Chapter 58

November 12, 1921   Centre-Auburn

The Auburn Tigers ( 4-1-0 ) were next for the Colonels. The schools had never met.

Auburn has had, and still has, several nicknames. The use of "Plainsmen" came from a poem by Oliver Goldsmith who wrote, "Sweet Auburn, loveliest village on the plain," which the citizens of Auburn just knew must refer to their town. The fact that Goldsmith was born in Ireland, later lived in England, and died nearly 70 years prior to the incorporation of Auburn, didn't seem to be of overriding importance. Also, Auburn's teams were referred to as the "War Eagles." There are so many stories about the origin of the "Eagle" that is probably best to just Google "War Eagles" and pick the one which seems most plausible, or perhaps, the least implausible. Since Auburn's teams were also called the "Tigers," and still are, we'll use that nickname.

Two games were of significance when comparing the two programs. The Colonels had beaten Clemson, 14-0. Auburn crushed Clemson two weeks later, 56-0. Also, the Tigers had lost to Georgia by only 7-0 in a game played in Columbus, Ga.

( The Auburn-Georgia rivalry is the oldest in the South, with the first game played in 1892. Georgia leads the series 64-56 with 8 ties through the 2023 game. )

That same Georgia team had gone up to Harvard and lost by just 10-7, which further demonstrated that Auburn was indeed a team of significance.

               Auburn 35                   Samford 3
               Auburn 44                   Spring Hill 0
               Auburn 55                   Clemson 0
               Auburn 14                   Fort Benning 7
               Auburn   0                   Georgia 7

When one added in the fact that the game was to be played in Birmingham, virtually a home game for Auburn, sports writers and fans felt the contest was a toss-up. The Tigers had fared well in the city. Since 1900, they had played 30 games there and compiled a 17-11-2 record.

However, while the crowd would be overwhelmingly cheering for the in-state team, Centre planned to be well represented. Special Pullmans were to be hooked onto a regularly Southern train which would stop in Danville on Thursday afternoon and carry the team and fans to Birmingham, arriving the next morning.

There was no way I was going to miss the Auburn game. Everybody was really excited about our beating Harvard, and about our having just run all over Kentucky. The special cars were going to be packed, so I started making plans. My parents sent me a check each month for expenses, and I decided that I'd "borrow" a little of my expense money. Even if I didn't have any money left over after going to Birmingham, there was no way I wasn't going to the game. I had a little box camera and had some pictures taken before leaving Danville.

Howard and I decided to get a ticket just to ride in a coach, not to pay extra for a Pullman sleeper berth. We knew Crep Hays, a childhood friend from Elizabethtown and a Phi Delt fraternity brother, had a ticket for a sleeper car, and we thought that late at night, we could sneak into his car and climb up in his upper berth and get a little sleep on the way. I only had $5.00 when I got on the train, but as things worked out, it was enough, thanks to Red Roberts.

Red Robertson on the tracks at the Southern Station in Danville 

Explanation of the trip to the Auburn game on the back of the photo

Boarding on the way to Birmingham, Al.

More explanation

Several Southern Railroad passenger trains utilized its "Queen & Crescent Route" which began in Cincinnati and terminated in New Orleans with several lines spinning off to various southern cities. The one Red Robertson rode went through Birmingham. 

The faculty had gotten so much criticism about the Harvard game and lack of excuses that they said we could miss classes, but would have to make up the work when we got back. That was all I needed to hear.

Rickwood Field was the site of the game. Auburn had played there twice in 1920 with great success, beating Vandy, 56-6, and W&L, 77-0.

Rickwood Field, eventual site of 4 Centre games in Birmingham, 3 with Auburn and 1 with Alabama. Temporary bleachers were constructed from past 3rd base toward the center of the outfield to increase the capacity for Centre's game.

Like all venues during Centre's great seasons after World War I, it was recognized that the demand for tickets was greater than Rickwood's capacity, and temporary bleachers were hastily thrown up, increasing the seating to 18,000, and still there were those who were going to be turned away.

We managed to get into Crep's Pullman and all 3 of us shared an upper bunk. It was awfully crowded, but better than sitting up in a coach. 

We rode all night and when we arrived, there were a lot of photographers and reporters at the station. Of course, the big news and what everyone was asking about was Harvard. Not only were the newspaper people there, but there were a lot of other people who wanted to see the players and take their pictures.

What impressed me was not only how many people were there to greet the team, but how the team handled the situation. If someone wanted to have their picture with Army, or Bo or Red, or any team member, they were smiling and gracious when asked. The guys must have shaken hands and signed autographs until their hands nearly fell off.

