Praying Colonels documentary The Wonder Team to air on KET throughout September
RELEASED: September 8, 2009
By Leigh Ivey
DANVILLE, KY—"The Associated Press voted the 1921 Centre 6-0 win over Harvard as the greatest upset in college football during the first half of the twentieth century…But Centre's players didn't think the outcome was an upset at all. They walked off the field thinking that that better team had won."
So says Dr. Robert Robertson, a 1963 Centre College graduate and author of The Wonder Team: The Story of the Centre College Praying Colonels and their Rise to the Top of the Football World 1917-1924. His book delves into the history of the Centre football team that made national headlines in 1921 for its victory over the undefeated Harvard team and went on to be undefeated in regular-season play.
The book inspired filmmaker and Centre alum Tom Thurman '84 to produce a documentary titled The Wonder Team, which will be aired on KET throughout the month of September. The first episode premieres on KET1 on Thursday, Sept. 10, at 9 p.m.
"Rob's book is an absolute warehouse of facts," Thurman says. "Because he was so thorough, it allowed me to focus on the core of the story. And it gave me the luxury of having one extremely dependable fact-checking source."
Robertson was able to be so thorough in his research partly because both his father and uncle had been students at Centre from 1921 to 1925.
"Dad and Uncle Howard were the team's greatest fans," he says. "They followed the team everywhere. They hoarded programs, clippings and photographs and gave all of their collections to me."
These mementos, along with hundreds of photographs from Ann McCurry (daughter of Uncle Charlie Moran, Centre's football coach in 1921), provided Robertson with a wealth of material—and he had no trouble finding more.
"For an era now nine decades removed, there is an enormous amount of material available about Centre because the Colonels were America's team," Robertson says. "I would find a major story in a paper in Provo, Utah, of all places. I think the toughest part was to finally stop researching and start writing."
For nearly three years, Robertson worked on the book with much assistance from Tony Gaier, a fellow history enthusiast who learned about the Praying Colonels from his uncle, a collector of antique fire engines. Gaier's uncle, in fact, owned the engine that the Praying Colonels had ridden when they paraded through Danville after the Harvard victory in 1921—the only fire engine in Danville at the time.
Since he first learned about the famous Centre football team, Gaier has been fascinated with the story, and he "made it a personal mission to leave no stone unturned in seeking facts to be included in the book," Robertson says.
"In researching the book, and in hearing my father's and uncle's stories over the years," Robertson says, "I came to realize that Centre's players didn't think the outcome of the Harvard game was an upset. They had a game plan that the players and coaches had worked on for a year."
Centre began the 1921 season with the goal of not giving up a point during the entire season. And that goal took Harvard into consideration.
"The Colonels held to their game plan," Robertson says. "Harvard was blanked. Centre scored early in the third quarter. That was the game. And that's what fascinates me most—everyone felt it was an upset except the fellows who had won the game."
In October of last year, Robertson began collaborating with Thurman to make the documentary The Wonder Team. From conception to research and development to production and editing, the filmmaking process took nearly a year to complete.
"The biggest challenge was what to include and what to omit," Thurman says. "I've always viewed this documentary as a companion piece to Dr. Robertson's book, an introduction of sorts. There are many stories, anecdotes and details that can't be given their proper inclusion here, but hopefully watching the documentary will introduce viewers to an important part not only of Centre and Kentucky history but a bit of our country's history as well."
Robertson agrees that both the documentary and the book on which it is based are about more than just football.
"The Wonder Team is also a book about a more innocent era, when America was just discovering that it was a world power after the Great War," he says. "It was a time when the Roaring Twenties were ushered in. It was a time when many people outside of the eastern seaboard felt that there was nothing worthy west of the New Jersey state border. And in this timeframe, Centre College and its magnificent group of young men changed the way those out in the 'provinces' were regarded. The 'crying, fighting, praying Colonels' were wonderfully unique, and their like will never been seen again."
For the complete list of The Wonder Team showings on KET, click here.
Robertson is interested in contacting descendents of the football players who were on the Centre team from 1920-1924. For a list of those players, along with Robertson's contact information, click here.
Have comments, suggestions, or story ideas? Email email@example.com with your feedback.
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Founded in 1819, Centre College is ranked among the U.S. News top 50 national liberal arts colleges. Consumers Digest ranks Centre No. 1 in educational value among all U.S. liberal arts colleges. Centre alumni, known for their nation-leading loyalty in annual financial support, include two U.S. vice presidents and two Supreme Court justices. For more, visit http://www.centre.edu/web/elevatorspeech/
For news archives go to http://www.centre.edu/web/news/newsarchive.html.
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