Centre football's 'Wonder' years

Tom Thurman, the Lexington documentary filmmaker, first entered the commonwealth's sports consciousness in 2002 with Basketball in Kentucky: Great Balls of Fire.

That four-hour work told the history of basketball in our hoops-mad state.

Now, Thurman, 47, is back with another sports project. In The Wonder Team, Thurman tells the story of the glory years (1917-24) of Centre College football, including the famous 6-0 upset of Harvard in 1921.

At a time when the Ivy League power was to college football what Florida is now (really), Centre was the first team from outside the East ever to beat the Crimson.

The documentary follows the book of the same name written by Robert W. Robertson, Jr.

For this brief period, little Centre was one of America's foremost college football powers. Its star players, Bo McMillin, Red Roberts, Red Weaver, Army Armstrong, were of All-America caliber.

For Thurman, whose day job is as a producer/writer for KET, retelling the story of the golden era of the Prayin' Colonels was a labor of love.

The filmmaker holds a degree in English from Centre and played a year of college football (1980) there.

Question: So what did you learn about Centre football of that era that you didn't know before?

Thurman: "One of the most interesting things is that a couple of people we interviewed made the comment as it relates to the most famous game, the 'upset' of Harvard in 1921, that it really shouldn't be considered that much of an upset.

"If you look at what Centre had done in previous years, how tough they had played Harvard the year before (tied 14-14 at the half before losing 31-14), there was every reason to think they could play with Harvard.

"Remember, in 1919, Centre had gone undefeated and beaten West Virginia. It wasn't like they came out of nowhere and beat Harvard."

Question: How do you go about doing a documentary when the people whose stories you are telling are dead?

Thurman: "Well, you do two things. You are forced to find people who are knowledgeable and who had written about the subject in the past. Rob Robertson, who wrote the book The Wonder Team, was very involved in the project and that really helped.

"There were other writers I interviewed, people like Billy Reed and Bob Hill. We talked to the archivist at the College Football Hall of Fame.

"Then we tracked down relatives. We interviewed Bo McMillin's daughter Bo Peep Benckart — that really is her name — in Bloomington, Ind. Army Armstrong's son, we talked to him. And we found some great tape of Happy Chandler talking about Centre football and the upset of Harvard."

Question: Chandler was at the 1921 Centre-Harvard game, right?

Thurman: "He was. He was in law school at Harvard at the time of the game."

Question: According to lore, the Centre stars of this era were quite the characters. You have such a story?

Thurman: "They say Red Roberts refused to wear a helmet. He wore a white bandana when he played. He wore the bandana because he didn't want his ears damaged by a helmet. He said his ears were too pretty."

Question: I've always read that Bo McMillin was rather famous in his college days for being a successful gambler?

Thurman: "I don't think anyone would deny that he was a fairly notorious gambler. But he came from such a desperately poor family situation, I think he gambled more for self-preservation than any moral failing or weakness.

"He would go down to the railroad yard there in Danville and gamble with the railroad men. Lots of times, he would win quite a substantial amount of money.

"I've always thought this says a lot about his character. He would sneak into the dorm rooms of his friends at the college, often other football players, and leave a wad of money under their pillows while they slept. That way, they didn't have to be embarrassed about accepting help."