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Ohio State football and the last major pandemic

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When the Spanish Flu hit Ohio in the fall of 1918, Ohio State shut down. But the Buckeyes kept playing.

Spanish Flu Infection Photo By BSIP/UIG Via Getty Images

Two Buckeye players were sick. The game against Denison — a layup on Ohio State’s early season schedule — loomed. Players at Denison weren’t faring much better. Several of the Big Red’s stars were also questionable. They weren’t fighting a common cold — they were fighting a global pandemic: the Spanish Flu.

In the face of a fast-spreading virus with morality rate estimates approaching four percent, the Ohio state board of health took action. It closed all schools, colleges, “places of amusements” and prohibited indoor public meetings of all kinds in areas with the flu. That is a long way of saying that Ohio State was closed until further notice. The Lantern reported the news on October 18, 1918:

Health officials were right to worry. The virus continued to spread through everyday contact and coughs. But not all activities came to a halt. The Lantern also announced Ohio State football would not be impacted, the headline read: Quarantine Rules Will Not Affect Football Game.

The Spanish Flu would shut down Ohio State — but it would not stop Ohio State football. The Lantern broke down the decision to play on:

“The playing of tomorrow’s game was made possible when Dr. H. Shindle Wingert, director of student health service, gave permission this morning. The question had been put up to Dr. Wingert as to whether the game should be played, due to the general quarantine that has been placed on the University. Dr. Wingert stated that if the spectators are distributed throughout the stands as much as possible and at the same time being in the fresh air, that he could see no reason why the game should be prohibited.”

Over the next month, OSU played two home games. They dispatched Denison and Case by a combined score of 90-0. During that time, doctors treated roughly 200 hundred people for the Spanish Flu on campus. At least five died.

OSU reopened its doors a month later on November 12 — one day after the end of World War I. Only later, did experts come to realize to the extent to which troop movements accelerated the spread of the Spanish Flu across the globe.

The Buckeyes would finish with a 3-3 record in the 1918 season. The season was really a lost year. The stars of college football weren’t on the football field, they were overseas serving their country in The Great War. Brighter days were ahead. The War to End All Wars was over and the pandemic eased its grip on Columbus. A December issue of The Lantern summed up the changing mood around town: