George Guido: Spanish influenza wreaked havoc with 1918 football season

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Tuesday, October 9, 2018 | 9:30 PM


It was the high school football season that pretty much wasn’t.

It was 1918.

That season, Western Pennsylvania, the nation and much of the world was ravaged by the deadly Spanish influenza.

At the time, the scholastic football season didn’t begin until the final Friday of September. Three weeks of practices started when the school year got underway — usually around Labor Day.

Tarentum began its season with a 58-0 rout of Kittanning and the red and black, as the team was referred in the newspapers, was anticipating a successful season. The nickname “Redcats” wouldn’t be adopted until years later.

New Kensington lost its season opener to Donora, 7-0. But with a nine-game slate planned, “the Kensters,” as the team was referred to in print, had time to counter the opening day setback.

Meanwhile, a virus that affected soldiers coming and going from World War I was reported at several bases. On Aug. 27, a wave of the virus had hit Camp Devens in Massachusetts.

Three weeks later, the disease, by then determined to be the Spanish influenza, had spread to Western Pennsylvania.

Schools were closed, thereby canceling athletics. Churches in New Kensington were ordered closed by the Board of Health.

Churches on the Tarentum side of the Allegheny were limited to one service per weekend.

A family of six was infected in East Deer, three more in Tarentum on Oct. 3.

Henry Ashe, 29, former Springdale school principal, died in Washington, D.C., doing community work at a war camp.

Twenty more were infected in the Natrona section of Harrison Township, which had its own high school at the time.

Allegheny Ludlum Steel, now known as ATI Rolled Products, was shuttered when more than 40 men came down with the flu in one day.

Soon, public health officials discouraged large gatherings.

Tarentum High School, now known as Highlands Elementary along Ross Street, was turned into a makeshift hospital.

Pittsburgh reported 4,500 deaths from the flu, and nearly 24,000 people were treated in Pittsburgh area hospitals. Football was the last thing on people’s minds.

In Westmoreland County, 2,000 people died, and the entire town of Ligonier was under quarantine.

On Oct. 29, 176 people in the region died.

Though doctors and medical researchers knew nothing about the origin of the strains, the flu finally began to dissipate in early November — after Halloween activities were banned in nearly all communities.

After a five-week layoff, Tarentum resumed football and lost a 7-6 decision at Duquesne.

The Tarentum Valley News reported coach Dinsmore’s team “lacked the punch and fight. The linemen didn’t charge as viciously as expected” after the layoff.

New Kensington resumed its schedule against rival Parnassus at Wear-Ever Park.

In the game preview, the Kensington Dispatch said “coach Park (Parnassus) and coach Glock (New Kensington) have been training their men for their battle and will go into the game primed for a hard tussle.”

New Ken prevailed 19-0, and the Wolfson-Moran Trophy was presented to the winners.

Teams scrambled to make up games into late November before basketball took over.

There was no WPIAL champion in 1918. In what sounds strange today, the Syracuse University Alumni Association selected the WPIAL champion.

The declared winner was awarded the Syracuse Cup. There were no on-field playoffs and the Syracuse alums saw schools with just partial seasons.

The Elks Home in New Kensington had a banquet for the team that finished 2-2-1.

Tarentum finished at 3-2-1. Parnassus was 1-4 and Apollo, after losing its first game to Greensburg, 46-0, didn’t bother resuming the season after the interruption.

An estimated 650,000 died from the flu nationwide, and Pittsburgh was about the most hard hit, where someone died every 10 minutes at the height of the epidemic.

Things got back to normal in 1919.

By that time, New Kensington, Tarentum, Parnassus, Aspinwall, Vandergrift, Apollo, Ford City and Kittanning joined the WPIAL.

Leechburg also inaugurated football in 1919; Arnold would come along two years later and Freeport in 1922.

George Guido is a Valley News Dispatch scholastic sports correspondent. His column appears Wednesdays.

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