Lynchburg’s Legendary Barefoot Team Inspires New Film
On New Year’s Eve 1926, 600 people gathered at the Lynchburg fairgrounds to watch the Shoeless Wonders football team, made up of boys from the local Presbyterian Orphans’ Home, take on the Steam Rollers, a squad from the city’s Fort Hill neighborhood.
The well-publicized game, initiated by a challenge from the Steam Rollers, has been called “the most memorable game ever played by the Shoeless Wonders.”
According to one newspaper account, late in the third quarter, Shoeless Wonder James Dunnett—playing barefoot, as the team had since 1922 [see sidebar on page 45]—picked up a Steam Rollers fumble. He ran 97 yards, scoring the only touchdown of the game.
The Shoeless Wonders would go on to complete an eight-year winning streak, including six years of shutouts. Over the years, the team appeared on a Universal Pictures newsreel and in newspapers from as far away as Shanghai. They were featured by Ripley’s “Believe It or Not” and the New York Times.
The story of the Shoeless Wonders is a story of brotherhood, finding family, and—of course—football. It’s a story that, since its beginning, has been made for the movies. Soon, that story will be told in a feature film written, produced and shot in Lynchburg.
In the fall of 2017, Lynchburg-based production company Life Out Loud Films plans to start filming Shoeless Wonders, a movie based on the Presbyterian Home’s legendary football team.
In particular, it will tell of that storied New Year’s Eve game and the months leading up to it.
Led by producer and creative director Sara Elizabeth Timmins, Life Out Loud also is the company behind Lake Effects, Wish You Well, and the just-released Coming Through The Rye, starring Chris Cooper as J.D. Salinger.
The story for Shoeless Wonders was written by Timmins and Charlottesville-based casting director Erica Arvold, who cast Big Stone Gap and other films. Award-winning screenwriter and Lynchburg resident Rebecca Rogers Nelson wrote the screenplay.
The movie will be filmed at various Lynchburg locations, including the Presbyterian Home campus, now known as HumanKind. According to Timmins, there will be opportunities for area residents to fund, work on and appear in the film.
“Those are aspects that make it unique,” Timmins said, “and when this movie is made it’s only being made because of Lynchburg and the community coming together, and that’s a big part of the story, in my opinion.”
Timmins, who grew up in Ohio, first heard about the Shoeless Wonders three years ago, shortly after she moved to Lynchburg from Los Angeles. An executive from HumanKind called her with an idea for a movie.
“They had a story they thought would make a great film,” Timmins said, admitting that while she hears that from a lot of people in her business, something told her not to pass this up. “I met with them, heard the story, and immediately my gut and my heart said, ‘You have to tell this story.’”
Originally, Timmins said, HumanKind was looking for advice about how to pitch Shoeless Wonders to a larger studio, like ESPN or Disney. It took Timmins a couple more months to convince them to let her take the reins.
Using an independent company would not only give the movie a better chance of being made, Timmins said, but it also would “make sure the story was authentic” and “keep the impact local, not just through the message of the story, but through the production.”
Timmins describes Shoeless Wonders as “inspired by real events,” saying that like a lot of movies based on true stories, there are composite and fictitious characters, and storylines that originate with more than one person.
“For me, the biggest challenge in telling a story that’s inspired by real events is you hope that at the end of the day you’re able to tell a story everybody involved is proud of,” Timmins said, adding that the goal is “authenticity of the real story while providing a film that audiences will be driven to watch and be inspired by.”
While the movie will be set in the 1920s, for example, many stories incorporated into the screenplay came from Shoeless Wonders who played in the 1940s and 50s.
“Hearing the stories of these actual Shoeless Wonders from the later time period is what we based a lot of our personalities and storylines on,” Nelson said, adding that while some still struggled with memories of being sent to the Presbyterian Home as children, “they’d light up when they talked about football and sports.”
One of the real-life stories that found its way into the screenplay is that of Cliff and Shirley Thomas, who both grew up at the Presbyterian Home. Cliff, there with two older brothers and a sister, played for the Shoeless Wonders in the 1950s.
He remembers the first game he took the field for the team. As he describes it, he was 8 or 9 years old and “knee-high to a grasshopper.”
After the kickoff, Cliff said, he “took off down the field,” running toward the opposing team’s receiver. To his surprise, no one blocked him, but he soon found himself facing the boy with the ball and thinking, “Uh oh.”
“I wrestled him to the ground one way or the other,” Cliff, now 74, said. “My head was sort of spinning once I got up. I went back to the huddle and [Coach Joe] Blackburn said, ‘Who got that tackle?’ I said, ‘I got it.’
He couldn’t believe I got the tackle.”
For boys at the Presbyterian Home, playing for the Shoeless Wonders was a rite of passage. Cliff’s older brothers, Glen and Jimmy, played, too. “I wanted to play, because if you were at the Presbyterian Home you played Shoeless Wonders football,” Cliff said, “and I always looked up to both of them.”
Both Cliff and Shirley were sent to the Presbyterian Home after their respective parents divorced and could no longer take care of them and their siblings. “They told us we were going on a two-week vacation,” Shirley said of her and her younger brother. “It ended up being 11 years, but it was the best decision that they made.”
Cliff, who like Shirley had grown up in poverty and without indoor plumbing, agreed. “We hit pay dirt,” he said.
Without giving away too much, Cliff and Shirley’s sweet story of young love inspired a subplot in the movie. Despite the fact that boys and girls were separated, except at the dining hall and swimming pool, the pair fell in love.
As Cliff puts it, “She was a pretty girl in a bathing suit.”
This past Thanksgiving, they celebrated their 52nd wedding anniversary.
“I got a turkey for Thanksgiving Day,” Shirley said jokingly of the man she calls “Sugar.”
Asked what he thinks about the Shoeless Wonders story being made into a movie, Cliff said, “It think it’s wonderful. It’s a good story, and you can’t tell the story without telling the story of the home, too, which was a really great place to grow up.”
By Suzanne Ramsey