be viewed as those of a sports archeologist. The details of what took place on and leading up to that fateful day on a muddy field in Atlanta have been pieced together in this book in the same manner the details of an airline disaster are pieced together from the wreckage.

     Based on all evidence and testimony that has been gathered, the events that would ultimately lead those nineteen souls to their collision course with destiny were, in and of themselves, as unfathomable as they were unfortunate. If there was indeed anyone at the time who recognized the iceberg in their approaching path, no one is on record providing an adequate warning to avert course. In the fourth month of the deadly Battle of the Somme, with German bombs dropping all around and machine guns firing overhead, there is the rare possibility word of Cumberland’s impending game with Georgia Tech somehow made its way overseas. To which, the British soldier, upon reading the story, could have only thought, “Poor bastards, sure hate to be in their shoes.”

     The story offered everything. There was lying, cheating and stealing. At stake was the future of football as well as the integrity of the sport. Even the fate of the Cumberland law school hung in the balance. The contest would occur at a time when the game of football was still dealing with a public relations issue due to its violent, and often times deadly, nature during its formative years. There were even those who wanted nothing more than to ban football outright and forever erase the barbaric sport from the athletic landscape.

     It was a game played between two highly respected southern universities, different in every imaginable way. One manages to find honor even in the face of certain annihilation. This story is about the beauty of a game that was considered by many to be a maker of men. The times were wholesome, but the sport was violent.

     The story comes down to two men and reads like a Shakespearean tragedy, following the fall from grace of a noble general and the redemption of a scheming raconteur. The actions of these two men would pit a massive, big city engineering school up against a small, prestigious southern law school with almost nothing to gain and everything to lose. On the field would be a highly trained football powerhouse lining up against a ragtag team of inexperienced volunteers.

     This story is about winning and the cost involved in doing so. Before we point too many fingers at anyone, it should be noted Goliath had an adversary as well. His adversaries fought with a pen and were armed with an abundance of sports opinion with only a smidgen of sports knowledge. No one was completely innocent. Everyone had a share of the blame. 

     A dangerous cocktail of grudges, egos and bad decisions led to immortality in the record books and gridiron lore. But as infamous as the football game would one day become, the game was barely noticed by the national media at the time, having been scheduled the same day that the Boston Red Sox (featuring a promising left-handed pitcher named Babe Ruth) were scheduled to play the opening game of the World Series against the Brooklyn Robins. A scant three paragraphs, buried in the middle of page ten of the Atlanta Constitution, would be afforded this historic gridiron contest.

     The game was nearly lost in history. Only now do we have the ability to appreciate all this amusing footnote in American sports history had to offer. After all, how can we in good conscience celebrate a sporting event as “The Game of the Century” until a hundred years have passed since it was played?

Written by Scott Larson
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