After hearing one of the greatest stories in the history of college football, the story of the 12th Man as told by Texas A&M, I began to wonder why the tale wasn’t recited to every school-age boy.
A rag-tag team from a farm school in Texas, playing the top-ranked team in the nation. The outmanned farmers suffered injury after injury yet, incredibly, managed to stay in the game. The Aggies, with a miraculous upset within reach were left without a single substitute available in case of injury when their coach called to the stands for someone —anyone — from the school’s student body to come to the sidelines, don a uniform and be ready to save the day. And as providence would have it, a former football player who had left the team early to prepare for basketball season was in the press box spotting players for a sportswriter. He heeds the coach’s call and stands by on the sideline, ready to enter the game to help pull off what became one of the greatest upsets in the history of college sports. Eleven valiant players on the field and on the sideline, a solitary figure about to enter sports history and forever be known as “The 12th Man.” The story, as told by Texas A&M University and the school’s faithful is a powerful and riveting tale of sportsmanship and loyalty. Unfortunately, the story as told by Texas A&M University and the school’s faithful isn’t true.
As with many fanciful tales, the “official” Texas A&M University version of the story is loosely based on a number of verifiable facts. We know that Texas A&M was playing Centre College in the 1922 Dixie Classic (the predecessor to today’s Cotton Bowl Classic) at Fair Park in Dallas (site of today’s Cotton Bowl stadium). Centre College was nationally famous in the sports world as they were coming off an upset of a Harvard team that had previously not lost a game in five years. The Texas A&M school website describes the origins and history of The 12th Man as follows:
The tradition of the Twelfth Man was born on the second of January 1922, when an underdog Aggie team was playing Centre College, then the nation’s top ranked team. As the hard fought game wore on, and the Aggies dug deeply into their limited reserves, Coach Dana X. Bible remembered a squad man who was not in uniform. He had been up in the press box helping reporters identify players. His name was E. King Gill, and was a former football player who was only playing basketball. Gill was called from the stands, suited up, and stood ready throughout the rest of the game, which A&M finally won 22-14. When the game ended, E. King Gill was the only man left standing on the sidelines for the Aggies. Gill later said, “I wish I could say that I went in and ran for the winning touchdown, but I did not. I simply stood by in case my team needed me.” [aggietraditions.tamu.edu/team/12thman.html]
The true origin of the term “12th Man” is unknown, but the earliest known use of the term to describe a given sports team’s fan base comes from the November 1912 edition of The Iowa Alumnus, an alumni publication of the University of Iowa (then known as State University of Iowa) in which E.A. McGowan described the 1903 game between Iowa and the University of Illinois. In his article “The Twelfth Player,” McGowan wrote: “The eleven men had done their best; but the twelfth man on the team (the loyal spirited Iowa rooter) had won the game for old S.U.I.” [books.google.com]
While the Texas A&M version of the story claims their tradition of the 12th Man began on January 2, 1922, the school had in fact been referring to its fan base using the term for some time before that date. The November 25, 1921, edition of The Battalion, the school’s newspaper, contains an article titled “The Twelfth Man” describing the “sacred devotion” with which the “sixteen hundred Farmer boys” in the stands cheered their team to a 0-0 tie in the game played the night before. [hornsports.com/docs/aggy/1921_Battalion.pdf]. We aren’t sure exactly when the “12th Man” first became attached to Texas A&M football, but we do know it was earlier than January 2, 1922.
As for E. King Gill, the individual Texas A&M claims to be the “12th Man,” Gill recalled the events of the day as follows:
I had played on the football team but was on the basketball team at that time, and those in charge felt I was more valuable to the basketball team. I was in Dallas, however, and even rode to the stadium in the same taxi with Coach Bible. I was in civilian clothes and was not to be in uniform. Coach Bible asked me to assist in spotting players for the late Jinx Tucker [sports editor of the Waco News-Tribune] in the press box. So I was up in the press box helping Jinx when, near the end of the first half, I was called down to the Texas A&M bench. There had been a number of injuries, but it was not until I had arrived on the field that I learned Coach Bible wanted me to put on a football uniform and be ready to play if he needed me. There were no dressing rooms at the stadium in those days. The team had dressed downtown at the hotel and travelled to the stadium in taxicabs. Anyway, I put on the uniform of one of the injured players. We got under the stands and he put on my clothes and I put on his uniform. I was ready to play but was never sent into the game. Backyard Brawl: Inside the Blood Feud Between Texas and Texas A&M, Stratton, W.K., Three Rivers Press (2003)
Attendance at the game was reported to have been around 13,000. The press box was well attended by sports writers from all the major papers in Texas. Both the school’s version of events and Gill’s version claim he was called from the press box to don a uniform and stand ready to play should he be needed. It’s reasonable that a packed stadium of 13,000 wouldn’t have a press box so cavernous that anyone called to leave it and come to the field to participate as a player would go unnoticed by the attending sports writers. This was a game featuring a nationally famous team that was on the verge of being upset by a band of farmers whose ranks were depleted to the last-available substitute. The sportswriters must have written incredible accounts of the game and Gill’s leaving their midst to stand in uniform on the sideline.
