From the 1920s to the 1950s, orphans from the Presbyterian Home in Lynchburg dominated and defeated rival football teams. Too poor to even afford shoes, they played in their bare feet, and became known as The Shoeless Wonders. Their inspiration story gained national attention, and was featured in “Ripley’s Believe It or Not”. Now, they’re the subject of an upcoming movie.
“The field ran back this way toward the gymnasium. The goal post was probably right here and there was another one down there just. . .”
That’s Glen Thomas, looking back to the 1940s….remembering the childhood he shared with his brother Cliff.
Their grandmother, in rural Virginia, couldn’t afford to take care of them. At ages 6 and 4, they were taken in by a minister, and eventually sent to what is now the Presbyterian Homes & Family Services and the Family Alliance in Lynchburg.
It was there that the Thomas brothers met Hugh Stallard, and the three eventually became part of the third and final incarnation of the Shoeless Wonders.
But work came first. Cliff Thomas says even at the age of 4, the children had chores.
“They might give us a wooly rag or something and tell us to shine the floors or whatever.”
Others did laundry or worked in the fields. But during school, when they were milking cows, and while squirming in their seats during Bible study, the thoughts of the 120 or so children often turned to the field behind the cottages where they lived. It was here they could run and play their favorite childhood games-barefoot.
“We went barefoot all summer anyway,”
Stallard says they would only put their shoes on for Sunday church.
After being unbeaten and unscored on for nearly a decade, the first Shoeless Wonders team disbanded when those boys turned 18 and left. Stallard says a few years later Joe Blackburn, a former resident and player who went on to head the school, decided to recreate the legend a final time.
“And they went over and started playing and one of the guys said, ‘I can’t run with these farm shoes on’, so he threw his shoes off. And immediately (they) gave him the ball and he ran for a touchdown.
So the rest took off their shoes, too. Word got around and soon the local newspapers dubbed them the Shoeless Wonders. They were also the subject of a Universal Pictures newsreel.
“I think Joe wanted to carry on the tradition. He said, ‘They played barefoot, they were Shoeless Wonders. We’re going to play barefoot’. And the funny thing about it, I don’t think any of us knew the difference.”
They practiced every night.
“On Saturday, we’d spend sometimes two and three hours just kicking fieldgoals.”
The kids ranged in age from 8 to 15 and the younger ones would get to play once the team was 50 or 60 points ahead. Stallard says no one ever stubbed or broke a toe during practice or a game.
“The whole time that I played for the Shoeless Wonders, I don’t remember anyone really, intentionally stepping on your feet from the other teams. Either we were moving so fast or something that they couldn’t get a shot at it but I don’t recall anyone intentionally trying to stomp your feet.”
“Our uniforms were something to behold. I think we got our uniforms from cast offs from different colleges and high schools and stuff. But I remember some of the helmets were just the leather helmets, guess they had a little lining in there but if you ever took a blow on that helmet, it’d knock you into next year sometime.”
There were only 11 players and everyone played offense and defense.
“And the names of the plays were really simple, weren’t they. I mean it was pitch to the left, pitch to the right. Wasn’t anything you hear in college football or even high school anymore.”
And Cliff Thomas should know. He’s the grandfather of Logan Thomas, former Virginia Tech and now Arizona Cardinal quarterback.
Cliff’s brother Glen believes that no matter how much time today’s teams practice, the Shoeless Wonders will never be replicated after disbanding in 1959….because living together as a family was the key to their success on the football field and in their lives.
“You can’t go downtown, pull kids in from all directions once a week have practice and put them on the field and play like we did.”
Virginia-based Life Out Loud Films plans to produce a movie based on the Shoeless Wonders. The filmmakers are currently in the research and scripting stage, but hope to begin filming in 2016.
The Home will hold a homecoming this Sunday for former residents to come back and reminisce about days gone by.