COLLEGE FOOTBALL

The crazy game against a Kentucky team that launched Texas A&M's 12th Man tradition

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When Mark Stoops takes No. 13 Kentucky (5-0, 3-0 SEC) to face his old boss, Jimbo Fisher, and Texas A&M (3-2, 1-1) on Saturday night, the Wildcats will encounter one of college football's most captivating traditions. 

From the time the ball is kicked off Saturday until the final second ticks off the Kyle Field playing clocks, the Texas A&M student body will stand as one.

At A&M, the custom of "The 12th Man" — the idea that all Aggies students stand ever ready if called upon — has persisted for almost a century.

On the weekend when UK visits A&M for the first time as an SEC rival, it seems appropriate to recall that the defining tradition of Texas A&M athletics began when an Aggies student actually was called to leave the stands to help in a game against one of the most famous college football teams the state of Kentucky ever produced.
The contest which looms so large in Texas A&M lore also featured one of the craziest "game setups" ever.

The 1921 Centre College Prayin' Colonels were college football's "It Team."
Under coach "Uncle Charlie" Moran, the team representing the little private school in Danville spent the autumn of 1921 crossing the country administering football beatings.

"That year, they were the first team that didn't just play a regional schedule. They played a national schedule," says Robert W. Robertson Jr., author of "The Wonder Team: The Story of the Centre College Praying Colonels and Their Rise To The Top of the Football World (1917-24)."

Centre started its season shutting out Clemson and Virginia Tech. Led by stars Bo McMillin and Red Roberts, Centre spent the middle of its season blasting Kentucky (55-0) and Auburn (21-0).

Yet the game that made the Prayin' Colonels a national phenomenon came on Oct. 29, 1921, in Cambridge, Mass.

What the SEC is to college football in 2018, the Ivy League was to college football of 1921. The three greatest powers of that era were Harvard, Yale and Princeton. Before 1921, a team from outside the East had never beaten one of the Ivy League's "Big Three."

When Centre traveled to Harvard and bested the Crimson 6-0 on a 31-yard, cutback touchdown run by McMillin, the Colonels became a national sensation.

Demand to see "the team that beat Harvard" was intense. Once Centre (9-0) completed its 1921 regular season, it accepted invitations to play in not one, but two postseason "bowl" games.

According to Robertson, the Danville school received a $16,000 guarantee to face Arizona in "The San Diego Classic" in California on Dec. 26.

Then, since Colonels star McMillin was slated to marry his childhood sweetheart, Maud Marie Miers, in Fort Worth, Texas, on Jan. 2, Centre also agreed to play Texas A&M that same afternoon in "The Dixie Classic" in Dallas.

On Dec. 16, 1921, the Centre traveling party pulled out of Danville via train in a dedicated Pullman sleeping car. They would not return home until Jan. 4, 1922.

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Over the entire course of college football history, one wonders if two teams ever took more divergent approaches to a game than Centre and Texas A&M took to the "Dixie Classic."

In their first bowl game, the Colonels waxed Arizona 38-0 in San Diego. Piling back into their Pullman car, the Centre team headed east for what turned out to be a bittersweet stay in Dallas.

While A&M's players were lodged in the dormitories at Dallas University, Centre took up residence at the plush Adolphus Hotel.

"The (Aggies) were basically locked into two-a-day practices in a very spartan atmosphere. They were all about beating the team that beat Harvard," Robertson said.

Conversely, a good bit of the Colonels' energy went to celebrating McMillin's wedding. On the morning of the game with A&M, the Centre players were up early to catch a train to Fort Worth for McMillin's 9 a.m. nuptials.

Afterward, the Centre players attended a wedding brunch for their teammate and his new wife. According to Robertson's book, the bride's mother implored the players to "eat up, boys. Look at all the food we've had prepared for you. And save space for the wedding cake, which is going to be just sumptuous."

Not surprisingly, once the game started, Centre never seemed in synch. Colonels star Red Roberts injured a knee early and could not play at his normal level.

McMillin had a football game to play to get to his wedding night.

With his focus perhaps on things other than pigskin, McMillin twice sabotaged Centre drives near the A&M goal line with fumbles. He also threw two interceptions. The second one was returned for the final A&M touchdown in a 22-14 Aggies victory that spoiled Centre's perfect season.

"Bo literally felt like he lost the game," Robertson said. "His mind was not on the game."

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During Texas A&M's victory over Centre, Aggies Coach Dana X. Bible became concerned about running out of players. Injuries were depleting Texas A&M's depth, especially among its backs.

Looking toward the stands at the Fair Park Stadium, Bible summoned E. King Gill, who had left the Aggies' team earlier in the season to concentrate on basketball.

Gill was in the press box, spotting for the media. Bible sent word to Gill that Texas A&M had no more backs available and it might need him to play.

Going underneath the bleachers, Gill changed into the uniform of an injured Aggies player and reported to the sideline.

While the Aggies upset Centre, there he stood, available if needed.

Ultimately, Gill never got into the game.

As UK will see Saturday night, however, the legend of The 12th Man, ready and willing when summoned, lives on at Texas A&M some 97 years after it was born against a different Kentucky team.

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