The snow began the night before Thanksgiving, and it fell softly on a nation weary from war.
Over the past 14 months, from the summer of 1917 to the fall of 1918, more than 100,000 men and women died fighting overseas. Thousands more were buried in the U.S., killed by the Spanish flu.
But when the sun rose on Nebraska the frosty morning of Nov. 28, 1918, the promise of a rare hopeful day lay ahead. Eleven days after the end of the Great War, after a morning of turkey lunches and holiday celebration, thousands wrapped themselves in scarves and topcoats and headed toward the edge of Lincoln to Nebraska Field.
In the midst of a dour calendar year, the place of refuge and sport had rarely been touched. But today, awaiting them were the visitors from Notre Dame, who breathed in the crisp November air and donned iconic, heavy navy jerseys with khaki-colored pants.
The Fighting Irish were scheduled to be here on warmer days. Now, first-year coach Knute Rockne, the man who’d revolutionized the game five years prior as a player, stood in the cold and watched his team prepare in the melting snow. Before him were his two multidimensional stars who’d soon enter the football lexicon forever: George Gipp, better known as “The Gipper,” and Curly Lambeau. Yes, that Lambeau.
Across the field on the Husker sideline was William G. Kline, a recent law school graduate and young professor at the University of Nebraska. He’d fallen into a head coaching job of a depleted Husker football team that — all season — lost man after man to the Army. He watched his 20 men, most from the state, most of whom had either served in the war or trained at a base close, prepare for their toughest task of the season.
How this game on Thanksgiving day came to be — how it kicked off just after World War I in the middle of a pandemic — is a small miracle. And the story is worth revisiting now, in this summer of 2020, because though the situation in front of college football appears incongruous and foreign, it’s all actually happened once before.
After the outbreak of Spanish flu in the spring and summer of 1918, the conversation surrounding the return of sports split the country then, too. Not on social media but in courtrooms, boardrooms and locker rooms. Health directors cautioned against playing games, conferences debated if they should play or shut it down, universities worried about loss of revenues and scheduling.
A century later, America finds itself in a remarkably similar position. The college football world has spent months wringing its hands over what to do with the upcoming football season. The Ivy League announced last week the conference won’t have any fall sports. The Big Ten and Pac-12 are moving to a conference-only schedule. Most of the sport is still waiting to see if COVID-19 cases continue to rise, as they have for more than a month.
Much has changed in the past century. The world is not in open war. This is not history exactly repeating itself.
Much is similar. And as we chase answers on what to do next, here’s the story of what happened the only other time in history Nebraska found itself in this situation. Here’s what football looks like in the face of a pandemic, and how it led to a hint of warmth on a cold, snowy Thanksgiving day.
* * *
When America entered World War I in 1917, life slowly began to change in the United States.
But sports continued.
Coached by John Heisman, Georgia Tech was named college football’s national champion. The White Sox beat the Giants 4-2 to win the World Series. Boxing was still on the front pages of newspapers.
As the war rolled into the summer of 1918, though, it was unclear if that could be duplicated. The U.S. military was planning an offensive — called Plan 1919 — that it hoped would finish the war the following spring. The war department wanted as many healthy, young men as possible, and time spent training for football seemed futile.
“There were very few college-age men (in America) anyway,” said Scott Stempson, a lecturer at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who wrote “American Sports History” and teaches a course on the topic.
Stempson said the military became convinced football was a good way to train soldiers. So military bases put together football teams, and in the summer of 1918 offered to play college teams in the fall.
A second issue was growing. In May 1918, more than 100 soldiers at Camp Funston in Kansas contracted what would later be called the Spanish flu. It spread from army base to army base and into communities, landing in Nebraska by June.
By the end of 1918, at least 14,000 Omahans would contract the flu. At least 974 died. The Spanish flu pandemic is believed to have killed 500,000 Americans, and 50 million people worldwide. In six months, COVID-19 has infected more than 3.3 million Americans, and killed more than 130,000.
