Century-old football charm proves you can go home again

Century-old football charm proves you can go home again

January 18th, 2015 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - College

Jane Harper wears her father Lee Tolley's good-luck football charm, given to him after he lead Sewanee to an upset victory over Vanderbilt in 1914, as she holds his portrait on Thursday at her home in Signal Mountain, Tenn.

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

Seventy-three years ago, Jane Tolley had a plan.

In retrospect, it was not necessarily a great plan, although its warning signs eluded her as easily as her father, Lee, once eluded enemy tacklers as an All-Southern quarterback for the University of the South.

Yet it was also a wholly understandable plan, given that she was a 16-year-old GPS student about to join several classmates and McCallie School boys in a game of tag football one warm and sunny autumn Sunday in 1942.

"I'd seen this football charm laying around the house for years," recalled Tolley, who became Jane Harper 63 years ago when she married Jerry. "It would be in a box or a drawer. Nobody ever wore it. It was too heavy. I didn't know it had any value whatsoever. So I decided to put it on that day with my dad's (Southeastern Conference) black and white referee's shirt."

Lee Tolley's good luck charm, given to him in 1914 when he led Sewanee to an upset victory over Vanderbilt.

Lee Tolley's good luck charm, given to him...

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

Lee Tolley may have rarely mentioned the 14-karat solid gold charm, but it was the most shining example of his athletic greatness. Sewanee gave him the charm to commemorate his huge role in the Tigers' 14-13 victory over Vanderbilt at VU's Dudley Field on the final game of his senior year.

Sewanee won that game mostly because the 5-foot-7, 148-pound Tolley scored a touchdown on a 75-yard punt return and kicked both extra points. Vandy missed one extra point, which proved the margin of victory.

So dominating was Tolley against the Commodores that a sports writer for the Hopkinsville Kentuckian wrote in the newspaper's Nov. 28, 1914 edition: "For brilliance and beauty of execution, (Tolley's play) has had few equals, if any, in the South, and the Tiger leader retires from the game as the premier quarterback in the S.I.A.A., beyond a doubt."

Not that his daughter chose that brilliance as her reason to wear his charm and referee's shirt without his knowledge. Instead, her reason was as old and pure as teenaged angst.

"I just thought," she said with a smile, "that the McCallie boys would think I was really cute."

So off she went from her Berkeley Circle home in North Chattanooga to the Missionary Ridge Elementary School playground to enjoy an afternoon of sweet normalcy in a world turned mad by World War II.

Unfortunately, at some point also off went the charm and the handsome gold chain it hung on, never, apparently, to be seen again.

Wrote Jane Harper's daughter, Mary Bach, in an email last week: "Her father was furious."

Father and daughter swiftly returned to the playground to find it, but to no success. Asked what discipline befell her for such behavior, Jane Harper said, "I'm not sure. I might have had to cut the grass one weekend. After a week or so, I don't think I ever thought about it again."

Never. Not for 71 years. Out of sight, out of mind. Lee Tolley went on providing for his wife Sadie, Jane and her brother Lee Jr. as a star salesman for O.B. Andrews. He died in 1972 at the age of 80, Sadie following him 12 years later.

Jane and Jerry Harper raised four children -- Mary, twins Jerry Jr. and Lee, and Tommy -- the boys all graduating from McCallie, as their grandfather had, and Mary from GPS. Jerry Sr. was a City High grad. Jane and Jerry still live on Signal Mountain, where their seven grandchildren have grown up climbing the boulders that dot their property.

And every now and then they've reflected on Lee Tolley's life, from his Sewanee football days, to his service in World War I, to the fall of 1924, when he coached City High, receiving a loving cup engraved with all the players' names, to one particular evening he officiated a Tennessee-LSU game in Baton Rouge.

"His favorite story," Jerry said. "There was a play where he marked a UT player out of bounds, but apparently not where General (Robert) Neyland thought he'd stepped out. Jane's dad was adamant about the mark. When he'd retell it he'd always gesture, pointing at the ground, 'He was out right here.'

"But General Neyland didn't see it that way. He told Lee that if he stuck with that call he'd never officiate another Tennessee game."

Jerry Harper paused, then added, "And he never did."

But for 71 years no one ever again mentioned the gold football charm. Then one September day in 2013 the phone rang at the Harpers' home.

CHARMED

"Ms. Harper, my name's Rocky Morris," began the voice on the other end of the line. "I dabble in buying and selling gold jewelry. I've found a charm with Lee Tolley's ..."

Jane Harper cut Morris off before he could continue. "Stop right there!" she exclaimed. "I know what you have. It's a gold football."

It was indeed the same gold football lost on the Missionary Ridge Elementary School playground in 1942. And 71 years later, its meticulous engraving remained almost as clear and sharp as the day Sewanee gave it to Tolley.

