Pioneer Playhouse tells the story behind Centre College's 1921 gridiron glory

rcopley@herald-leader.comJuly 10, 2014 

  • IF YOU GO

    'The Wonder Team'

    What: Pioneer Playhouse's Kentucky Voices play about the Centre College football team that scored a historic victory over Harvard in 1921.

    When: July 8-12 and 15-19. Dinner is served at 7:30 p.m., show at 8:30.

    Where: Pioneer Playhouse, 840 Stanford Rd., Danville

    Tickets: Adults: $16 show only, $28 dinner and show. Children ages 12 and younger: $9 and $15. Groups of 10 or more: $14 and $26 each. Available at 1-866-597-5297 or Pioneerplayhouse.com.

DANVILLE — Through the lens of 2014 media, it looks like a great hashtag: C6H0.

As in: "Centre College rules! #C6H0"

Or "Harvard who? #C6H0"

But in 1921, C6H0 was painted all over Danville's buildings, fences and even cows, signifying the Centre College football team's unlikely defeat of the era's college football powerhouse, Harvard.

In the 1920s, when football was still a young sport and college was strictly for the wealthy, Harvard was to college football what the University of Alabama is today. Certainly, no one expected a small-town Kentucky college with 200 students and six buildings to upset the Ivy League pillar. (The Harvard Crimson: Remembering a Forgotten Upset)

But on that day in October 1921, Centre beat Harvard, 6-0, and to this day, Centre students and most Danville residents know what the scientific-looking "C6H0" is about.

"I can remember the graffiti when I was growing up in Junction City, next to the train tracks," says Robby Henson, artistic director of the Pioneer Playhouse summer stock theater in his native Danville. "I think that was the last bit of graffiti that had that important writing in it.

"Over time, the graffiti peels away, and the only thing anyone remembers is the 'C6H0,' but they forget so much of this rich tapestry that really is a rich history."

So Henson is bringing those days back to life on the stage of the playhouse in The Wonder Team, his new play about the 1921 team that is the playhouse's entry this year in its Kentucky Voices series. Since 2008, when the theater commissioned Catherine Bush's A Jarful of Fireflies to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the filming of the movie Raintree County in Danville, the theater's third play of the season has been by a local writer and focused on regional interests.

The time had come to bring to the stage the tale of the unlikely victory by the so-called "Praying Colonels."

Pioneer Playhouse managing director Heather Henson, Robby's sister, was looking at ideas for the next Kentucky Voices play, and though she isn't a football fan, she says when she began researching C6H0, "I started getting fascinated. The era was amazing, and the story was amazing."

Robby Henson, whose background is in filmmaking, took on writing the play, his first stage-writing effort, and found himself drawn to a particular character.

"The 'Wonder Team' came about because one man dreamed it, and put his feet to the ground with a plan, and then realized his dream to make Centre the No. 1 football team in America," Henson says. "That person was Robert Livingston "Chief" Myers, who had been a 98-pound weakling when he played football. He was a scrub and they made him the water boy. But he had a love for football, a passion for football, so even though he didn't make varsity, that didn't stop him from wanting to coach Centre, and didn't stop him from trying to put together the best team possible."

The Wonder Team — the Hensons considered titling the play C6HO — follows not just Myers' journey, but starts at the creation of football, a marriage of rugby and soccer invented by Walter Camp and developed by men including Pop Warner, who makes an appearance in the play.

Reportedly the first recorded intercollegiate football game was between Princeton and Rutgers in 1869. In the early days of the sport, the Ivy League schools of the Northeast — Harvard, Yale, Princeton — dominated.

"They were like the Alabama, Florida and Georgia of their day," Henson says, citing three of modern collegiate football's titan teams.

So any team that wanted to prove its might had to take down the Northeastern powerhouses.

Myers went to what is now the heart of American football country, Texas. There, he recruited a group of high school students including a young man with an amazing arm named Bo McMillin to form a team that eventually won the state high school football championship.

Then he brought them to Kentucky.

"I think one of the things that makes this successful as a play — and make no mistake, it is dense with history and fact — is Chief is a character who really sacrifices his own selfish desires to help his players and help mold men," says actor Chris Kateff, who plays Myers. "At every turn, he has the smarts to recognize that if he's not the best coach, he steps down and puts someone else in that position. If Bo needs help paying for his widowed mother's needs, Chief is the one who helps out. He constantly sacrifices himself so others around him can succeed."

In the play, after his second game as Centre's coach, a losing effort, Myers indeed hands the whistle to Charley Moran, a former Texas A&M football coach whose son, Tom Moran, was on Centre's team.

In the play, Moran is played by Buck Rogers, a Danville resident and Centre graduate who played football for the school in the 1960s and later worked for the college.

"In the '60s, it was referred to quite often by the coaches," Rogers says. "They wanted us to know about the lore and the traditions."

That continues to this day. Rogers points out that Centre's football team — now a non-scholarship, Division III squad — still traditionally does very well.

"As a Centre grad, I've always been amazed how many football fans and non-football fans know about C6H0," Rogers says.

With the play, they will know a little more.

"People are really going to be touched by it," Kateff says. "They will delight in hearing some of the history and knowing some of the anecdotes, and I think they're going to love some of the characters."

After all, Danville has been in love with their story for more than 92 years.

Rich Copley: (859) 231-3217. Twitter: @copiousnotes. Blog: copiousnotes.bloginky.com.

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