Sports reacted to the virus in 1918 by pulling the plug. All major golf and tennis championships were canceled. The virus was quelled briefly, but it reappeared in September at Camp Devens in Massachusetts. More than 10,000 soldiers contracted the Spanish flu, with almost 100 dying per day in the camp.
In September, the war department requested “no fall gridiron schedule” in 1918.
Nebraskans responded with fervent anger.
In the previous two decades, the state had slowly been radicalized around football. By 1918, the Cornhuskers had won eight straight Missouri Valley Conference titles and built a community around Nebraska Field and the football boys. The prospect of a fall without football felt — as it does now — hollow.
Officials at the university contacted Sen. Gilbert Hitchcock — who founded the Omaha World-Herald — and pleaded for help to reverse the ruling.
Not playing football “would result in heavy financial losses,” university officials argued to Hitchcock, “because the university is under contract to play teams from other leading colleges.”
Hitchcock and a group of Senate colleagues took concerns up with Col. R.J. Reese, who in 1918 was in charge of the student training corps. Reese relented, announcing football could go on, but only if it didn’t interfere with military training.
Short on funds, Nebraska canceled games to start the year against Denver and Washington. NU replaced those games with back-to-back matchups against a military team from Camp Funston in Kansas — yes, where the Spanish flu is believed to have originated.
At the end of September, the war department came back with another ruling. Reese announced that during the month of October players wouldn’t be allowed to leave universities except on Saturday afternoons. That made road games, like Nebraska’s planned trip to West Virginia and Notre Dame’s trip to Lincoln, impossible.
Simultaneously, as the fall semester began, the virus spread. On Oct. 1, the Daily Nebraskan reported 11 cases of the Spanish flu on campus. Syracuse walked away from a November game in Lincoln.
The Big Ten placed football players under a two-week quarantine, risking the end of the football season before it even began. Some conferences, like the Missouri Valley, told schools there wouldn’t be a conference title that year, and if they wanted to play, they could make their own schedule.
As campuses turned to autumn, as the flu killed young and old, as the Allies pushed further into German-occupied France, Nebraska hit the phones.
The country, they said, needs football.
* * *
A second breakout at Camp Funston quickly canceled the two-game series.
Iowa agreed to travel to Lincoln for the season opener, but days before kickoff, the army training corps ordered students in Iowa City to undergo a 21-day quarantine as Spanish flu cases rose.
Now, Game 3 was on the chopping block.
Not only that, but as October began, Coach Kline was losing men to the military. Harold McMahon, star halfback and member of the naval reserve, received a call Oct. 1 to report for duty. McMahon was one of three players Nebraska planned to return from the 1917 varsity team, which finished 5-2 and handed Notre Dame its only loss. Paul Dobson, a speedy halfback, punter and safety, left in the summer for an Army training camp on the coast. “Dusty” Rhodes, an all-star Missouri Valley end who was elected as the team captain before the season, was called to Europe in May.
Without McMahon, Kline worried if Nebraska could register any wins.
“In his departure, Nebraska loses the best all-around athlete the Husker school has developed in years,” The World-Herald reported.
To Kline’s relief, Iowa squeezed its way out of the quarantine order into Lincoln for the game, and McMahon was able to play one final time. Thousands came to Nebraska Field and filled the stands to capacity — almost 16,000. The Huskers hadn’t lost to the Hawkeyes in 19 years. For McMahon’s finale, confidence was high.
McMahon was never a factor, and Iowa beat Nebraska 12-0.
Two days later, Evangeline Pelton became the third student on campus to die from the Spanish flu.
Lincoln responded by closing campus. The state closed churches, schools, movie theaters and businesses. Parades were banned, as were large meetings and public gatherings.
The virus began a deadly spread nationwide, a second wave, and most collegiate athletics were canceled for the rest of the calendar year. Nebraska’s trip to West Virginia was canceled, and after a breakout in Columbia, Missouri, the Tigers axed a Nov. 9 game in Lincoln. In fact, Mizzou never played a game in 1918.
Notre Dame rescheduled for Nov. 2, but confidence of kickoff was low.
