Conjuring Up a Documentary

The Art and Magic of Filmmaking 

By Norman Jetmundsen 

Life takes crazy turns sometimes.  Like when I made an offhand suggestion to my good friend and Sewanee classmate, David Crews, that he should do a documentary on the amazing season of the Sewanee Tigers of 1899.  Although he has a full-time job, David had done an award-winning documentary about Mississippi Governor, William Winter, called “The Toughest Job.”   His reply was, “That’s a great idea, so help me.”  I was working full-time and had no experience whatsoever in producing films or documentaries. My expectation was that I’d sit back and watch David and maybe learn a thing or two.  The film project, however, had other ideas.  Like many adventures, I had no idea what I was about to get into.  And looking back, if I’d known what all was involved   . . .   well, that’s water under the bridge now.  I was working as a lawyer and had never done – or even thought about doing – a film.  Nevertheless, before we knew what was happening, David and I were working nights and weekends immersed in the challenges of creating and developing a documentary film that would do justice to this football team and its legacy.  There were, of course, no eyewitnesses and precious few photographs, so we had to dig deep to uncover the breadth of the season.  The more we learned the more excited we got, and along the way we encountered amazing people who supported and enriched the film.  

In the 1890’s football was introduced in the South, which was still recovering from the devastation of the Civil War less than thirty years earlier.  Soon, southerners embraced football and made it part of the culture of the South.  Football was a brutal sport with little protective gear.  The players not only played both offense and defense, but if they came out of the game, they were not allowed back in.  In fact, it was considered unmanly to come out of the game unless they got something broken and could not continue playing.  There was no forward passing or huddles, so every play was like a hurry-up offense, with little time to rest.   

Colleges did not run football programs – instead, they were all run by students.  In 1899, Sewanee’s student manager, Luke Lea, was 20 years old.  He hired the coach, handled the finances, and did the scheduling, all as a full-time student.  As Coach Bobby Bowden said when we interviewed him, “They’d be hiring forty people to do that nowadays.”  The players were all full-time students who played for the love of the game and without any type of athletic scholarships, much less with any prospect of playing professionally.  

For those who are not familiar with this team, here is a thumbnail sketch:  they went 12-0 in a time where most college teams in the South played only a few games a year due to the distance between schools in the region and the costs of travel.  The Sewanee team of 1899 was the first college team ever to travel such long distances to play so many games.  Out of the 12 games that year, 9 were on the road.  By November 1899, the team had already played four games.  Given the rigors of football at the time it is all the more astonishing that the team then embarked on a 2,500 mile train trip and played 5 games in 6 days, traveling to Austin, Houston, New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Memphis.  And, when they returned, they still had three more games to play, including the two best teams in the South, Auburn and North Carolina.  They prevailed in all 12 games with some very close calls and lots of luck. It’s an “Unrivaled” season that will never even be attempted, much less surpassed.  

When we started our film project, we both thought we knew the story, and we agreed that we’d probably find a lot of lore about the team, but not as much factually based.  We were wrong on both counts.  The story turned out to be richer and more complex than we ever dreamed, and as former Sewanee Vice-Chancellor, John McCardell, observed: “It’s more than lore – it’s true.”   The actual events include “Wild Bill” Claiborne’s eye patch antics, “Ditty” Seibels’ head split open, guns pulled at the Auburn game, on and on.  

I certainly learned a great deal, but not in the manner I had anticipated.  Instead of just observing the filmmaking, I was soon deep into this project, as we started researching the team, figuring out how to raise funds, and finding people we should interview.  Now, six years and thousands of non-billable hours later, our film is complete.  This is a story about young men who exhibited, in the words of Coach Nick Saban, “an incredible level of grit, determination, and perseverance, making it truly an outstanding football team.”  It is a story of glory and success, but it is also a very human saga of pain and sacrifice.  

Along the way, we were blessed over and over with people willing to help us.  We found many descendants of the team, who all agreed to be interviewed.  We prevailed upon famous football coaches, historians, professors, and football analysts to give interviews, all of which added so much to the richness of the story.   We found letters, photos, and some heretofore unknown original sources, which allowed us to tell a comprehensive and rich story.  Importantly, hundreds of people took a chance on us by donating money to make this film a reality.

On this journey there were several amazing magicians to assist us.  Matthew Graves, our video editor, did a superb job of putting hundreds of hours of footage together into a seamless narrative.  He also mastered a technique to colorize our photos.  Ernie Eldridge painted over a dozen original and marvelous illustrations of different scenes from the season.   Gates Shaw was the perfect narrator with his resonant southern accent and perfect pitch.  Finally, Bobby Horton added a spot-on period music score that contributed just the right emotions to go along with the arc of the story.  Bobby, who does much of the music for Ken Burns’ documentaries, would watch versions of our film and decide what turn-of-the-century music would fit the mood of that segment.  Then, he took his own vintage instruments, played each one separately, and mixed them together into beautiful melodies.  

I have a new appreciation for documentary films.  The time, effort, research, and persistence involved is far beyond what I ever imagined.  And distilling hundreds of hours of video, images, stories, music, and interviews to ninety minutes of film is not for the faint of heart.  As I reflect on the years of documentary work, several moments stand out. One is being in the homes of Bobby Bowden and Vince Dooley, who were so gracious and willing to help. Another is finishing the interview with Johnny Majors and then, when off the record, he proceeded to describe specific plays in great detail from his football days in high school and college, as well as his coaching days, as if the games had happened yesterday. We also were fortunate enough to interview nationally known sportscasters Kirk Herbstreit, Tony Barnhart, and Phil Savage, as well as historian and author Jon Meacham.  Likewise, interviewing Kent Stephens in the College Football Hall of Fame and learning from his encyclopedic knowledge of the history of college football was fascinating. Sewanee history professor, Dr. Woody Register, was the backbone of our film with his immense knowledge of the 1899 team. Matthew Reynolds at the Sewanee Archives was an invaluable resource for finding source material. We also captured on film all four living Vice-Chancellors of The University of the South.  The icing on the cake was recording the descendants of the team sharing family lore about their fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers, who had made college football history.  

    What we are most proud of, however, is that this story would have been lost forever in another decade, and by preserving the descendants’ family lore, uncovering important historical records and photos about the team, and recording the observations of dozens of historians, coaches, professors, and descendants, we have preserved for posterity — not just the story itself — but the vision, courage, and perseverance of the manager, players, trainers, and coach.  It’s a story that will inspire generations to come. 

As Woody Register, noted:

These were young men who did something truly extraordinary, and they did it for the love of the game.  They had done something that no one else had ever dreamed of doing and that no one else would ever do.  They hoped to win a championship.  They ended up going down in history.

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