It took a long time to get away from the Birmingham station, but we finally got to the Tutwiler Hotel, and 4 of us chipped in for a room, and all slept in one big bed. You did what you had to do in those days, and when you're 17 like I was, it's was all just an adventure, anyway.

Just as the Colonels had been able to upgrade in Boston from the adequate but unpretentious Arlington Hotel in 1920 to the Lenox for the 1921 Harvard game, the team found itself staying in the best that Birmingham had to offer. The Tutwiler was a 343 room, 13-story luxury hotel built in 1914 at the corner of Park Place and 21st Street, easily the top-drawer facility in the city.

The Tutwiler Hotel, Centre's headquarters for the Auburn game

The Colonels workout Friday afternoon at Rickwood was open to the public, and a large crowd congregated in the stands and around the field. There was no contact, but it was a full-dress affair, running through plays and further refining the timing which was such an integral part of the offense.

The coaches didn't give any secrets away. They didn't have to introduce any new plays. The team was now so in harmony that it was like a well-oiled machine, needing no tweaking, purring along on all cylinders without a hitch.

Uncle Charlie and Tiny could only say, "Great workout, boys," as they closed out the session. It was rare for the coaches to not have recognized some flaws, no matter how minor, to point out and work on.

Now, there were none.

There were no injuries of significance. Tom Bartlett had an infected knee and was doubtful, but it was a testament to the depth of Centre's backfield that even if "Long Tom" didn't start, it wouldn't hamper the offense in any way. Hump Tanner and Red Roberts could fill in at fullback and not slow the attack one bit.

The Centre alumni in Birmingham were led by S.L. Yerkes, a partner with F.A. Grider in the Grider Coal Company, which specialized in high-grade coal used in railroad steam engines. Yerkes had made all of the social arrangements which had become such a part of the Colonels' activities wherever they appeared.

Meals were to be served at the Birmingham Country Club, and special buses were made available to transport the team back and forth from the Tutwiler. A dance was held at the club Friday night, attended by the team and "thirty of Birmingham's most beautiful girls," debutantes all.

The Birmingham Country Club where the team ate their meals and the site of a dance the night before the game

Red Roberts was the hit at the dance. Red was not only an excellent dancer, but his genuine surprise that he was appealing to the ladies made him all the more so.

Red was quoted as saying, "Tear my sox. Can you imagine them calling me cute? What have I done to earn such an accusation? Me, a big sap like me, cute? Me, a big ham and egger, cute? Well, tear my sox!"

The team had breakfast at the club Saturday morning, returned to the hotel for a quick skull session, and headed to Rickwood which was already beginning to fill by the time their bus pulled up.

I had seen Red in the lobby before they went out to the country club for breakfast. He asked me something about where I'd had breakfast and what did I think about the hotel, and I told him I was saving my money for a big victory dinner after the game.

Red said, "So you're a little short of money?"

I told him maybe you could say that.

So he said, "No son of mine is going to go hungry!"

Red told me to be in the lobby when the team came back from breakfast at the country club, and so I was. He brought this big napkin, it almost looked like a tablecloth, filled with biscuits and bacon and sausages, so much food that Howard and Crep and I together couldn't eat it all.

We certainly didn't go the game hungry, I'll tell you that.

Auburn was coached by a Yale graduate, Mike Donahue who had been at the helm since 1904, missing the 1907 season. Donahue had compiled a record of 91-31-5.

Excluding ties, he had an excellent 75% winning percentage.

Auburn was known for having big linemen, and Centre had a decided weight disadvantage, but the Colonels felt confidant their speed would win the day.

The Auburn squad came to Birmingham the morning of the game, boarding a regularly scheduled Southern train at Opelika and traveling on the single track spur to east of Birmingham, where they merged onto the main, double-tracked, east-west route into the city.

It was another of those perfectly colorful events which so typified football during the era. The crowd all dressed for the game, the men in suits and  ties with overcoats if they didn't have on a vest, and the ladies in the more mannish styles of the early 20's, with loose fitting waists, flattened chests, and full length coats. Cloche hats covered close-cropped hair.

Whatever the fashion, every spectator's allegiance could be determined by the chrysanthemums worn, the gold and white of Centre, or orange of Auburn.

The citizens of Birmingham pulled out all of the stops in making the Colonels and their fans feel welcome.

Local young ladies welcome the Colonels

If there was ever a game where the score didn't begin to reflect the skill levels of the teams involved, it was Centre-Auburn in 1921.

Bruce Dudley filed a story after the game for his paper, the Louisville "Herald."