In the first 10 days of October, 106 people died from the lung-clogging influenza in Omaha. Unlike COVID-19, the Spanish flu appeared to prominently impact those in their 20s and 30s. Young women contracted the flu while serving as volunteer nurses at the University of Nebraska. In Greeley Center, Nebraska, an outbreak of 200 cases killed four boys. At least 10 UNL students died in ensuing days after the Iowa game.
Despite that, football teams wanted to keep playing.
Though locally people knew of deaths from the virus, wartime censorship in Europe and hyper-awareness of war in the U.S. led Americans to think the problem was not as widespread as it was.
“More than likely, what you find is that people, including newspaper publishers, were far more concerned with anything and everything concerned with the war and dismissed anything else as competing with the war effort, including the Spanish flu or any other widespread sicknesses,” said Thomas Berg, a lecturer of military history at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “Newspaper editors either kept the numbers of sick people out of their papers or buried the information on page 27 under the fold in small print next to an advertisement for dental creme.”
Spain — neutral in World War I — was one of the few places to report accurate numbers, which is what led to the virus being named the Spanish flu, and why even as the virus killed between 3% and 5% of the world’s population, there was an appetite for sport.
And why, despite a public order to halt sports and large gatherings, Creighton played a football game Oct. 17. CU’s athletic director, The Rev. Alexander McWilliams, all but dared the government to do something about it.
Omaha Health Commissioner Dr. E.T. Manning said he wouldn’t call the police to prevent the game.
“But I will call the matter to the attention of the public and appeal to public sentiment to stand back of me in this attempt to stop the influenza epidemic,” Manning told The World-Herald.
There was hardly any public backlash. Rather, thousands attended, including Kline. There the coach realized Nebraska could continue playing football despite the orders, and after watching the Jays dismantle Cotner College, he invited Cotner to come across town on Oct. 29 as a warmup for the Notre Dame game.
The Lincoln City Council was more strict than Omaha, and placed armed guards at the entry of the M Street Field baseball diamond, turning away hundreds of shivering fans wanting a glimpse of the game.
Nebraska won 39-0 or 42-0. Two days later, it won 12-0 against Nebraska Wesleyan — and learned its Notre Dame game would have to be rescheduled again. While the state ban on public gatherings would end after Nov. 1, Lincoln’s ban had another week to go.
So NU offered Rockne a third invitation, to play in Lincoln on Thanksgiving.
The Cornhuskers’ next game was Nov. 9. Back at Nebraska Field with fans in the stands, they pounded the Omaha Balloon School 19-0. Also there, a black bear cub, brought in by the balloon school’s delegation of 500.
When the war ended Nov. 11, Americans spilled into the streets to celebrate. That — and a game between two military bases in Omaha with an attendance of 11,500 — led to a rise in infections. That information wouldn’t come to light for weeks.
Before getting to Notre Dame, Nebraska beat Kansas 20-0 and lost to Camp Dodge 23-7.
Thanksgiving in Lincoln. Thousands walked in the cold, leaving tracks in the snow past empty stores, movie theaters and restaurants, headed toward the only show in town.
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* * *
News came 24 hours before kickoff from a telegram.
Some wondered who of Nebraska’s football team would return after the war. There was hope the three stars — Rhodes, McMahon and Dobson — could suit up for the final game of the year.
McMahon returned days before the Notre Dame game, but not in a condition to play. Dobson walked into practice that week, too, and suited up.
Then the telegram arrived in Lincoln on Nov. 27. Roscoe B. “Dusty” Rhodes, captain-elect of the 1918 Cornhuskers, had been killed in action Oct. 25 while fighting with the 89th Division in France.
In his final letter to a friend at the university, dated Oct. 12, Rhodes wrote he’d hoped to be home by Christmas.
“(He) was one of the best-known and best-liked men at the university,” read an obituary in the Daily Nebraskan.
News of his death made the papers the morning of the Notre Dame game. As fans trudged to the stands, they wondered if the Huskers even had a shot to compete, especially since, the week prior, NU had taken its trouncing by the soldiers from Camp Dodge in Iowa. NU scored once against the 17- and 18-year-olds fresh out of high school, and it was a fluke off a blocked punt. Nebraska gave up a 50-yard touchdown pass and 60-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter to lose.