Newspaper accounts of the game printed in the next day’s editions of the Houston Post, Houston Chronicle and Dallas Morning News failed to mention a word of injuries decimating the Texas A&M bench to the last-available man. None of the state’s major papers even mentioned the name E. King Gill, who supposedly was sitting among these very writers when called to suit up. Texas A&M’s version of the story claims Gill had left the team halfway through the season to concentrate on basketball. The archives of the Dallas Morning News (the largest circulation paper in the city in which the 1922 game was played) are searchable by computer. While other instances may exist, in researching this article, the first mention of “E. King Gill” found in the newspaper’s archives was in a 1942 article praising Gill’s service to his country during WWII in which the writer states “Gill had gone out for football, but lacked the experience and ability to play on the varsity.” [www.hornsports.com/docs/aggy/DMN_Jul_16_1942.pdf] Gill later played football, basketball and baseball for the Aggies and graduated in 1924. We don’t know exactly what his contributions to the 1921 team were, but we do know he was not a member of the team in January 1922. (In a 1964 speech, Gill explained he had been a substitute on the team, but left because he did not think he would ever have the chance to play.)
The details of the game itself explain why the assembled sportswriters took no notice of E. King Gill on that day in 1922. The only contemporaneous account of the game that remotely comes close to the Texas A&M version of the story is the article written by the only significant sportswriter to mention Gill, that being Jinx Tucker, the writer from the Waco Tribune Herald who Gill said he was spotting for in the press box during the game.
Tucker’s page 1, January 3, 1922, article was titled “Farmers Triumph Over Kentuckians.” His account of the game is largely consistent with the accounts of the writers for the other papers, except he mentions three injuries suffered by the Aggies and he mentions Gill by name:
The Texas team started the game minus the services of Buckner and Pinson, both splendid fullbacks; both great defensive players. That great fighting machine finished the contest without the services of the speedy Weir, the flashy Sanders and the steady guiding hand of that most able field general, Bugs Morriss (sic). This brilliant trio had to be carried from the field due to injury. McMillan, Beasley and Bull Johnson went in their stead, and performed as would be expected of the most seasoned stars. In such need for capable backs was (Texas A&M coach) D.X. Bible that “Fish” Gill, who was in the press box in citizens clothes, was hurriedly rushed into uniform, so that he might be sent in should injury take another from the Aggie ranks. [http://www.hornsports.com/docs/aggy/Jinx_Tucker.pdf]
So, no sportswriter present at the game ever claimed Gill was the only substitute available to replace one of the 11 men on the field, The “12th Man.” The team wasn’t depleted of players. Rather, the team simply had a number of injured running backs. Gill wasn’t the lone “12th Man” standing on the sideline. He was one of a number of Texas A&M players standing on the sideline, any one of which the coach could have called on to replace an injured player. Significantly, there is no record of Gill himself ever claiming to have been “The 12th Man,” standing alone on the sideline as the only available substitute.
The Aggies had 24 players (not counting Gill) on the roster for the Dixie Classic game (Centre College also had 24 players on their roster for the game). Jinx Tucker mentioned Buckner and Pinson as two players not available at kickoff. Buckner was included in the Texas A&M lineup on page 7 of the game program, Pinson was not. After striking Buckner’s name from the list of available players, we now know there were 23 players available to play that day for the Aggies. The starting quarterback (Weir) went out early in the game with a broken leg. Sanders and Morris were also knocked out of the game with injuries. This left 20 players available to be called on by the coach. When E. King Gill came down from the press box (and donned the injured Weir’s uniform) he absolutely wasn’t the sole substitute standing on the sideline. He would have been The 21st Man, not The 12th Man.
Here is the recap of the Texas A&M players for the 1922 Dixie Classic. The names are taken the game day program, which can be found in the archives of the Cushing Memorial Library.
