1918: A year of Spanish flu, local football history

By Ron Brocato, Clarion Herald Sports

While high school sports are at a standstill during these few months that the students are on vacation, the temporary hiatus becomes the perfect time to venture through the pages of history, which has become easier by reading microfilm pages of The Times-Picayune and other local newspapers during the heyday of daily publications.

As archeologists have discovered as they painstakingly expose fossils of flora and fauna, history is a trove of fascinating stories that enlighten us about our past and the events that have brought us to this point in time.

The year 1918 has its own captivating tale to tell:

World War I was grinding to a close. The U.S. involvement lasted a comparatively short time, but as soldiers returned to their respective bases on the mainland, they brought a deadly and uninvited visitor from the dank trenches of Europe in which they lived and fought.

At Fort Riley, Kansas, an Army private reported to the camp hospital just before breakfast on March 11 complaining of fever, a sore throat and a headache. He was quickly followed by another soldier with similar complaints. By noon, the camp hospital had dealt with more than 100 ill soldiers. By week’s end, that number had risen to 500.

Within three months, other states were reporting similar ailments among their populations. By mid-summer, public health officials in Philadelphia issued the first bulletin naming the quickly spreading disease “Spanish Flu.”

The epidemic was a deadly by-product of the war, and by the time it had run its course, the Spanish Flu had claimed 200,000 American lives across the map.

Death from the disease continued through the end of the war in November of 1918.

By October, the newspapers reported that citizens of New Orleans had begun to experience flu-like symptoms, just as the city’s schools were ready to kick off the 1918 football season.

It was a year of great change. Claude “Monk” Simons Sr. left Manual Training (Newman) as its football coach to become physical education director of the city’s YMCA. And, he was chosen by the high school principals to form a local prep school association to promote and govern high school sports.

Simons liked the idea of placing prep sports under the umbrella of a “league” and organized a get-together meeting of the local schools.

He sent letters to coaches at Boys’ High (Warren Easton), Jesuit, Holy Cross and St. Aloysius colleges, Rugby Academy, Chenet’s Institute, Ferrell’s School and a little Catholic school on Napoleon Avenue known as Verrina.

Senior, junior divisions set

At the initial meeting, which took place at Tad Gormley’s Young Men’s Gymnastic Club (today’s NOAC), the attendees divided the New Orleans Prep School Athletic League into two divisions: The Senior Division, composed of football teams whose average weight was 130 pounds or more, and the Junior Division weighing less. Schools could field teams in both.

The league operated on a bare-bones budget, and one of the first orders of business was to stop the practice of doling out complimentary tickets. Admission was set at 25 cents to watch Senior Division games, and 15 cents for the Junior Division contests.

The new league agreed to buy six new footballs to be used at every game; the victorious team would keep the ball as its prize. The Junior League, which would consist of St. Aloysius and Verrina and second units of Boys’ High and Jesuit, would play with used balls. But that turned out to be a moot point because only four members of the league would field football teams, all in the Senior Division.

Twenty-five players responded to Jesuit’s call for football prospects. G. Gernon Brown was named the team’s captain.

At Boys’ High, a similar number answered the call.

Only 11 boys, including six returning players, were on hand for Rugby’s first practice.

But, was there going to be a season?

The ability to schedule games out of town was being hampered by the flu epidemic, whose deadly tentacles had found its way to the cities and back roads of Louisiana.

On Oct. 9, the epidemic had reached a critical point at home. New Orleans and Baton Rouge schools were closed.

Football practice at Boys’ High was postponed until the school reopened. Athletic director Perry Roehm secured permission from the city’s school board to hold limited practices on the school grounds.

On Oct. 10, the flu hit the Jesuit football team. Four of its best players, including captain Gernon Brown, were affected. The junior team discontinued practice and soon disbanded.

Manual Training players continued to work, though school had not opened. And, Rugby players practiced at Audubon Park, although coach Benny Clay was running the practices by remote control. From his bed at Army Reserve camp in Mississippi where he was recovering from the flu, Clay mailed a correspondence course to his players with practice instructions.

Three Rugby players and five more from other local schools took advantage of the situation by traveling to Chatawa, Mississippi, for a hunting trip.

They promised to stay in condition by taking along a football to toss.

Opening day of the 1918 season came and went with all playing fields closed.

As the epidemic worsened, fall weather was adding to the deplorable conditions. Rain fell for days as the weather turned cool and damp. The local newspapers reported that commerce in New Orleans had come to a veritable standstill as the U.S. Department of Health advised citizens to remain indoors.

Simons wrote a letter to notify the public that the football season was in dire jeopardy because of a travel ban.

Soon an editorial in the T-P called for the prep season to be extended. It noted, “With many of the colleges out because of the war conditions, the younger players would have had things their own way. The football season should be extended to accommodate these lads.”

As the days passed and the weather conditions improved, some teams resumed practice.

The city’s Board of Health began to issue statements that the epidemic was subsiding. The Prep League met on Nov. 3 to discuss playing a limited schedule.

It was determined by high school principals throughout the state that there would be no state champion crowned. Game times were reduced to four equal quarters (from 15) with four-minute intermissions between the periods.

Just 12 games were played during the abbreviated season, which, despite its near disastrous start, was deemed a success because the city had established a league of schools that was run efficiently by professional men.

Prep sports enjoyed the next 87 years of uninterrupted play through another world war and several hurricanes, until Katrina struck in 2005.

Ron Brocato can be reached at rbrocato@clarionherald.org.

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