ATLANTA — The picture is hanging behind Andy McNeil as he sits in his office. In it, you can see the crowd in the stands at a Georgia Tech football game wearing masks. But it’s not a game from 2020.
It’s a photograph that his great-grandfather Thomas Carter took during a Georgia Tech Golden Tornado game. At the height of the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918.
It’s also a photograph that McNeil had the chance to recreate at the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets' home opener last week.
“Of course, I jumped at it. I wanted to make sure it was safe and questions about number of fans. I had no idea where we were going to be," McNeil told Channel 2 Action News. "We tried to recreate the poses, body position and everything.”
The image feels eerily familiar to the world today as college football adapts to the coronavirus pandemic.
The 1918 college football season saw teams cancel their games as they dealt with the end of World War I and the height of the Spanish flu. But people attended games, including the game documented by Carter.
Earlier this year, Carter’s original photo went viral over social media. A friend remembered seeing the photo in McNeil’s office and told his wife, who works with the Georgia Tech Alumni Association.
McNeil never expected the photo to get all the attention that it received.
“Not at all. They were always conversation starters when people saw them hanging on my walls in my office and my home. I would say my great-grandfather was alive during the Spanish Flu pandemic, he survived and lived a very good life," he said.
“Yes, it’s shocking. But history does repeat itself.”
McNeil’s family had stumbled upon Carter’s photos around the time of his death in the late 90s. McNeil’s father and uncle also spent the time to interview their dad about his extraordinary life.
Carter spent time working as a mechanical engineer and consulted the armed forces during World War II. He told stories of driving a boat from Miami to Cuba and smuggled alcohol during Prohibition era. Carter eventually settled back down in Georgia and even opened a technical school in Milledgeville with his wife.
Before Carter’s death in 1998, McNeil followed in his great-grandfather’s footsteps by enrolling at Georgia Tech when he graduated from high school.
“It meant the world to him to be alive and I was going to his alma mater,” he said. “I realized these were so incredible, sentimental and meant so much to him at the time. I had them blown up as big as they could get. I always have them in my office or home somewhere even before the coronavirus pandemic.”
A few weeks ago, the alumni association contacted McNeil to invite him to recreate the photo that means so much to him.
McNeil and his friends from his time as an undergrad even had the chance to sit in the very seats his great-grandfather did. Georgia Tech’s original West stands are still underneath the current seats at Bobby Dodd stadium.
McNeil hopes to never forget the experience. But just like the memory of his great-grandfather, he is confident the new images from this pandemic will live on as well.
“He took it upon himself to document something he and his classmates were doing at the time. We take pictures of our friends and family during this We’re documenting just like he did," he said. “I’m confident that our family members and people down the road will look back at our pictures and just like my great-grandfather, they made it.”
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