[colored_box color="yellow"]Texas A&M starting 11:
Wilson – left end
Winn – left tackle
Murrah – left guard
DuBois – center
Dieterich – right guard
Carruthers – right tackle
Evans – right end
Sanders – left halfback
Buckner – fullback
Morris – quarterback
Weir – right halfback
Substitutions during game (as per Jinx Tucker’s article)
Beasley for Weir (Weir out – broken leg)
McMillan for Morris
Morris for Sanders (Sanders out)
Johnson for Morris (Morris out)
Keen for Carruthers (Carruthers on sidelines but available to play)
Injured players at end of game unable to play
On the field at the end of the game
(1) Wilson – left end
(2) Winn – left tackle
(3) Murrah – left guard
(4) DuBois – center
(5) Dieterich – right guard
(6) Keen – right tackle
(7) Evans – right end
(8) Johnson – left halfback
(9) Buckner – fullback
(10) McMillan – quarterback
(11) Beasley – right halfback
Available substitutes at the end of the game
(12) Wilson (there were two Wilsons on the team)
(21) E. King Gill[/colored_box]
So, if E. King Gill was surrounded by a number of able-bodied players available to go into the game, how did the Aggie legend of their “12th Man” get started? In 1964, Gill gave a speech on campus at an event the Aggies call “Muster.” His speech is on file at the Cushing Memorial Library at Texas A&M University. They have thoughtfully provided a copy of his speech, complete with his handwritten notes. [http://www.hornsports.com/docs/aggy/theoriginal12thman0001.pdf ] In his speech, Gill unequivocally states the Aggies’ 12th Man tradition was originated in 1939. Their 1939 season was the school’s one and only national championship in football (they share that year’s title with the University of Southern California). Gill states that in 1939 E.E. McQuillen, who was at the 1922 Dixie Classic, was asked to tell the story of the 1922 game for a radio broadcast. In enhancing and fictionalizing certain elements of the game, McQuillen embellished the number of substitutes the Aggies had available and, if we are to believe Gill’s own words, at that time, in 1939 and not 1922, the Texas A&M tradition of their 12th Man was created. (This would explain the difficulty in locating newspaper stories of E. King Gill as “The 12th Man” prior to 1939.) Also created as a result of McQuillen’s fictionalized account of the game was the Aggies’ tradition of their fans in the stands standing for the entirety of games. [myaggienation.com/history_traditions/12th_man/article_3d5df82c-0394-11e3-95ab-001a4bcf887a.html?mode=jqm]
Telling their dramatic version of the story, as historically inaccurate as it is, on websites and the like is the absolute right of the Aggies. What comes into question, however, is their use of the factually erroneous story as the foundation for the filing of their trademark application for the term “12th Man” with the federal government. Their trademark application lists the date of “first use” and the date of “first use in commerce” as 1922. [hornsports.com/docs/aggy/Trademark.pdf] This certainly is not supported by the 1921 school newspaper in which the term was used to describe the Texas A&M fans. Nor is it consistent with E. King Gill’s 1964 speech where he indicates Texas A&M’s tradition was created in 1939 when McQuillen changed the facts of the game and wiped the other nine players from the history books to create the fictionalized account that had Gill standing alone on the sideline. Prior to McQuillen’s 1939 fictionalized account, calling Gill “The 12th Man” would have been senseless. Anyone who was at the game would have known he simply wasn’t alone on the sideline.
Why Texas A&M chose to represent to the federal government in its trademark filing that the term “12th Man” was created in 1922 is a mystery whose only reasonable explanation would be that the school wanted to promote the fictionalized version since that version is much more dramatic than the actual events of the day. According to Gill, their version is a fabrication created 17 years after the events their story speaks of. Using the fictionalized account of E. King Gill’s exploits that day as the basis of a trademark filing made with the federal government and attested to under penalty of perjury would be, at the very least, bold. At the very most, it would be perjury. If the University had any questions concerning the true and accurate “first use” of their “12th Man” tradition, they needed to look no further than to the words of E. King Gill himself.
Texas A&M’s version of their 12th Man makes for a good story to tell young children. It also is a great story to invoke images of heroic individuals ready at any time to come and save the day in a moment of crisis. Historically, however, the Aggies’ version of the 1922 Dixie Classic is as factual as the legend of Batman or the Lone Ranger.
Many other football fan bases and other individuals have been referred to as “The 12th Man” over the years. The earliest known individual to be referred to as “The 12th Man” is William Hardin Sanders, a reserve player on the 1918 team of the U.S. Naval Academy. His story is also one of the most hilarious “12th Man” stories. In late October 1918, with an invitation to the 1919 Rose Bowl at stake, Navy was playing Great Lakes Naval Training Station. With seconds left to play, Navy leading 6-0 and driving toward another score, the ball carrier for the Midshipmen fumbled at the Great Lakes goal line. A Great Lakes player scooped up the ball and began to run untouched the length of the field to score when Sanders arose from the bench, ran onto the field and tackled the ball carrier in a fashion identical to that of Tommy Lewis, Alabama’s famous 12th Man who jumped off the bench to tackle Dickey Moegle of Rice in the 1954 Cotton Bowl Classic. The Great Lakes players ran to the scene and pulled Navy’s “12th man” off the ball carrier. He then jumped to his feet and proceeded to run into the end zone for a touchdown to tie the game. The referee, ignoring the fact that Sanders had tackled the ball carrier, raised his hands to signal touchdown. Great Lakes kicked the extra point, won the game and went on to play in the 1919 Rose Bowl, where they beat the team comprised of the Marines from the Mare Island Naval Base 17-0 in the last Rose Bowl that did not feature two college teams. [library.la84.org/SportsLibrary/CFHSN/CFHSNv05/CFHSNv05n4h.pdf]
Since the University of Iowa’s alumni publication in 1912, the “12th Man” has been used to refer to the fan bases of many teams and to refer to many individuals. The term is used by many football and soccer teams at the high school, college and professional levels. Each team has its story of how the tradition of their 12th Man began. Some of these stories are true and some are assuredly not true. As for the tradition at Texas A&M, their version falls into the latter category. Outside Kyle Field, the football stadium at Texas A&M University, is a bronze statue of E. King Gill. To the Aggie faithful it is the statue of their 12th Man. To historians, it is the only known instance in college football of a statue dedicated the 21st Man.