As a top-50 national liberal arts college, the host of two Vice Presidential debates and the alma mater of The Alumni Factor’s “happiest graduates in the country,” Centre College certainly lives up to its reputation as a place “that consistently punches above its weight.” But perhaps the most legendary example of this small College in Kentucky doing big things is the story of Centre’s “Wonder Team.”
In 1921, Centre’s football team defeated Harvard, then the top-ranked team in the nation, 6-0 in a David-versus-Goliath game that instantly became known as the century’s biggest upset in college sports. And now audiences can experience for themselves the meaning of C6-H0 with the world-premiere of “The Wonder Team” at the Pioneer Playhouse Outdoor Theatre in Danville.
Though the glory of the famous gridiron gang lives on, few people know the full story behind the renowned Centre-Harvard game or much about the team itself. Robby Henson, writer and director of “The Wonder Team” and Pioneer Playhouse’s artistic director, says the play offers an in-depth look into the lives of the unlikely bunch of leatherheads that made history.
“So many people just know a score and don’t know anything else about the Wonder Team,” Henson explains. “I think this play will certainly fill in the gaps about who they were. And there was a lot to them.”
Since Henson generally stayed true to the real story, audiences can expect the history of the Wonder Team to come alive on stage.
While researching for the script, Henson read three books written about the game, each with a slightly different perspective: “The Praying Colonels,” an anecdotal account of the game by John Y. Brown, Sr., a member of the team who went on to become a prominent political figure in Kentucky; “Bo McMillin Man and Legend,” a biography of the star quarterback by Charles W. Akers; and “The Wonder Team” by Rob Robertson ’63, which, according to Henson, was “the most informative from beginning to end.”
From these sources Henson crafted the two storylines that are the “heart and soul” of the play. “The first is that this was one man’s dream—the vision of Robert ‘Chief’ Myers—of Centre becoming a winning football program,” says Henson.
Myers was so dedicated to the Colonels’ success that he stood aside as head coach when he recognized that another coach, Charley Moran, had a better chance of leading them to victory.
“It’s also a love story,” continues Henson, “between Bo McMillin and his childhood sweetheart, Marie Meier.”
McMillin left his darling and his hometown of Fort Worth, Texas, behind to play football for Centre for five years, but returned home for his final game and married Meier that very same day.
“The Chief made sure Bo’s last game was in his hometown,” says Henson. “Bo married her two hours before kickoff.”
Henson says it’s taken quite a bit of choreography to bring the story to the stage. As an award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker in his own right, with films such as “Pharoah’s Army” and “The Badge,” he believes his background in film has influenced the script and production.
“I am using a very visual style of storytelling,” he reports. “Scenes are very short and transitions are very sharp. So the action and the narrative plays out in a kind of crosscutting, filmmaker style.”
Two Centre alumni, Buck Rogers ’68 and Chase Gregory ’12, have been cast in the production. Rogers plays hard-nosed head coach Charley Moran, while Gregory takes on the role of John Y. Brown, Sr., who was more of a supporting force than an all-star athlete. The production has lent both a greater appreciation and understanding of the game.
Gregory believes the theme of the play reflects Centre’s reputation as a place that opens doors.
“I think the big message is that it doesn’t really matter who you are or where you came from, as long as you have the drive to succeed, then you can make it, especially at Centre.”
Rogers points out that C6-H0 and what it represents has become a kind of “battle cry” for Centre: “It lets people know that you don’t have to be the biggest to be the best.”
Consequently, Henson made certain that the play emphasizes the fact that members of the Wonder Team weren’t simply local legends—they were national heroes.
“Bo McMillin was as famous as Babe Ruth,” he explains. “Every sportswriter in the nation was writing about him. And the team was beating Alabama, Tennessee, Clemson, Auburn—they were famous. Everybody in America knew who they were.”
Though college athletics has changed drastically since 1921, Centre continues to earn national recognition for its impressive athletic achievement. Forty-three percent of Centre student-athletes play on one of 23 NCAA Division III teams. And, for the second consecutive year, these student-athletes have won the Southern Athletic Association President’s Cup, an honor reserved for the college whose teams collectively achieved the highest record of accomplishment.
Individual Centre student-athletes have also made national headlines in recent years. Chelsea Klein ’14 was named a Field Hockey First Team All-American for her standing as the best field hockey player in Division III. Last summer, Danielle Wahl ’16 swam the English channel in the fastest time of 2013 for an American swimmer, man or woman, and is poised to break a new record in just a few weeks, when she will swim the Channel once again, this time accompanied by her two brothers Devin and Dustin Wahl ’17.
“The Wonder Team” exemplifies that this tradition of excellence is par for the course at Centre and promises to show audiences a side of C6-H0 never before seen. The play runs July 8-19, with shows at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, preceded by a special “tailgating” dinner at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $16 for the show or $28 for dinner and the show. Reservations and more information can be found at the Pioneer Playhouse website.
Centre will also host a special “Wonder Team” event for alumni, parents and friends of the College on Friday, July 18, in conjunction with this year’s Alumni College.
The event begins with a panel discussion with Henson, historian and author Dr. Robert W. Robertson ’63 and cast member Buck Rogers ’68, from 4 to 5 p.m. in Weisiger Theatre on Centre’s campus. A picnic dinner and pep rally will take place at 7 p.m. at the Pioneer Playhouse Barn, followed by a performance of “The Wonder Team” at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $20 per person and are available through Centre’s Alumni Office. For more information or to register for this event, click here.
by Caitlan Cole