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Health authorities delayed Penn's 1918 opening game on three occasions, but the Quakers were eventually able to play a full season during the pandemic.

Credit: Isabel Liang , Ava Cruz

More than a century ago, while Philadelphia was facing a similar situation as the city is today, Franklin Field still had football. 

It wasn’t the same, and it came at a price. But Penn football was able to play a full season in 1918, even while enduring an influenza pandemic. 

Outbreaks of the flu in the United States were first recorded in March 1918. However, it was the second wave of the virus that same year that was the most deadly, with 195,000 Americans dying during the month of October alone. The world simultaneously had to contend with World War I and a severe local shortage of doctors and nurses, since most had been deployed overseas.

Philadelphia faced one of the highest death rates in the country. In just the second week of October, a total of 2,600 people died from the virus, and that number would almost double the following week. 

Penn was not hit nearly as hard. Many university events were shut down, and the school instituted several measures to inhibit the spread of the virus on campus. 

Some 1918 restrictions might seem familiar to one living through the 2020 pandemic. For example, the University of Michigan required students and faculty to wear military-issue masks, albeit made of gauze. Michigan football players even had to wear them during practice.

Two of Penn’s fraternities, Delta Psi and Phi Kappa Psi, were converted to emergency hospitals. Every room on campus was ordered to be heated, and every window was to be opened. Students caught with closed dormitory windows would be punished.

In another departure from today’s pandemic protocol, universities were incentivized to carry on their athletic programs during the pandemic due to the influence of the Student Army Training Corps.

The SATC was established in early 1918, conceived as an effort to train university students to serve in Europe as officers. By September, the majority of the student body was inducted into the program, and the SATC largely governed campus life, including athletics. In fact, participation in sports was a requirement of the military curriculum.

As the second wave of influenza spread across the United States that fall, the chairman of the Committee on Special Training, Colonel R. I. Rees, encouraged schools with SATC units to maintain their football programs. 

However, strict regulations were put in place to ensure students kept up with all aspects of their training. If an athlete’s military or academic work was unsatisfactory, he would be deemed ineligible for the varsity level. In addition, due to limitations in SATC members’ schedules, athletes from all sports were only permitted one and a half hours per day for practice. 

Penn was ultimately forced to cancel the rowing program until the end of the war, as the SATC constraints didn’t allow sufficient time for athletes to travel to the river each day. More grimly, the team’s coach, Joseph Wright, had departed for Canada in October to care for his wife, who had fallen ill with influenza. 

The swimming and water polo teams had both seen several members enlist prior to the season, leaving many vacancies on each team. With dwindling numbers, the coach, George Kistler, advertised team tryouts in the Daily Pennsylvanian, calling on anyone who wished to join varsity, regardless of past experience.

Four days later, the pool and both programs were shut down entirely in an attempt to curb the virus. 

With limited options left for SATC cadets to fulfill the athletics requirement of their training, Penn expanded the soccer program to include three full teams that each played in different leagues, with no experience required for the athletes. No intercollegiate contests were played during the height of the pandemic, but practices were held regularly. 

One team that was determined to return to its regular schedule was Penn football. The Red and Blue were coming off a 1917 season that featured their first and only Rose Bowl appearance. The Quakers dropped the game to Oregon by a score of 14-0.

Their season debut would be significantly delayed, however, with some doubting they would even be able to field a team at all. 

A little less than a week after the infamous Liberty Loan parade that brought together 200,000 Philadelphians and resulted in 635 new influenza cases within three days, Penn was preparing its own parade to celebrate the beginning of the football season. The event had been okayed by SATC leaders Major Griffith and Captain Bispham, and was to include a march from the dormitories to Weightman Hall, where the night would finish with “speeches, dancing ‘n everything.” 

The morning of the rally on Oct. 4, 1918, Provost Edgar Fahs Smith abruptly called it off, just two days after the festivities had been authorized. The DP wrote that the “suspension was only temporary, pending the control of the pandemic.”

The next day, the Quakers’ opening game against the Philadelphia Naval Yard was canceled. The Graduate Manager of Athletics, E. R. Bushnell, assured the public that “every remaining game of the schedule would be played as now scheduled.”

Bushnell echoed this optimism repeatedly throughout October, but the team’s troubles were not over. The Quakers were rocked by the loss of several major personnel, including their coach, Bob Folwell, who contracted influenza. 

While Folwell made an appearance at practice on Oct. 8, a few days following his diagnosis, he ultimately returned to his farm in New Jersey to recover for the better part of the season. Several players began missing practice at the same time, as they too had come down with the virus.

Another loss was Penn’s defensive end Edward Weil, whom the Daily Pennsylvanian had described as one of the “best players on the 11.” Weil left the team that fall to fulfill his military assignment in the Naval Aviation branch of service at MIT. 

With Folwell out of commission, the team looked to former fullback Bill Hollenback to take over the coaching job. The eventual namesake of Penn’s Hollenback Center led the team for the entire month of October. 

In lieu of intercollegiate matches for the first two weeks, the varsity program scrimmaged with the freshman team, who were colloquially nicknamed ‘scrubs.’

Opening day was delayed for the second time when the Oct. 12 Bucknell game was cancelled, and again when health authorities intervened to cancel the Oct. 19 contest against Swarthmore. 

The first game of the season was eventually played in front of an empty crowd against USS Minnesota on Oct. 19. Penn won by a score of 27-0 despite only having three returning players on its roster. The game against the Philadelphia Naval Yard was rescheduled for Oct. 26, and Franklin Field was again closed to the public that day. The only spectators permitted to watch Penn drop the contest by a score of 7-0 were students with SATC season passes.

The Quakers were ultimately able to complete the rest of the season, albeit with a slightly modified schedule, and finished with a record of 5-3. All games but one were played at home, with the team only traveling to Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field.

By the time the emergency hospitals closed on campus at the end of October, 312 of 5,000 Penn students contracted influenza and four died. In November, things were starting to get back to regular operation. The pool was preparing to open again, and wrestling, baseball, and fencing coaches were putting notices in the DP, advertising their preliminary meetings and practice times. Focus had largely returned to the waning war overseas. 

Folwell would return to assist Hollenback in a limited capacity on Nov. 5 after a month’s absence. He was well enough to take control of the football team again on Nov. 21, in time to help the Red and Blue to victories in their final two games. 

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