David Crews’ new documentary on Sewanee’s historic 1899 football team tells a story of grit, determination and character.
Interviewed by Leslie Criss | Photographed by Joe Worthem
Spend a bit of time researching the term “Renaissance man,” and you’ll likely learn a lot about famous men known for their many talents and their great wealth of knowledge. You may recognize many of the names on the long-ago lists: Copernicus, Galileo, Michelangelo, Shakespeare. While they certainly did a lot of amazing things, those guys have nothing on Oxford’s David Crews.
There are rumors that at different times in his life, Crews rubbed elbows with the likes of William Faulkner and Eudora Welty. He’s compiled and published a book of favorite quotations from a wide and wondrous hunk of humanity. He’s delved into developing documentary films. He’s climbed mountains, hiked a heap of miles, completed an absurd number of triathlons. He may dance and sing, as well, but that question was not posed.
He’s been married for 27 years to wife Claire, and he’s Dad to a pair of 23-year-old twins he calls The Doublets, son Battle and daughter Caroline.
Professionally — for a short time or much longer — he’s hawked glass-bottled Coca-Colas at long-ago Ole Miss football games, he’s been a part of a fire department, taught history, reported and edited for a newspaper. Crews worked more than a decade with the Department of Justice as a U.S. Marshal, and today he oversees federal courthouses in Oxford, Aberdeen and Greenville for District Court judges.
Crews’ most recent fun venture is the production of “Unrivaled: Sewanee 1899,” the story of a long past football team at his alma mater and how they made history one season. Crews recently took time to talk with Invitation Magazines about the documentary and more.
Q: You are a former U.S. Marshal, you’ve served as clerk of the federal court, you’ve published a book on favorite quotations and produced two documentary films on vastly different subjects — the late former governor William Winter and a football team. Have you always been in touch with your creative and artistic sides?
A: I have to chuckle at the suggestion that I might be creative or artistic. My brother and my bride would both double over in raucous laughter at that notion. The truth is I love good storytelling. Documentary films, deftly done, are a rich and dramatic way to bring a story to life. That is what drove me to help tell the story of William Winter’s courage and accomplishments in “The Toughest Job.” My new documentary, “Unrivaled,” chronicles the dynamics of one of the most unique seasons in college football and inarguably the rarest, most unrivaled, most grueling road trip in football history. I’m now working on a documentary film about Soggy Sweat & the Whiskey Speech. I’ve uncovered some fascinating material about the whiskey speech, which should make for a fine film about political doublespeak, the lore of whiskey and both the wonders and the evil of alcohol. There is a blend of artful language, oratory and storytelling embedded in the whiskey speech along with rich history that the film will explore.
Q: What was it that made you decide to make a feature-length documentary about the 1899 Sewanee (University of the South) football team?
A: My college classmate and great friend, Norman Jetmundsen, has always been awed by what Sewanee’s 1899 team accomplished. He and I decided to collaborate to tell this legendary but little-known story. Our goal was to bring this rare and compelling story to life on film by exploring the dynamics of the season, the grit and talent of the players and the remarkable stamina and resolve to play five grueling games in six days traveling 2,500 miles by steam locomotive. In an era when most Southern teams played only four or five games in a season, Sewanee pioneered a remarkable 12-game season — the first 12-game season ever played by a Southern team. Sewanee went 12-0 in 1899 and was so powerful in the late 1800s and early 1900s that it was an original member of the SEC. Among the teams Sewanee played that year was Ole Miss, who were called “the long-haired knights of the Oval,” because the players would not wear helmets and simply grew their hair long as meager protection.
Q: From the thinking-about-it stage to the finished product, how long did you work on “Unrivaled: Sewanee 1899”?
A: Telling this story was a five-year journey. Both Norman and I have full-time jobs, so we could only work on the film at night and on occasional weekends. Filmmaking is a complex, detailed process. We had to do the research, raise the funds, conduct the interviews, stage and film reenactments, engage talented artists and musicians, find a riveting narrative arc, work with a talented editor and pare a monumental story down to a broadcast quality length. It is said that Sewanee played five games in six days and on the seventh day they rested. But they didn’t rest, going on to win all 12 games that season. Much like that 1899 team, Norman and I got very little rest over the past several years as we worked to craft and produce this film.
Q: What is it about the long-ago team that inspired you to want to work on this project?
A: There are three core reasons we wanted to tell this story. First and foremost is the grit, talent, fortitude and character of the team in an era when the players played both offense and defense and never came out of the game unless they had a broken leg or were killed. It was an especially brutal game in that era with as many as 18 deaths a year in college football. Second was the drive and vision of the student manager, Luke Lea, who organized and crafted the unprecedented season. You can witness Lea’s drive and ambition as a student putting together this season. He goes on to become one of the youngest U.S. Senators in history, hatches a plot to capture the Kaiser in WWI and owns several newspapers including the Nashville Tennessean. Third, our goal was to weave together a fabulous, little-known story and bring it to the attention of a significantly wider audience.
Q: Who are some of the people who helped make “Unrivaled”?
A: We put together a truly talented team to make this film. Norman and I produced and directed the film. Matthew Graves, a former Oxford resident, was our talented and indispensable editor. We engaged Bobby Horton to produce the music, Gates Shaw to do the narration and Ernie Eldridge to do the artwork. My son Battle Crews, who is now an officer in the U.S. Air Force, and Aubrey Black did superb work as our reenactors bringing the style of play in the 1800s to life.
Q: Obviously, the film is about the sport of football, but it’s clearly about much, much more. What message do you hope people get after seeing the film?
A: This is a story of grit, determination, sacrifice, fortitude, skill and character. Imagine playing five games in six days on the road traveling 2,500 miles by steam locomotive. No team has ever again attempted such an audacious feat. No team today would even play two games in two days much less five in six days. We don’t sugarcoat anything in this film. We deal with the consequences of this compressed season, the style of play, the lack of protective gear and some grievous long-term injuries that resulted.
Q: Filmmaking is not your only creative outlet. Your book, “The Mississippi Book of Quotations” has been a hit among lovers of literature, film, sports and quotes in general. When was the book published and how is it doing?
A: Literature and language have always been important to me. I read constantly and always jot down insightful, pithy and amusing lines I encounter. After 30 years of reading every Mississippi writer I could get my hands on, overhearing quips from conversations and listening to lyrics from Mississippi’s wonderful musicians, I discovered I’d collected almost 3,000 fantastic quotations on every aspect of life. I approached Nautilus Publishing owner Neil White with the idea for a book of Mississippi quotations. The result was a book of over 2,500 great quotations divided into 60 different themes such as love, humor, war, beauty, Blues, football, Oxford, history, politics, Ole Miss, lies, truth and so much more. There are quotes from William Faulkner to Eudora Welty, B.B. King to Elvis Presley and Medgar Evers to Fannie Lou Hamer, Archie Manning to Dizzy Dean. “The Mississippi Book of Quotations” has now been through two hardback editions and this summer the first paperback edition was published with almost 150 great new lines I’ve collected since the book first came out in 2016.
Q: “The Toughest Job,” the documentary about former Gov. William Winter, received an Emmy Award. Do you have high hopes for “Unrivaled”?
A: “Unrivaled” is a powerful film. Once it is broadcast on PBS stations it may well be in consideration for an Emmy, perhaps for Best Historical Documentary. It is certainly of a caliber and resonance that merits consideration.
Q: When and where can we expect to be able to watch “Unrivaled”?
A: The Mississippi, Alabama and Nashville public television stations plan to broadcast the film this fall. The National Educational Television Association plans to offer the film to public television stations across America. So, our film is likely to get extensive airtime rippling this story across the country reminding people of a time when football was in its brutal infancy. The film can also be purchased on DVD or streaming by going to our website at sewanee1899.org.
Q: From a 2016 story in the Oxford Eagle, I learned these things: You have completed 40 triathlons, climbed the highest point in the Western Hemisphere, hiked the 450-mile Natchez Trace. Do you have a bucket list? What’s next?
A: I love a good adventure. I’d like to find the time to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa. I’ve ridden my bike from the Alabama line to the Mississippi River in a single day. One day I’d like to bike across America from sea to shining sea. Another item on my bucket list is to have grandchildren while I’m still young enough to take them on an adventure or two. This will require cooperation by my kids who only recently graduated from college and are both gainfully employed doing important work.