The 1899 Sewanee football team set a record that will last forever and has now been preserved in a documentary film.

In sports, precious few records exist we can say for certain never will be broken. I know of only one.

Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hit streak, you say? It’s not likely, but it is surely possible. Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 points in a single professional basketball game? Again, not likely, but there’s always a chance a 7-foot, 10-inch version of Michael Jordan will emerge. Byron Nelson’s 11 consecutive PGA Tour victories? Even Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods could not come close. Still, such a feat is possible.

Sports columnist Rick Cleveland

But there exists at least one sports record, this one in college football, that will stand forever. No possible way it will be broken. The 1899 Sewanee Tigers won five football games in six days en route to a perfect 12-0 season. What’s more, all five of those victories in a six-day span were shutouts. Sewanee defeated Texas 12-0 in Austin, Texas A&M 10-0 in Houston, Tulane 23-0 in New Orleans, LSU 34-0 in Baton Rouge and Ole Miss 12-0 in Memphis.

Making the feat all the more amazing was the team’s mode of transportation. This was four years before Orville and Wilbur Wright flew the first powered airplane. Sewanee made the entire 2,500-mile trip by steam-powered locomotive. Eighteen Sewanee players were on the traveling roster, but only 13 actually played in the games. No wonder they were called “The Iron Men.”

You could not make it up.

And Mississippian and Sewanee grad David Crews did not have to make it up. Crews and Sewanee classmate Norman Jetmundsen spent much of the last five years researching, interviewing, writing, shooting and making a film — “UNRIVALED” — that tells the definitive story of that remarkable Sewanee team that outscored its 12 foes 322-10.

The documentary will be the subject of a program on Feb. 22 at 5:30 p.m. at the Overby Center at Ole Miss. A 25-minute portion of the 90-minute film will be shown followed by a discussion that Charles Overby will lead with Ole Miss Athletic Director Keith Carter along with the film’s directors.

Should Ole Miss ever be foolhardy enough to attempt such a football road trip, Carter could call on a staff of dozens to arrange the travel, feed the team, wash the uniforms, attend to its medical needs, devise game plans and so much more. Back in 1899, those duties were divided between student manager Luke Lea, who in reality served as athletic director, business manager and a lot more, and head coach Herman “Billy” Suter.

Mississippian David Crews

It is a fascinating story and a remarkable film, which includes interviews with the likes of legendary, national championship-winning coaches Nick Saban, Vince Dooley, Bobby Bowden and Johnny Majors, as well as historian John Meachem, another graduate of Sewanee, also known as the University of the South.

At one point in the film, Bowden, who has since died, sums up the Sewanee story as only he could with his folksy, down-home charm. “It’s unbelievable,” Bowden says, excitedly. “How in the world could anybody do that?”

Other factors make the achievement all the more astounding. Football, then more than now, was a brutal sport with very little protective padding and few rules to prevent punching, gouging, kicking and other forms of mayhem. Substitutions were for cowards. If you came out of a game, you were out for the duration. Often injured players stayed in the game, stumbling and dazed from injuries.

There was no such thing as a forward pass. It was straight-ahead, physical football. Only the strong survived and some of the strongest did not. Says Dooley, “There were 17 or 18 deaths one season.” The closest thing to a pass was when offensive players would pick up a ball-carrying teammate and heave him over the line.

You might wonder, as I had, why a team in the remote Tennessee foothills would embark on a such a seemingly foolhardy six-day, five-game marathon. Turns out, it was all about dollars. Vanderbilt was Sewanee’s big rival in those days and the annual trip to Nashville pretty much funded the football team. That year, there was a dispute over how the gate receipts would be divided. It went unresolved. With the Vanderbilt game canceled, Lea, the student manager, was forced to raise money by other means.

Long road trips to, say, Austin or New Orleans would eat up all the money earned from the games. So Lea essentially decided to kill five birds with one stone: one road trip, five games. Somehow, his players were up to the task.

They were not big men. The Sewanee star and team captain was Henry “Diddy” Seibels, a running back who weighed all of 170 pounds. He scored two touchdowns in the victory over Texas, despite suffering a huge gash over his left eye that was patched with plaster of paris. He never left the game.

The team’s right end, Hugh Miller Thompson Pearce, was better known as Bunny and hailed from Jackson. Bunny Pearce stood 5 feet, 3 inches and weighed in at 125 pounds. In a 1944 interview with the famous sports writer Grantland Rice, Coach Suter said of Pearce: “He was a fine end. One hundred and eight pounds of his weight was brains and heart. What else matters?”

The fifth of the five victories in six days was over Ole Miss at Memphis. Sewanee had defeated LSU 34-0 the day before. The bruises and gashes and sore muscles added up. The Iron Men rode the train overnight from Baton Rouge, sleeping in a coach car, and then took the field the next afternoon. Reported The Commercial Appeal: “As the bandaged boys in purple took their positions, Coach Suter applied fresh plaster over the cut which Seibels received in the Texas game.  The sight of the Sewanee men as they stood ready for the referee’s whistle was enough to create a wholesome respect for them.”

Despite Sewanee’s physical woes, the Tigers prevailed 12-0. On the exhausting trip, they had defeated five of the Deep South’s football powers by a combined score of 91-0. They returned to Sewanee the next day, conquering heroes and were treated as such.

They were feted by a parade, a bonfire, fireworks, cannon fire, a feast and more. Think about it: They had been gone only a week. They had won five great victories in six days. They had achieved something nobody had ever done before — or has done since. Or will in the future.

Nobody would ever be foolish enough to try.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.