Flu season: How the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic changed college football in Oklahoma
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College football fans crowded into Boyd Field on Nov. 16, 1918, to watch the Sooners take on Arkansas.
“The fans, so long denied of their favorite winter sport, will turn out in full force to cheer the Sooners to victory,” The Daily Oklahoman printed that day.
The day marked one of the biggest milestones in an odd 1918 college football season that was imperiled by World War I and then ravaged by the Spanish influenza pandemic that struck the country that fall.
More than a century ago, as now, there was plenty of uncertainty over the future of college football but the game wound up being part of a uniting force both as restrictions were lifted following a litany of closures and cancellations in the wake of the pandemic, and as Americans celebrated the end of the war.
OU nearly didn’t have football at all in 1918.
As the war drug on in Europe, American colleges had transformed into military training grounds. The schools became more about preparing young men to help the war effort than educating or winning football games.
The army went back and forth about whether to allow football at all, first ruling in mid-September that there would be no season before relenting a day later. Football, though, was not to interfere with military training, and long trips for the sport were banned.
In Norman, things nearly went further.
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The army commandant first sent to organize OU’s military program ruled there would be no football on campus after he found out that Bennie Owen’s team was practicing without first asking his permission.
After a meeting with the commandant, Owen went to the university president’s office.
Stratton D. Brooks told Owen that a new Student Army Training Corps commandant would be on campus soon.
“Let’s wait until I have a chance to talk to him,” Brooks told Owen, according to Harold Keith’s book, Oklahoma Kickoff.
Capt. Fred Bachman thought football was a benefit to preparing its players for military service and approved that the sport would continue.
Still, there were plenty of hurdles to clear.
Freshmen were ineligible at the time, and remained so until 1972, but the rule was waived that season after colleges were hit hard by draft losses.
Only three of the 18 lettermen from the Sooners’ 1917 team returned in 1918. Only one of those made it through the entire season as two left for military service during the fall.
In Stillwater, just four regulars from the 1917 team, which to that point was Oklahoma A&M’s greatest and knocked off the Sooners 9-0, returned.
The Sooners were scheduled to begin play in late September, opening against Central Normal (now UCO). But UCO had to push the game back and OU eventually opened its season Sept. 28 with a 58-0 win over Post Field, a military team from Fort Sill.
A few days after that victory, the first diagnosed case of Spanish flu hit Oklahoma City.
The next weekend, Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State) opened its season with a win over Haskell.
It took just a few days before the rush of cases of Spanish flu that swept the country — reportedly killing about 675,000 in the United States — impacted college football.
When Central was scheduled to play Kendall College (now Tulsa University) on Oct. 12, Central was “crippled” by the flu. That game wouldn’t be played.
The day before, Stroud High’s game against Drumright was canceled, with The Oklahoman reporting that “every member of the (Stroud) team is ill in bed with Spanish influenza.”
A weekend later, OU’s game against Phillips was postponed and its scheduled games against Missouri and Texas were pushed back into November. Those two would never be played.
Two days before facing the Sooners in late October, Central had just 14 players at practice as one-third of the team battled the flu.
The stands at Boyd Field were a strange sight for that game as a quarantine kept away the general public. Only SATC members were allowed to watch and even they were separated in the stands. Each company sat in a different section with space in between to keep one company from infecting another during the Sooners’ 44-0 win.
By early November, every player except for one — end/back Dan Perdue — had returned for Central as A&M beat them 26-6 in what was referred to by The Oklahoman as the season opener for the Aggies after a long layoff.
The next weekend, the lifting of the ban on large gatherings in Oklahoma City and around the state opened churches and theaters, but it wasn’t until the following weekend when the Sooners and Aggies were both at home that college football fans of the state’s two premier programs were able to once again watch their teams play.
In Stillwater, they saw A&M beat Fairmount (now Wichita State) 26-7 on what was already known then as Lewis Field.
In Norman, the Sooners scored six first-quarter touchdowns to blow out the Razorbacks 103-0.
From there, the last few weeks of the season fell into a typical rhythm.
For the Sooners, that included a 13-7 win over Phillips that featured the only touchdown OU allowed all season before it came from behind to beat the team from Enid, then a 27-0 Bedlam win at Oklahoma City’s Fair Park. It was the last Bedlam football game played in the capital city until 1943.
The next season, OU resumed what had been a tradition of playing Texas in Dallas and in 1929 the schools started a still uninterrupted streak of playing there and college football got back to normal and the sport continued its growth into the premier American sport.
Then, as now, sports served as a distraction from more serious matters happening around the globe.
And then, as now, sports crawled to a stop — though not as long as the current shutdown — as a pandemic swept the world.
“I feel by September, the world is going to need football,” Sooners coach Lincoln Riley said Tuesday when asked if he’d considered a fall without football.
In 1918, football helped return the country to normal.