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Throwback Thursday: Notre Dame Football and the 1918 Spanish Influenza

“Mercifully, a football season ended, and an autumn unlike any other was finished.”

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University of Notre Dame’s football team, 1918. Back row: Coach Knute Rockne, Charles Crowley, Early “Curly” Lambeau, George Gipp, Raleigh Stine, Frederic Larson. Middle row: Eddie Anderson, Maurice “Clipper” Smith, Captain Pete Bahan, Bernard Kirk, Heartley “Hunk” Anderson. Front row: Frank Lockard, Norman Barry, William Mohn.
University of Notre Dame Archive

Since we can no longer look forward to the Notre Dame Fighting Irish’s spring game due to its cancellation as a result of the current coronavirus pandemic, I’ve been spending my time rereading some of the Notre Dame books on my shelves. I remembered that in Jim Lefebvre’s, Coach For a Nation: The Life and Times of Knute Rockne,” he wrote about the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, and so I thought I’d pull that book off the shelf this week and write a bit about the 1918 Notre Dame football season.

Although the pandemic of 1918 came to be known as the Spanish influenza, the epidemic probably didn’t originate in Spain. Spain was neutral during World War I, which meant there were no wartime press restrictions in that country. As a result of this, some of the first published reports of the epidemic were printed in Spanish newspapers, which lead people to believe that the disease started there.

The Spanish flu spread across the world during the final months of World War I, but the worst part of the pandemic in South Bend occurred in October of 1918, with the first reported case occurring in September of 1918.

On October 11, 1918, Dr. Emil G. Freyermuth, the South Bend city health officer, issued a city-wide order forbidding all public gatherings until further notice. All schools, theaters, clubs, churches and other religions institutions were closed. Public funerals, meetings dances, and other events were cancelled. Even the University of Notre Dame cancelled several of their football games that month. The city street cars in South Bend remained running and restaurants weren’t required to close. The street cars were ordered to operate with all windows open, with the hope that it would prevent the flu’s spread.

“The same Thursday that Dr. Freyermuth announced the closing of public buildings, Rockne released a revised football schedule that met the latest government requirements, which stated that no college teams could make any trips during October, and they could make no more than two trips in November. The Irish would host military teams from Municipal Pier, October 19; Camp Custer, October 26; and Great Lakes, November 9. The Michigan Aggies would visit Cartier Field November 16, and away games were to be at Nebraska November 2 and Purdue November 23.” (Excerpt from Jim Lefebvre’s, “Coach For a Nation: The Life and Times of Knute Rockne.”)

Even though the pandemic was starting to flatten by the end of October, many people were still uneasy. Nebraska backed out of their scheduled game on November 2, however, Rockne filled that spot with Wabash College, and took his team to Crawfordsville, Indiana, to get things moving back to normal. Notre Dame’s football team only ended up playing one home game that fall, on November 9th, tying Great Lakes NTS, 7-7. On November 16th, they lost to the Michigan Aggies (now Michigan State University), 13-7. The Purdue game, which was originally scheduled for October 19th, was played on November 23rd, and was won by Notre Dame, 26-6. The season was finished on November 28th, when the Nebraska game was rescheduled, a game that ended in a scoreless tie. The Fighting Irish 1918 season record was 3-1-2 in Knute Rockne’s first season as Notre Dame’s head coach.

Below is another excerpt from Jim Lefebvre’s, “Coach For a Nation: The Life and Times of Knute Rockne.”

“Before the epidemic slowed, more than 200 Notre Dame students would be afflicted; classes were canceled for days and at least nine students died. So serious was the epidemic at Notre Dame that Cavanaugh described its impact on the campus in a letter to a friend 10 months later as ‘the death of all human joy.’ Quarantines were imposed to prevent the spread of the disease. As the bodies mounted, funerals were held outdoors to protect the mourners against the spread of the disease. The Great War claimed an estimated 16 million lives. The global influenza epidemic that began in 1918 killed an estimated 50 million people, approximately 650,000 in the United States.”

“On campus, tamping down reports of influenza became a major endeavor. Father Cavanaugh took to the pages of the Scholastic with a letter to ‘check any wild rumors about sickness at the University.’ In it he said the deaths of two students at St. Joseph’s Hospital on October 22 were not related to the illness of the 50 listed as sick on campus, whether those 50 were in the Infirmary, the Minims (grammar school, under the age of 12), or at the SATC (Student Army Training Corps) Hospital: ‘At the present time there are just three very sick boys ... we have had very little evidence of the presence of the so-called Spanish Influenza. This may be due to the fact that the Notre Dame boy, as a rule, is in exceptionally good shape physically ... We have had four deaths this year out of a population of 1500 students. One was little ‘Bobbie’ Corrigan. He was constitutionally weak and all of us knew he would never get through his youth. The others were Lester Burrill, William Conway and George Guilfoyle. Guilfoyle and Conroy died this morning. They have been fighting a battle with pneumonia all week. I make this statement so as to prevent ignorance and malicious people from frightening the public needlessly and also, to clip the wings of the sensation mongers.’”

If you have not read Lefebvre’s, Coach For a Nation: The Life and Times of Knute Rockne,” I highly recommend it. It is the most comprehensive research on Knute Rockne’s life that I have ever seen, and it is a very enjoyable read!

Cheers & GO IRISH!

Jim Lefebvre’s, “Coach For a Nation: The Life and Times of Knute Rockne.”