Tonight the Centre boys are saying, "Fine, ok. Fine, ok"

This afternoon they beat Auburn and they beat Auburn as decisively as Auburn has ever been beaten. Mike Donahue, former Yale star and Auburn coach since 1904, is convinced that Centre has the most remarkable team in the United States. Mike thought his team was one of exceptional merit until he witnessed its efforts against Centre, and this afternoon, those efforts seemed feeble.

The game was one of the prettiest ever played in the South, and it was one of the cleanest. Good sportsmanship, in contrast to the Georgia Tech contest last year, was evidenced on almost every play.

Eighteen thousand people, forming the greatest crowd that ever gathered in Birmingham for any event, saw the game, and every fan left the game an enthused admirer of the Kentucky eleven.

One of the surprises to the Auburn fans and local sportswriters was how Centre so totally outclassed the "renowned" front wall of Auburn.

Auburn's line dominated by the Colonels. "Goldenrod" was Red Roberts

Bruce Dudley continued his report-

The Centre line far outplayed the Auburn line. On the offense, the freshman, Kubale, stood head and shoulders above the All-Southern Caton, but Caton played a whale of a game on defense.

"Baby" Pearce, the 210 pound tackle, lived up to every pleasing thing that could be said of him, but he didn't outshine "Baldy" Cregor one little glimmer.

Bill James right-ended his way to All-Southern fame, and Rubarth, Shadoan, Gibson, Jones, and Gordy, showed the Auburn linesmen tricks they didn't know.

Red Roberts played end, tackle and fullback, excelling in whatever spot he played. He would tell another Colonel in the huddle that he wanted to trade positions.

"Humpty, I feel I can take it over the left side for a first down. You hop up in my position and I'll carry the mail."

The amazing thing was that Auburn knew when Red jumped in the backfield he was going to run the ball, but they couldn't stop him.

After long drives in the 1st and 2nd quarters, Red scored  both times on short plunges, Bo converted the extra points, and Centre led at the half, 14-0, after being on the Auburn 2-yard line and threatening as the clock ran out.

The 3rd quarter was scoreless, but Centre moved the ball at will, simply being unable to punch it in.

Terry Snowday ( 12 ) upended

Hump Tanner ( 4 ) with Red Roberts far right, headband

Bo scored in the last period on a 3-yard run, finalizing a drive that had begun on the Colonels' 39, to make it 21-0 after the conversion. Centre was threatening again near the end of the game, but a pass from the 7 resulted in a touchback.

Bo running with Hump leading the way. Bill James ( 10 ) blocking in line

Headline the next morning

The real measure of the domination, absolute domination, of the Colonels, was that the Gold and White picked up 29 first downs. Auburn was helpless to stop Centre's relentless attack. The Tigers picked up exactly 2 first downs in 60 minutes of play, one in the 2nd quarter and one in the 3rd.

Auburn got across the midfield stripe only once, to Centre's 48 yard line, and this was made possible only due to an intercepted pass.

Bruce Dudley wanted his readers to be able to absorb the magnitude of Centre's superiority.

Centre, against the vaulted line of Auburn, made twenty-nine first downs. Auburn made but two. Think of this, Centre with twenty-nine and Auburn with two!

The game was played almost entirely on the Auburn side of the field. The Colonels had 3 or more men in on every tackle. A good Auburn team was helpless against a great Centre team.

During the 1st half alone, Centre picked up 265 yards. Auburn's total was 18.

Dudley also wanted the people back home to appreciate the sportsmanship displayed on the field. It was Dudley who had been so incensed at the conduct of Georgia Tech the year before, and he always appreciated, and mentioned, good clean play in his reporting.

Red Roberts spent much time administering to injuries of the Tigers. Whenever an opponent was hurt, Red would bathe his face with water, help lift him to his feet, and help support him in unlimbering walks. Red never lost an opportunity to help a stricken opponent, and before the half was up, fans were referring to him as "Red Cross" Roberts. The Auburn rooters gave him quite a cheer in the last period when he was caring for Ollinger, who was severely injured, and had to be removed from the field.

The Colonels were now 7-0 for the season and had won 12 straight since the loss to Georgia Tech the previous year. There were 2 games left in the regular season, and everyone waited with great interest to see how the upcoming trip to the West was going to shape up.

Back in Cincinnati, after hearing about the results of the game, the sports editor of the Cincinnati "Post" decided to run a photograph of the St. Xavier halfback, Herb Davis.

Herb Davis, St. Xavier halfback

The caption mentioned that Davis had scored the only touchdown against "the famous Centre College team thus far during the 1921 season." The "Post" felt young Davis should be given recognition, even if his score had been the result of fumble recovery in the end zone.