On one of the nearly-one-inch-long football's four panels -- "Think of those foil-wrapped chocolate footballs you ate as a kid," Morris noted to describe the charm's size -- was a block "S" for Sewanee, much of the original purple paint applied to that S still visible. On the left side of the S was the number 19 with a 14 on the right side to recall the year. On another panel were the words "Captain Lee Tolley." On a third was "Quarterback." The final panel contained the game's score: Sewanee 14, Vanderbilt 13.

"I started out collecting Sewanee postcards about 25 years ago," said the 68-year-old Morris, a Winchester, Tenn., native who lived in Chattanooga for 25 years, then moved to Sewanee in 1995 to begin a title research agency.

"Then I started collecting yearbooks -- I've got one from 1891 -- then jewelry pieces. I scan the Internet several times a day hoping I don't miss anything. The football popped up one day on eBay."

Morris had two purchase options from a Florida dealer who specializes in estate jewelry: "Buy it now" or "make an offer."

He bought it for $500, receiving it through the mail on Sept. 17, 2013. In one of those "Twilight Zone" coincidences, Jane Harper was born on Sept. 17. As soon as he saw Lee Tolley's name on the football, he set out to find out who the player was and if he might have family still living in the area.

Searching through the 1914-15 Sewanee yearbook, Morris soon discovered much about Tolley.

"I found out he was quite an athlete," Morris said. "And apparently quite a lady's man."

He finally connected with a Mark Tolley in Nashville. He was Jane's first cousin. Tolley told Morris that Jane was alive and well and living on Signal Mountain. Morris made the phone call, though Jane wasn't in a position to buy back the charm and Morris wasn't quite ready to bargain.

But he was also touched by her demeanor.

"So many people in that situation are threatening," Morris said. "They're like, 'It's mine and I want it back now!' But she was different. Mrs. Harper was very nice."

As 2013 rolled into 2014, that niceness took hold. Yes, the football charm was the centerpiece of his Sewanee collection and valued by one jeweler at nearly twice the price he'd paid for it. But something about Tolley's story tugged at him.

"I just decided I couldn't keep something like that," he said a few days ago. "It needed to go home."

When Mary Bach called Morris this past October hoping to, in her words, "close the loop for my mom on this football," he was ready to make a deal.

They agreed to meet at the Blue Chair Cafe in Sewanee in early November. No one else in the Harper family knew about the transaction except Mary's husband, Jim. When Morris pulled out the charm, her eyes began to water.

"We're all so grateful to Rocky for agreeing to do this," she said.

HOME SWEET HOME

Mary decided she would give her mom the charm on Christmas afternoon, when the Harper clan always gathers at the Bachs' Signal Mountain home for a gift exchange.

She placed it in a silver box tucked inside a silver bag, then hid it under the tree in such a way that it would be the last present opened. No one but Mary and Jim knew what was inside.

When Jane Harper opened it, the charm now 100 years old, she felt her own eyes fill with tears.

"I couldn't believe it," she said. "I said, 'Oh, thank you, Daddy.' I know he'd be so proud to have it back home. Then I hugged Mary. I told her, 'When I die you can have it back.'"

Beyond the charm, what Lee Tolley's family most got back was a newfound appreciation for the athlete, veteran, father, husband and businessman.

"I know he's up in heaven smiling," Jane said. "He'd love us telling all his old football stories again."

Said Jerry Jr.: "Our granddad died when we were teenagers. We knew he'd gone to McCallie and played football at Sewanee. We never even knew the football charm existed. Seeing my grandmother open that and hearing the stories was a really neat experience. We were all just kind of blown away."

Added Lee, whose son Lee Tolley Harper Jr., in a second "Twilight Zone" moment, was born on his great-grandfather's birthday (Sept. 28): "We certainly knew him, but he was a pretty quiet guy. He kept a lot of this stuff to himself. But it's clear my grandfather was quite a stud back in his day."

Then there's Mary's son Jamie. He and his brother Christopher are the only members of the Tolley/Harper/Bach clan to have gone to Baylor School, and both played football for the Red Raiders. (Great-grandsons Evan Myers, Lee Harper Jr. and Dan Harper -- currently a junior -- have all gone to McCallie.)

A couple of years ago, Jamie found the picture of his great-grandfather in his Sewanee uniform that accompanies this story. It was in a basement dresser in his grandparents' home. He had it framed, and in the years since he's framed several more photos of Tolley and hung them in his Franklin, Tenn., home.

"My parents called a few days before Christmas and asked me to bring the football picture," Jamie recalled. "As soon as I saw my grandmother start to open the charm, I thought, 'I know what this is.' Such a special moment."

The family still has questions about the past 73 years.

"Why wasn't it melted?" Jane asked. "Where has it been?"

Added Mary: "If only it could talk."

But with the charm once more safely tucked away in a box and a drawer, Jane Harper is convinced of one thing above all else.

"It's a pretty interesting story," she said. "Definitely not something you could make up."

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.