Notre Dame Football & The 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic
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Remembering The 1918 Pandemic And Notre Dame's Football Season

This month in the sports world is traditionally one of great anticipation with, above all, March Madness for NCAA Basketball,. There also is spring training for Major League Baseball, a final push toward the NBA Playoffs, awaiting The Masters and spring football on college campuses throughout the country.

All that has been altered significantly in the coming days, weeks and maybe months because of the COVID-19, known as the Coronavirus.

Knute Rockne's debut season in 1918 included the likes of Curly Lambeau and George Gipp in the back row.
Knute Rockne's debut season in 1918 included the likes of Curly Lambeau and George Gipp in the back row. (Notre Dame Archives)

Not since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States has the sports world been so altered. Back then, though, it resulted in the cancellation of college and NFL games for only that week, and in many cases they would be rescheduled later.

The assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963 led to Notre Dame cancelling its football game the next day at Iowa (it was never rescheduled).

During World War II the Notre Dame-USC series was not played from 1942-45 while travel restrictions were enforced. The 1942 Rose Bowl was shifted from Pasadena, Calif., to Duke’s campus in Durham, N.C. because of fears about more attacks on the West Coast by the Japanese after doing so several weeks earlier at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

But it was just over 100 years ago, 1918, that the Spanish Influenza pandemic that struck the world had the most profound impact on the nation when it came to sports.



1918: A DOUBLE DOSE OF HITS

In the winter of 1918, Notre Dame assistant football coach Knute Rockne, an All-American senior receiver under head coach Jesse Harper for the unbeaten 1913 Fighting Irish, excitedly accepted the open head coaching position at Michigan Agriculture Culture, known as Michigan State today.

And then fate intervened.

A close relative of Harper in Kansas had passed away, prompting him to take over the family ranching business back home. Harper urged the university to promote Rockne as his successor.

That 1918 debut for Rockne saw college football have two cataclysmic events with which to deal.

The first was thousands of young men in college were leaving the United States to engage in World War I that was raging in Europe.

Approximately 2,200 Notre Dame students entered the uniformed service, and 46 were killed in action. Their names are the ones memorialized at the “God, Country, Notre Dame” side entrance of Sacred Heart Church on campus.

Only four monogram winners from the 1917 team returned, although one of them was future superstar halfback George Gipp.

Rockne’s head coaching debut occurred on Sept. 26, 1918, in Cleveland with a 26-6 victory versus Case Tech (now Case Western Reserve) after falling behind 6-0. Gipp scored twice for Notre Dame, but the initial touchdown of the Rockne era was tallied by Earl Louis “Curly” Lambeau, who later would leave school because of tonsillitis. Then in August 1919 he began a professional football league with the founding of the Green Bay Packers.

The second setback was likewise deadly to the world.

In late September, right around after the opener versus Case Tech, the Spanish influenza epidemic that would afflict 20 million Americans and kill about 675,000 in the United States had hit.

Worldwide, approximately 500 million people — about one-third of the world’s population back then — became infected and the death toll was estimated at 50 million.


HOW IT BEGAN

The genesis of the pandemic in the United States struck in Boston before infiltrating Camp Devens, about 30 miles east, where 50 soldiers died Sept. 25. The spread from there went well beyond exponential.

• In Washington, D.C., all of the nurses at George Washington Hospital caught the flu, bringing the services there to a halt.

• On Oct. 10 alone, Philadelphia suffered 528 deaths.

• A week later (Oct. 17) in Chicago on “Black Thursday,” 381 died and 1,200 new cases were reported. It was decreed that no more than 10 mourners could attend a funeral.

• At Camp Grant in Rockford, Ill., 10,713 soldiers took ill, and at Camp Dodge, Iowa, the barracks had to be made into hospital wards for approximately 8,000 patients.

• In Modesto, Calif., school lessons were published in the local newspaper, and the children mailed their completed assignments to teachers at the closed schools.

Throughout the country, any area of assemblage — theatres, bars, schools, churches, sporting events, etc. — were ordered closed in efforts to keep the disease from spreading. (The World Series, won by the Boston Red Sox, was played Sept. 5-11.)

In comparison, Notre Dame was not hit as harshly with the global catastrophe, but about 200 cases were reported, and among them a nun nurse and nine students died.

Nevertheless, from 1917 to 1918, the life expectancy in the United States fell about 12 years, to 36.6 years for men and 42.2 years for women.

As a result, Notre Dame’s scheduled games with Army (the service academies suspended intercollegiate athletics), Washington & Jefferson, Kalamazoo, Purdue and Camp Custer were cancelled.


RESUMING THE SEASON

By late October, the pandemic began to ebb, but there was still some understandable paranoia.

The scheduled game at Nebraska Nov. 2 was called off when right before the Notre Dame players were to board the train for Lincoln, a telegram arrived from the school’s administration reporting that “the Lincoln city council has voted to keep the ban on sporting events in effect because of flu, even though state has lifted ban.”

Eager to get back to a sense of normalcy, Rockne called fellow Notre Dame graduate Pete Vaughn, who was coaching Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Ind., and arranged for a game that same Nov. 2. Rockne’s crew easily romped to a 67-7 win to move to 2-0.

• On Nov. 9, the lone Notre Dame home game that year was played versus Great Lakes, comprised of former collegians that included George “Papa Bear” Halas, the founder of the Chicago Bears. It was the first meeting between a Lambeau and Halas team.

The game ended in a 7-7 tie — and two days later on Nov. 11, World War I in Europe officially ended.

• Next up on Nov. 16 was a trip to East Lansing, Mich., to face Michigan Agricultural College — the job Rockne almost took earlier in the year.

Under new head coach George Gauthier, the Aggies (before they became Spartans) posted a 13-7 victory.

In later years in the Michigan State football media guide, that day was referred to as “one of the most astounding upsets in Aggie history.”

• State rival Purdue did not give in to the Big Ten’s desire to blackball Notre Dame, and the Oct. 19 game that had been cancelled was rescheduled Nov. 23 at West Lafayette, Ind. In the ninth-ever meeting between the two teams, Notre Dame romped to a 26-6 conquest.

This also occurred in 2001 after the 9-11 attacks. The Fighting Irish game at Purdue that was cancelled that week was moved to the regular season finale on Dec. 1. Despite defeating the Boilermakers, 24-18, Notre Dame head coach Bob Davie, who had received a five-year contract extension 12 months earlier, was fired the next morning because of the 5-6 finish.

• Rockne’s debut season ended, appropriately enough, on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 28, when the Nebraska contest was finally played. Notre Dame did not yield a single first down to the Cornhuskers on the muddy field, but was unable to put any points on the board itself in the scoreless deadlock.

The final record of 3-1-2 remains relatively unheralded in the history books, but the “rest of the story,” including a 9-0 finish the following year (1919) that would win the school its first recognition as a national champion, would remain everlasting.

In the ravages of a World War and an international flu pandemic 100 years ago, the University of Notre Dame football program had still found a “Rock” upon which to continue to build its football foundation.

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