It isn't certain who fumbled the ball—possibly the halfback, Eddie Edwards, though some accounts say it was George Allen. In any event, it was Allen who felt it necessary to shout to his teammate, B. F. Paty: "Pick it up! Pick it up!" and Paty who replied indignantly, "Pick it up yourself, you dropped it!"
Anyone who has ever witnessed a football contest knows that when the ball hits the turf so do the players. Nothing in football is more basic than this fact: the ball must be recovered. The ensuing scramble for possession may be the most frantic and undignified spectacle in all of sports, but there is rarely any confusion about what is to be done. Certainly, no discussion is necessary.
But on October 7, 1916, two college teams squared off in one of the most remarkable—and atypical—football contests ever staged. And an unlikely dispute over who should recover the fumble is only one of the many incredible details to come out of that game.
The story properly begins in the spring of 1915, when Tennessee's Cumberland College baseball team went head to head with the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. It turns out the Bulldogs were stacked with professionals (or so it appeared) and the tiny upstart, Cumberland, succeeded in humiliating Georgia Tech by a score of 22-0.
Georgia Tech alumni screamed for blood. And their coach, John Heisman, a man destined to become one of the most recognizable names in all of college athletics, decided to settle the score. He challenged Cumberland to a football match the following year, offering a $500 incentive (and all expenses paid) to bring the Bulldogs to Atlanta for the contest. To ensure the match would actually take place, the arrangement included a $3000 forfeiture clause. Cumberland agreed.
The forfeiture clause made certain that despite a cost-cutting effort in 1916 that led to the demise of the football program at Cumberland, the game took place as scheduled. The team manager, George Allen, succeeded in recruiting 19 players (mainly from among members of the Kappa Sigma fraternity), 16 of whom made it to Atlanta without getting lost (the other three apparently failed to find their way out of Nashville). Heisman fielded two teams that day, alternating them throughout the game—and in order to ensure that all his players gave their best effort, he offered a steak dinner to the squad that scored the most points.
The contest would become known (at least in Cumberland lore) as "The Game of The Century"—the most lopsided collegiate sporting event in American history, setting records that will, in all likelihood, never be broken.
Perhaps the most amazing fact is that neither team made a first down. Georgia Tech didn't need one: the Yellow Jackets were able to score at will. The Bulldogs, on the other hand, never found a way to move the ball the necessary ten yards for a first down.
The Yellow Jackets didn't complete a single passing play. In fact, they didn't even attempt a pass—but they gained an amazing 978 yards on the ground. Despite rumors to the contrary, Cumberland did not continually punt the ball away in a strategic attempt to reduce the losses they invariably suffered on offence. And they actually succeeded in moving the ball forward (barely). Bulldog quarterbacks, Morris Gouger and Leon McDonald, completed 2 of their 11 passing attempts, (for a total of 14 yards). And on one particular running play (a 4th and 22), the Bulldogs managed to gain some 10 yards. But their net offense that day was a loss of 22.
In a game that was actually shortened to 45 minutes (Heisman's only concession to his hapless opponents), the Yellow Jackets were unstoppable. They gained 63 points in the first quarter and 63 more in the second. The Bulldogs never even got on the board. But Heisman refused to let up. During his halftime pep talk he reputedly told his team: "We're ahead. But you just can't tell what those Cumberland players have up their sleeves. They may spring a surprise. Be alert, men! Hit 'em clean, but hit 'em hard!". His players obligingly ran for 54 points in the third quarter and 42 more by the final whistle, accumulating a total of 32 touchdowns during the match and winning by an unprecedented score of 222-0.
Satisfied with the outcome, Coach Heisman generously treated both squads of the victorious Yellow Jackets to a steak dinner. The following year, he took his team all the way to the national championship.