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 Sports History Review    

 

 

Ninety-Nine Iron: The Season Sewanee Won Five Games in Six Days
by Wendell O. Givens
Fire Ant Books, University of Alabama Press, 2003
Trade paper, $14.95 (136 pages)
ISBN 0-8173-5062-4
 
 
 

It is said in the South that football is religion, and when “they” say it, “they” of course mean college football. Many of the great southern college rivalries of our time—Auburn-Alabama; Texas-Texas A&M; Georgia-Georgia Tech; Ole Miss-Mississippi State—date back to the 1890s. But in 1899, the University of the South, “Sewanee” as it is known, reigned supreme. Consisting of twenty one players, a coach, a student manager, and a trainer, the Sewanee “Purple” ventured out on a 2,500 mile road trip, playing five opponents in six days without yielding a point. The vanquished were Texas, Texas A&M, Tulane, LSU, and Ole Miss, and the Purple (who later became known as the Tigers) went on to complete an undefeated season, yielding points only to an Auburn team coached by the immortal John William Heisman. This team today is known simply as the “Iron Men,” and they are a team for the ages. 

Wendell O. Givens, former editor of the Birmingham News, has at last given the Iron Men their due in his all too brief history of their legendary season. In an age when non-sports fans can cite the abuses of college athletics, the story of the Sewanee team shines like a beacon. During the halcyon days of college football, teams were already using players who seldom attended class, in some cases not even enrolling in the university. The Iron Men were cast from a very different mold. The epic heroes who boarded the “Mountain Goat” in 1899 included five law students, four medical students, and four theological students We remember the team’s student manager, Luke Lea, in those days equivalent to an athletic director, who went on to become the youngest U.S. Senator ever at thirty two, and who first achieved notoriety for his involvement in the plot to kidnap Kaiser Wilhelm at the close of World War I. One of the substitutes who made the trip, Preston Brooks, was grandson of the senator by the same name who canned Charles Sumner on the floor of the Senate before the Civil War. The team photograph reveals a handsome and distinguished group of young men but sadly excludes the African American trainer, Cal Burrows, whose rub downs between games made him potentially the most valuable member of the squad. These men were exemplars of their age, for the worse but also for the better, when the fans of losing teams applauded the victors. 

Givens’s prose appropriately takes a back seat to the telling of such an extraordinary story. He gives us play by play accounts of each game as recorded by both teams when possible. His account is marked by one great “what if:” in 1952 he met the team’s halfback and captain, Henry Goldthwaite “Diddy” Seibels, but failed to interview him. The result is that the book depends on informed conjecture in many places. 

Football was and is an essential component of American university culture, especially in the South. It stirs the passions unlike anything else, and for many, transforms higher education into a life long love affair with their alma mater. It is not rational, but it is a force to be reckoned with. The dorm matrons at Sewanee sent the Iron Men off on the road with a cheer that says it all. 

Rah, rah, ree, who are we?
S-e-w-a-n-e-e, double e!
Rough, tough, we are the stuff,
We play football, never get enough.

 

Vince Brewton
Southern Scribe Reviews

 

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