Oct. 7, 2014
Photo Credit: Kevin Liles for The New York Times
By Mike Tierney
The New York Times
ATLANTA — Ryan Schneider has refrained from visiting some social media sites lately. He can only imagine the mocking comments set off by his purchase of an ancient football at a cost comparable to the more traditional midlife crisis indulgence — a shiny sports car.
“I’d probably say the same thing: ‘You spent that much money on an old piece of leather?’ ” Schneider, a 46-year-old patent lawyer, said.
Just wait until any would-be hecklers hear what he planned to do with the collectible after possessing it for less than a month: give it away.
But to Schneider, a Georgia Tech graduate, the ball that crossed the goal line enough for the Yellow Jackets to amass 222 points in a shutout of Cumberland University 98 years ago Tuesday belongs with its rightful owner.
Schneider intends to present the weathered, slightly deflated artifact to Georgia Tech after paying $40,388, including commissions, to an auction house as the high bidder on a sporting good in not-so-good shape.
“I love Tech; love what it’s let me do and be,” he said, explaining the splurge. “I didn’t want the ball in another house.”
Schneider’s early awareness of Georgia Tech can be traced to a photograph of the ball. As a grade-school student in Wilmington, Del., he was thumbing through the Guinness Book of World Records and was struck by an account of the least competitive college game ever. A self-described math nerd, Schneider was so intrigued that he tried to calculate how a team could cram so many points into a single game.
The game on Oct. 7, 1916, took the notion of payback to new heights — or depths. According to legend, Georgia Tech Coach John Heisman, for whom the prestigious trophy is named, craved revenge for Cumberland’s 22-0 pasting of the Yellow Jackets baseball team that he also coached. Cumberland, the story goes, deployed pro players during the baseball game.
Although Cumberland, in Lebanon, Tenn., had eliminated football in the spring, Heisman insisted it fulfill a contractual obligation. The visitors hastily assembled a roster of 13 volunteers and were overwhelmed by Tech, which never threw a pass or registered a first down because it scored with ease. Showing a hint of mercy, Heisman allowed for a shortened second half.
Almost as unfathomable to Schneider was the recent discovery that the ball used that afternoon in 1916 did not belong to his alma mater. A newspaper article about its pending auction inspired a somewhat crazy notion for someone who had never written a check for any sports memento.
The relic had been acquired by California-based SCP Auctions from a foundation that supports youth sports in Los Angeles. The ball had been lateraled often through the years. An early recipient was Bill Schroeder, who sought memorabilia from coaches and athletes long before the collectible craze exploded and started a museum and library in 1939.
A century ago, football was a niche activity and surviving items from the era are rare. Even rarer these days, at the risk of being called unsportsmanlike, is a team running up the score on an opponent, let alone to triple digits. “We knew right away we had something very historic on our hands,” the SCP vice president, Dan Imler, said. “It’s got so much character.”
Continue reading the main storyContinue reading the main story The floor was set at $5,000. Imler anticipated aggressive bidding, but the winning offer of $33,657 surpassed expectations.
Increasing the amount were a half-dozen bids by Schneider, who enrolled at Georgia Tech in the mid-’80s partly because it was the only prominent engineering college on his list that also featured top-level athletics. Schneider, an engineer before he became a lawyer, has Georgia Tech football and basketball season tickets and regularly attends baseball games.
Schneider went into the online auction without a game plan, except to keep his involvement a secret, even from his family. It was late on a Saturday night, with time running out, when he submitted his final bid, 19th over all in the process. He then went to bed, resigned to the likelihood of falling short.
“I thought I’d had my fun,” he said.
The next morning, he awoke to surprising news. He received a congratulatory note from SCP, which believes he paid more than the previous high for a football. The company conducted an auction for one — signed by the 1966 Green Bay Packers, champions of the inaugural Super Bowl — that went for $26,046.
A family meeting was called. There were gasps from his three children, ages 9 through 14, even without Schneider revealing the cost. As for his wife? “She’s a good sport,” he said.
And, while braced for ridicule, he has been taken aback by congratulatory calls and messages — especially from those associated with Georgia Tech’s loathed rival, the University of Georgia, who applauded his intent to donate the ball. One said, “That was standup.”
For Georgia Tech, the outcome could not have been more fortuitous. Athletic Director Mike Bobinski said he considered joining the auction on behalf of the university, but he decided he could not financially justify the department’s participation once the price jumped. Plus, given the anonymity of bidders, he said he did not want to risk competing “against our own family members.”
Once Bobinski learned that Georgia Tech, 5-0 and ranked No. 22 this season, was the beneficiary of the ultimate bargain, he commissioned a display case for the ball. The university does not have any other tokens from the game.
“We were all thrilled the way it turned out,” he said.
Also pleased was the College Football Hall of Fame, which relocated this year within blocks of Georgia Tech’s campus here. The game’s anniversary coincides with the Hall’s official dedication and player enshrinement ceremony Tuesday night.
Kent Stephens, the Hall’s historian and curator, said he would welcome showcasing the ball with an existing exhibit that recalls the 1916 Georgia Tech team. It features an engraved eyeglasses case presented to Heisman.
“It’d be wonderful to have,” he said of the ball, which he labeled “a significant piece of history.”
“That’s one of the famous games — or, one of the infamous games, perhaps.”
Bobinski said he envisioned it being rotated to selected sites, including the Hall, but said its base would most likely be Georgia Tech’s athletics headquarters.
Schneider said he placed no restrictions on the university on the eventual landing site for the ball.
“I just want it to be on display somewhere for public consumption,” he said.
It has hardly been on display at his house; the ball is tucked away in a shoe box in his bedroom. In fact, he is eager to unload the memento, lest his two football-loving sons yield to temptation and take it outdoors to play catch. Inside, they are required to handle it with kid gloves.
Part of the ball’s white laces are missing, and the ravages of time have turned it various shades of brown. Yet it had arrived in much better condition than Schneider had anticipated.
“I hope,” he said, “I look that good after a hundred years.”