Notre Dame had a record of 58-6-5 the past 10 years. It was 3-1-1 on the season after beating Purdue 26-6.
The only hope for Nebraska was Dobson, a halfback from Ulysses, Nebraska.
“Whether his presence will be enough to turn the tide and beat the Catholics is merely a matter of conjecture. Notre Dame has a wonderful team and Nebraska is not up to standard,” The World-Herald said the day before the game.
The snow melted by kickoff at 2:30 p.m. and made a slush of chunky, cold mud. The plan Kline drew up for the underdogs that day was simple: bury the Fighting Irish in the sludge.
Notre Dame got the ball first and was forced to punt. Nebraska had nearly no interest in running an offense. On their first possession, the Huskers punted on first down. When NU got the ball back, it handed it off and rugby-scrummed in the mud, churning the wet dirt, punching holes in the field deeper and deeper, then Dobson punted on second down, forcing the Irish to run through the muck on a long field.
In the first quarter, Notre Dame drove down to the Husker 11-yard line, but Gipp threw an interception at the goal line. Nebraska scrummed and punted, the ball plunking in the mud near midfield. The Irish got to the 11-yard-line again, but Monte Munn jumped in front of a pass for another Husker interception.
The routine — punt, turnover, punt — went on for 14 minutes to the groans of the crowd, who were cold and annoyed. But Kline held firm. He knew — athletically — he couldn’t keep up by playing NU’s regular game.
Finally, Notre Dame’s Norman Barry dashed around the edge of the Husker defensive line and scampered 40 yards, flecks of mud flinging off his boots to the end zone. But an official tossed a flag.
Holding, offense. The Irish were forced to punt again.
“The field was slushy and not to the liking of the Notre Dame speed demons,” the Evening State Journal read the next day. “It was not a game for lovers of the spectacular to gloat over.”
In the fourth quarter of a scoreless tie, Kline called for Nebraska to make its one move to score. At the 31-yard line, end zone in view, Dobson faked a handoff and dropped back for a rare pass. Ernest Hubka broke free of his man with an open field in front of him. Fans stood as they saw Hubka break free, but the mud-soaked ball stuck in Dobson’s hands and splatted well short.
Nebraska punted, giving Notre Dame one last shot. But by then, Rockne’s team was gassed — and out of quarterbacks. Captain Pete Bahan started but was carried off the field in the first with an injured knee. Frank Lockhard went in, but was knocked out in the third quarter. William Monn hadn’t even make the trip to Lincoln, injured.
So the Irish were left with Barry, who didn’t know the playbook well, and Gipp, who was turnover prone.
That final drive for Notre Dame went nowhere. Time wound off the clock and the two teams shook hands, and the stands erupting in the 0-0 tie.
Nebraska gained just 9 total yards. The Huskers failed to get a first down. Their 18 punts remain a school record. But they kept the Irish out of the end zone. Nebraska didn’t win, but it didn’t lose, either. Kline’s boring, simple plan had worked, easing the burden of Nebraskans and giving them a bright spot after months of painful weeks.
“Regardless of the bumps that have been encountered, it is gratifying to know that the Huskers finally arrived — arrived in all their glory against one of the best football machines in the country,” a dispatch in the Nebraska State Journal read.
The tie was Kline’s last high point at NU. The Huskers traveled to Washington University of St. Louis the following week and lost. The next year, Kline left to become a law professor at the University of Florida.
Notre Dame got revenge the following three seasons. But the tie lives on.
“If all other ups and downs of the present season could be forgotten, and Nebraska could rest her case on these scores and these alone,” the Nebraska State Journal read the day after Thanksgiving, “what a remarkable season this would be.”
Photos: Nebraskans selected in first round of NFL draft
This is a collection of football players who graduated from high schools in Nebraska and then became first-round NFL draft picks after college. Did we miss anyone? Let us know by sending an email to email@example.com
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