The start of a new basketball season brings back dismal thoughts of my own hoops career, an experience even shorter than Scott Brown’s New Hampshire political career.
It would have been longer — my career, that is — had I just been a little taller, a tad faster, a better shooter, more energetic, more interested and owned a decent pair of gym shoes. Of course, no one on my team had many of those things either. We were pretty pitiful, really. Even considering all the other junior high school teams.
We went winless for the one season I was on the team. Mercifully, I don’t recall any of the scores — or much of anything else, thank goodness — except that we were, to put it pleasantly, slaughtered every time we ventured on the court.
Recalling those painful memories recently brought up another group of losers: the 1916 Cumberland College football team, a squad I could have played for had I been alive in 1916. Come to think of it, I’m not sure how many of the Cumberland players were alive once their game with Georgia Tech was finished.
If you don’t happen to know, Cumberland College (located in Tennessee) set a record that October day in 1916 that stands unchallenged almost 100 years later and seems certain to remain forever in the record books: they lost to Georgia Tech 220-0.
That’s not a misprint. 220 to zero. And you think you’ve had a bad day? I know all about it because I used to attend some Georgia Tech football games and followed the team’s history. When I came upon the story of that Cumberland game, my jaw dropped in laughter. Moments later, however, I was almost overcome with a rush of sympathy for those Cumberland players, seeing them in the light of my own miserable basketball experience.
How could anyone get beat so badly? Cumberland trailed 126-0 at halftime, so Tech clearly took no pity on its hapless opponent and outscored them 96-0 in the second half. Talk about piling on. So why did Tech go for such a massacre?
I at first assumed it was because Cumberland was so bad And they were, to be sure. The school had given up football the previous year but was obligated by contract to play Tech, so they rounded up 14 players — some of them law students, and any of whom probably would have qualified to be on our junior high hoops team — and went to Atlanta. The odds were obviously against them. But there’s more to the story.
The Georgia Tech coach, John Heisman (for whom the Heisman Trophy is named), was also Tech’s baseball coach, and his team had been clobbered 22-0 by Cumberland earlier in that year. Heisman was angry about that and also believed Cumberland had used a few professional players in its rout. He apparently determined his revenge and got it. His Tech team scored every time they had the ball, and they never threw a pass. The didn’t have to; they ran for an amazing total of 978 yards.
The official records of the game are few, the anecdotes are many. Coach Heisman is reported to have told his team at halftime — leading, you remember, 126-0 — that
“We`ve got to be alert, men . . . you just can`t tell what those Cumberland players have up their sleeves. Hit `em clean, but hit `em hard!”
The good news to take away from this absolutely true tale — you can look it up — is that not a single member of the Cumberland team died on the field. In fact, in later years some of those who participated reminisced fondly about their experience. They recalled that as a warmup for Tech a several weeks earlier, the little band of volunteers played Sewanee and lost 107-0. I suppose there’s a moral in there somewhere; you can figure it out.
Anyhow, my basketball team never got embarrassed on that scale. Nope, we just got plain old embarrassed game after game after game. Our player’s parents started finding excuses not to attend the games (“Your sister has to have new ballet shoes; we’ll see you back at home”). I do believe one of our assistant coaches actually faked being sick one afternoon so he didn’t have to show up.
It was, I suppose, on the whole, sort of a learning experience. I learned what it was to be a loser. And to share being part of an entire team full of losers. And please spare me thoughts about “everyone’s a winner” in competing; that’s hooey. We were losers.
But more importantly, I learned from that awful season that I really wanted to be the sports editor of the high school newspaper. It is, I found out, a lot more fun to write about losers than to be one. Not much of a moral there, I guess, but it worked out pretty decently.