“In 6 days, Sewanee beat Texas, Texas A&M, Tulane, LSU, and Ole Miss. On the seventh day, they rested.”
The last time the 1899 Sewanee football team was this close to Mobile, they were lined up against John Heisman’s Auburn Tigers in Montgomery on November 30.
“Fully 3,000 people saw one of the prettiest contests which has ever been played upon a Southern gridiron,” the Atlanta-Constitution declared, “in which Sewanee defeated Auburn 11-10.”
The game, a nail-biter in which a controversial fumble recovery led to Sewanee victory, was the first and only time an opponent put points on Sewanee all season. That fact, paired with the most improbable 2,500-mile journey by steam locomotive during which Sewanee defeated five teams in six days, has led many to argue that the “Iron Men” of Sewanee fielded the greatest college football team of all time.
These days, college football fans would be surprised to learn that the Episcopal liberal arts college of 1,700 students, located in the mountains of Tennessee, was not only an early college football powerhouse but also a charter member of the Southeastern Conference. It’s a story that Norman Jetmundsen, a Mobile native and graduate of Sewanee: The University of the South, wanted to bring to the big screen. Now, he’s bringing it to Mobile for a special screening on May 4 at St. Paul’s Episcopal School’s Monte L. Moorer Theatre. Doors open at 6:30 for the free event, and it will be emceed by Sewanee alum and former Senior Bowl executive Phil Savage.
“It’s just a truly unbelievable story,” says Jetmundsen, a retired Birmingham attorney who teamed up with Sewanee classmate David Crews to create the documentary “Unrivaled.” When the pair began work on the film in 2016, they had no idea it would lead to interviews with and special appearances by some of the biggest names in the sport: Kirk Herbstreit, Bobby Bowden, Johnny Majors, Vince Dooley and even Nick Saban. As Jetmundsen explains, that’s because the story of the Sewanee Tigers transcends the season of 1899; it was a fundamental step in the evolution of college football.
“If you’re a college football fan, you need to understand how the game developed,” Jetmundsen says. “And the game today is only possible because of people like these Sewanee Tigers and what they did. Not only is the story itself amazing, but they were the first team ever to travel long distances and play games. So they showed the rest of the country that a team can travel around, play games, and create a lot of excitement.”
The 21 men on Sewanee’s roster played a very different game than the one we see today, a fact which makes their feat that much more mind-boggling.
“It was such a different time because, of course players played both ways, but in 1899, if you came out of the game, you could not go back in,” Jetmundsen explains. “It was considered cowardly to come out of a game, so those guys stayed in if they were hurt. Unless you were severely injured or killed, you stayed in the game.”
Sewanee fullback Ormond Simkins sustained so many injuries from the season that he eventually had both legs amputated. Simkins would die during the surgery for his second amputation.
“Although I like football, I don’t think I ever looked upon this as just a story about football,” Jetmundsen says. “I think it’s a story about life, about character, about history. One of the biggest compliments I’ve gotten from people who’ve seen the film is, ‘I don’t even like college football, but I love the film.’ Because I think it transcends a sport. It’s an amazing feat that shows what human beings are capable of achieving.”
Blair Fisher, Head of School at St. Paul’s, is excited to play a part in bringing this film to the city. “‘Unrivaled’ is a classic American story,” he says, “a group of individuals joining together to accomplish something bigger than any one of them. Each had a specific role to play, and by doing so, each player contributed to the greater success of the whole. As a former military member, this resonates deeply with me, and I believe it will resonate with almost anyone who watches it.”
Fisher also hopes that the St. Paul’s football team, which will attend the viewing, will draw inspiration from the story.
“We have a new head football coach, several new staff members and a relatively young team this year. At the same time, St. Paul’s has enjoyed terrific success in recent years, and given the mechanisms involved in Alabama high school athletics, we will be competing against larger schools with deeper talent pools upon which to draw. The parallels with Sewanee in ‘Unrivaled’ are clear — the underdog story … ‘Unrivaled’ is a terrific metaphor for life in general and could serve as a template for how our team competes this season and beyond.”
For co-director Jetmundsen, the joy of discovery is what sticks out in his memory of the project; he and Crews were able to locate previously unseen photographs from the season, one from Sewanee game’s against Texas, another from a game against Tennessee (it was the Knoxville school’s first-ever football game). Other standout memories include the opportunity to interview legendary coaches such as Bobby Bowden and Vince Dooley in their homes.
But perhaps the most special experience for Jetmundsen was the opportunity to meet and interview some of the grandchildren of the 1899 Sewanee squad: “Because I realized that if we hadn’t done this film, 20 years from now this story might’ve been lost forever.”
And now, Jetmundsen has the opportunity to bring that story to his native city, home to some of the most rabid college football fans in the country.
“Your heart is where you grew up, no matter how long you’ve been away,” he says. “Mobile will always hold a special place in my life.”
Save the Date
St. Paul’s and the Sewanee Club of Mobile are pleased to host the Gulf Coast premiere of “Unrivaled,” a feature-length documentary of the 1899 undefeated Sewanee team. Emceed by Phil Savage.
Wednesday, May 4 // Doors open and refreshments served at 6:30 p.m. // Movie begins at 7 p.m.
The 1899 Sewanee Tigers’ Season
Oct. 21 at Atlanta: Sewanee 12 Georgia 0
Oct. 23 at Atlanta: Sewanee 32 Georgia Tech 0
Oct. 28 at Sewanee: Sewanee 46 Tennessee 0
Nov. 3 at Sewanee: Sewanee 54 Southwestern University 0
Nov. 9 (Thursday) at Austin: Sewanee 12 Texas 0
Nov. 10 (Friday) at Houston: Sewanee 10 Texas A&M 0
Nov. 11 (Saturday) at New Orleans: Sewanee 23 Tulane 0
Nov. 13 (Monday) at Baton Rouge: Sewanee 34 LSU 0
Nov. 14 (Tuesday) at Memphis: Sewanee 12 Ole Miss 0
Nov. 20 at Sewanee: Sewanee 71 Cumberland 0
Nov. 30 at Montgomery: Sewanee 11 Auburn 10
Dec. 2 at Atlanta: Sewanee 5 North Carolina 0
Click here to watch the film’s trailer