By Rubin E. Grant
NOTOrman Jetmundsen did not plan to produce a documentary film.
Several years ago he had gone to see a documentary about former Mississippi Governor William Winter and suggested to his good friend David Crews, who was the film’s executive producer, to do a documentary about the Sewanee football team. from 1899.
Crews responded by telling Jetmundsen, “You do it and I’ll watch.” So, with Crews’ help, Jetmundsen did it.
“It took six years and thousands of hours, but we have a movie,” Jetmundsen said.
“Unrivaled: Sewanee 1899”, a feature-length documentary chronicling Sewanee’s unbeaten football team, premiered earlier this year, including a late April screening at Birmingham’s Alys Stephens Performing Arts Center, where more than 300 people Have attended.
Jetmundsen, who lives in Mountain Brook, is a graduate of Sewanee: The University of the South and a retired attorney. He said he felt a sense of urgency to make the inspirational documentary.
“If we hadn’t made history, in 20 years it would have been lost forever,” Jetmundsen said. “I did over 40 interviews and some of the interviews were with descendants of the team ranging in age from their 60s to their mid 90s.
“We also interviewed famous football managers, analysts and historians to provide a comprehensive commentary on the team and its season. Johnny Majors and Bobby Bowden are featured and both are now deceased.
“I also received original letters from descendants and found a book where I could extract never-before-seen photos, including one from Sewanee’s game against Texas and another from a game against Tennessee.”
Sewanee is an Episcopal liberal arts college located in the mountains of Tennessee. Its 1899 football team had just 21 players and was the first school in the South to play 12 games in a season – and they did it in the space of six weeks.
“The history of the 1899 Sewanee team is unmatched, and what this team accomplished that year will never be repeated or forgotten,” Jetmundsen said.
Sewanee’s epic season included a game against Auburn on Thanksgiving Day in Montgomery, breaking a record 4,000 in attendance as Sewanee posted an 11-10 win. Auburn, coached by famed John Heisman, was the only team to score against them on the season as Sewanee recorded 11 shutouts.
Beating Auburn wasn’t the most notable thing about Sewanee’s dramatic season.
“The reason they’re famous is that they traveled 2,500 miles by train, playing five games in six days,” Jetmundsen said. “It was really amazing.”
The film includes extraordinary details about the players.
“There are a lot of amazing stories and standout characters from this amazing season,” Jetmundsen said. “A lineman on the team was William ‘Wild Bill’ Claiborne. He had an evil eye which he covered with a patch when he played. When he started a game, he would line up in front of his opponent, lift the patch and say, “It happened in the last game; we’ll see what happens today. Then he put the patch back on and let the other player worry.
“It’s a gripping story of the strength of the personalities involved and the guys who show perseverance and courage, pain and sacrifice.”
Fullback Sewanee Ormond Simkins suffered so many injuries during the season that he eventually had both legs amputated. Simkins would die during the operation for his second amputation.
“It’s a human story,” Jetmundsen said. “Some of them paid a high price. One of the biggest compliments I’ve received from people who have seen the movie is, “I don’t even like college football, but I love the movie.”
Several people from Birmingham were part of the film crew, including narrator Gates Shaw; musician Bobby Horton, who made music for Ken Burns documentaries; and illustrator Ernie Eldridge.
“Unrivaled” has an extended version that is 110 minutes long and a shorter 90-minute version for broadcast by a television, cable or streaming company.
For more information on “Sewanee 1899 Unrivaled”, visit sewanee1899.org.
The 110-minute version of the film can be purchased from the website as DVD or streaming.