Public health officials urged fans to take precautions as they prepared to attend the football game: Avoid riding in the city’s streetcars. Scatter rather than crowd around each other in the stadium’s stands.

"It is now to the people themselves to aid in roughly stamping out the disease," Columbus health officer Dr. Louis Kahn warned.

This was November 1918, and spectators were headed to Ohio Field.

Ohio State’s football season had been at a standstill for a month. An influenza pandemic, one of the deadliest in human history, ravaged the world; in the United States, it killed an estimated 675,000 Americans.

The flu, known colloquially as the Spanish flu, hit Columbus the hardest in the fall of 1918. An estimated 817 people died in the city during the final three months of the year.

Beginning in October, athletic events were postponed or canceled as city officials banned large gatherings in an effort to slow the spread of the virus. Ohio State hosted football games on Oct. 5 and 12 before the season was shut down for four weeks. The Buckeyes returned to their home field on Nov. 9 for a game against the Case School of Applied Science (now Case Western Reserve University).

The actions of a century ago are reminiscent of the current coronavirus pandemic enveloping the country, grounding daily life to a halt, including putting sports at Ohio State and across the country on hiatus.

Earlier this month, organized team activities in all OSU varsity sports, including spring football practice, were suspended through at least April 6. On Friday, the suspension was extended to May 4.

In 1918, the influenza altered a football season that already had been shaped by the United States’ entry into World War I in April 1917.

Many Ohio State players were off serving in the military rather than lining up on first down. The list included star halfback Charles "Chic" Harley, who had been instrumental in the Buckeyes’ emergence as a Big Ten powerhouse.

Harley had led OSU to consecutive conference titles in 1916 and ’17, the school’s first championships since joining the league in 1912. But Harley spent 1918 as a fighter pilot in the Army, adding more disruption to a season that never matched previous success.

"It’s unusual in that it may be the only OSU football season that football didn’t seem that important," said Bob Hunter, a former sports columnist for The Dispatch who has written several books on Buckeyes football history.

"Even during bad seasons, everyone is still obsessed with football. That season is kind of just a lost season. You go from having a great team, with all these great players, then poof, they’re gone. They play this season with nobody really watching. You had all these other issues that were much more important than football."

The flu first impacted the Buckeyes in their season opener, a rout of Ohio Wesleyan on Oct. 5. In the 41-0 win, at least three players, including linemen Everett Addison and Neal Gillam, played despite having contracted the flu.

They missed the following week’s game against Denison, a 34-0 victory, while bedridden. In Columbus and throughout the Midwest, cases of the flu were spiking.

Amid the outbreak, Big Ten athletic directors and football coaches convened in Chicago to revise their teams’ conference schedules, according to a report in The Dispatch on Oct. 8, 1918.

Soon thereafter, the Buckeyes’ Oct. 19 matchup with Northwestern was canceled, and an Oct. 26 game against rival Michigan was pushed to Thanksgiving weekend.

The steps were taken after the War Department imposed travel limitations on college teams, prohibiting them from making overnight trips in October. Two were allowed in November.

The department did allow freshmen to play in games, helping teams cope with the absence of players due to the war and influenza outbreak.

But some teams, such as Alabama and Louisiana State, were so hamstrung that their entire seasons were called off.

Although some 20 of 30 games in the Midwest scheduled for Oct. 12 were canceled, according to The Dispatch, Ohio State’s against Denison went on as scheduled because travel was minimal.

Dr. Harry Shindle Wingert, OSU’s director of student health, gave final approval for the game to proceed.

"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," read the Oct. 11 edition of The Lantern, the school’s student newspaper.

It was hardly difficult for fans to keep their distance. The Dispatch reported that "only a small crowd" attended the game. That was not uncommon in 1918 at Ohio Field, which had a seating capacity of about 14,000.

Denison had prohibited fans from making the trip out of concern they might be exposed to the influenza outbreak that had reached Columbus. There had been no confirmed cases in Granville at the time, according to a newspaper report on Oct. 13.

After the game, the Columbus board of health issued its ban on outdoor gatherings. The Ohio State season officially was on pause.

Twenty-eight days passed before the Buckeyes were back on the field against Case. By then, city officials felt the epidemic had subsided enough and people should get out and about — at least by abiding by certain social-distancing precautions.

"We cannot keep this ban on forever, and we feel that since the epidemic has been gotten under control, the public should be allowed amusement," said Kahn, the city’s health officer.

In its return, Ohio State trounced Case 56-0, improving its overall record to 3-0. But the Big Ten slate proved more daunting.

Illinois handed the Buckeyes a 13-0 defeat in their conference opener on Nov. 16, eliminating them from the conference title race. It was a big blow.

Two years earlier, on the same field in Champaign, the Buckeyes began their emergence as a Big Ten heavyweight when Harley provided a touchdown and extra point in the final minute for a 7-6 victory to push them toward their 1916 conference title.

After the 1918 loss at Illinois, the recap in the next day’s Dispatch noted Ohio State’s inexperience.

Its defense struggled to stop the Illini’s double wing shift, a formation from which "every rapidly executed play of the Illinois machine evolved," the paper noted. "It is only fair to say without bitterness or excuse for the showing of the Ohio State men, that the better team won."

The Buckeyes also dropped their final two games, finishing 3-3 overall and winless in the Big Ten, including a 14-0 loss to Michigan on Nov. 30 in the makeup game.

It was their first meeting with their archrival since 1912. The Wolverines had rejoined the Big Ten after leaving in 1907 due to a dispute over conference rules. Michigan split a claim to the national championship and shared the conference crown with Illinois.

After that turbulent season, the Buckeyes regrouped and welcomed back Harley as well as other stars, including halfback Gaylord "Pete" Stinchcomb and tackle Iolas Huffman.

They climbed back toward the top of the Big Ten and defeated Michigan for the first time in 16 tries, rekindling the fire for Ohio State football that in the coming years would lead to a Rose Bowl appearance and the construction of Ohio Stadium.


The Dispatch "sporting" section for Nov. 17, 1918, after Ohio State’s 13-0 loss to Illinois