After the game, the Centre alumni joined Mr. and Mrs. Yerkes in hosting a dinner and reception at the Birmingham Country Club for its members and the team and visiting Kentuckians. Red Roberts made certain his "son" was included at the reception.

You know, later in my life, I went through reception lines all over the world. I met the Queen when there was a reception that Helen and I attended at Buckingham Palace for recipients of the Order of the British Empire.

We were in Rome and attended a party at the American Embassy. There were many formal affairs at medical meetings in London and Paris and Edinburgh. We attended quite an affair in Tokyo. One great event was a formal reception when we crossed the Atlantic in 1954 with other members of the American College of Surgeons on the great Cunard liner, Queen Elizabeth, and met in Leeds, Yorkshire with members of the Royal College of Surgeons which I later was made a voting member. 

Helen Robertson, first lady left, front row. Red Robertson, far right, first row- "R.M.S. Queen Elizabeth" 1954. Oscar Hampton, M.D. and wife Thelma, between the Robertsons. The Hamptons from St. Louis continued on with the Robertsons after they left England for two weeks on the continent. A highlight was meeting Cary Grant at Cannes who was filming "To Catch a Thief" at the time.

And of course, we were always going to medical meetings with the Southern Surgical Club or the Excelsior Surgical Society to the Homestead, the Greenbrier, Boca Raton, the Breakers, the Broadmoor, the Waldorf, French Lick in Indiana, and the great hotels of San Francisco like the Fairmont and St. Francis. In each of these elegant settings, I've been part of, and gone through, innumerable reception lines.

I don't bring this up to brag, even though it brings back great memories to think of all of the places Helen and I have been privileged to visit over the years.

I mention all of these places where there were wonderful receptions because none ever impressed me like the affair that was held for the team at the Birmingham Country Club after the Auburn game. 

The team stood along the wall and shook hands with everyone who came in, and there was a huge crowd. I didn't think the line would ever end, and that was not only because there were so many people, but because everyone wanted to not only shake hands, but the men wanted to pat the guys on the back, and the ladies wanted to hug each of the guys as they moved along, and everyone wanted to have a few words with each player, especially Bo and Red, the All-Americans.

Of course, I was just standing around watching, but I was close enough that I heard, "We love you," and, "We're so proud of you" and, "That was the best game I've ever seen!" Everyone was just in awe of each member of the team. And the other thing I remember was how well the guys handled the situation, just like at the railroad station when we arrived. They must have said, "Thanks, it is a pleasure to meet you," and, "Appreciate your being here," a thousand times. But they never seemed to get tired of hearing the compliments, and they always smiled and looked people right in the eye.

After the line finally got through, and after the dinner, Red went to the kitchen and brought me back some food and then got a great kick out of taking me around and introducing me as his son.  

"Yes, that's who I am. I'm Red Roberts-son." He always loved to see people's reactions. 

I was really fortunate to have my name because I know it got me a lot of attention that I'd never have received otherwise.

The Colonels were allowed to sleep in the next day as the overnight train didn't leave until 7:30 P.M. The free time allowed them to leisurely read the Sunday morning Birmingham papers. Auburn's Coach Donahue was quoted extensively.

Centre has a great team and has everything it takes to make one. They have age, weight, experience, power and dazzling speed. They play real football, and it was one big game in which Auburn, playing its traditionally clean game, was matched by another just as clean.

The train rolled into Danville on Monday morning at 5:30 AM., in time for the team and students to make it to chapel.

Amazingly, even though it was still dark, there were over 500 cheering fans at the station to welcome the Colonels back home.

It was truly a love affair.

Harvard notified Centre after the Auburn game that it wanted a return engagement in October, 1922. The offer was accompanied by a generous increase in the guarantee that would be paid. Harvard could well afford to up the payout. Centre was a huge draw.

Fred Moore, the Harvard graduate manager, told the Chief that he wanted the game to be earlier in October as, "Centre and Princeton are too much for Harvard on successive Saturdays."

( Harvard lost to Princeton on the Saturday following the 1921 Centre game, 10-3, then won its last 2 games over Brown and Yale to finish at 7-2.)

Meanwhile, Johnny McGee, the student manager working under the Chief, reported that he was receiving daily wires seeking a game with the Colonels in 1922. The most recent inquiries were from Indiana, Northwestern, Fordham and the University of Pennsylvania.

McGee told the "Advocate," We could play 50 teams next year if we wanted to. There's hardly a college in the country which hasn't contacted us."