Before COVID-19, the Spanish flu and World War I upended the Cy-Hawk game in 1918. Here's what happened.

Travis Hines
Des Moines Register

A few hundred fans will dot the stands Saturday for Iowa State’s 2020 football opener. It’ll hardly be enough to keep Jack Trice Stadium from seeming cavernous.

As the United States roils with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, college football has been disrupted in a way not felt since the Spanish flu killed an estimated 675,000 Americans, including 6,000 in Iowa, starting in 1918.

Now, like then, a fragile season risk being ruined.

The state of Iowa has emerged as both a hotspot and a battleground of the pandemic. With a rising caseload, the state has been targeted by the federal government as one of the most troubling area in the country. With two high-profile college football teams within the borders living two different realities this season, football is at the forefront of how to fight and endure the virus.

On the day that was supposed have featured a sold out CyHawk game in Iowa City, the Cyclones will instead take the field at Jack Trice Stadium while a few permitted family and friends, with masks over their mouths, do their best to cheer on the home team against Louisiana. 

While their screams will echo through Jack Trice on Saturday, there will be another echo that reaches back more than a century present.

For this pandemic is not the first to imperil the intrastate rivalry game. It became, however, the first to cancel the game when the Big Ten this summer first opted out of non-conference competition and then postponed its season, leaving the state without a CyHawk game for the first time since a four-decade pause caused by animosity between the universities ended in 1977.

It wasn’t only the last devastating pandemic, that upended the game, but World War I that made that 1918 edition an unprecedented CyHawk that almost never came into existence.

“What the quarantine did not do to drive football out of existence at Ames, the (Army) did” read the Iowa State yearbook commemorating the season. “Between them both, football was put on the rack.”

In spite of war in Europe, outbreak off illness, last-minute military conscriptions, and a city in lockdown, the game, the state's sporting crown jewel, went on

Looming threats: World War I and a deadly pandemic

It was clear in the fall of 1918 that the football season was in danger of being canceled or curtailed.

Danger, though, was a relative term at the time.

World War I had raged for more than four years, with America’s entrance about 18 months prior. Also ravaging the planet was the Spanish flu, which had reared its head in February of that year and would go on to kill tens of millions worldwide.

Both threats to the college football season were well known as Iowa State began practice in late September, a few weeks ahead of the scheduled start to the season.

“Forty or fifty men are daily practicing under coach Charles W. Mayser in hopes that Uncle Sam is going to let Iowa State College relay far enough from the military this fall in order to play a little football between drills,” the Ames Evening Times wrote of an Iowa State team that had already lost a number of returning players to military service that summer.

The 1918 Iowa State football team played just three games due to complications from World War I and the Spanish Flu pandemic.

“Every member of the squad as well as the coach are working hard, hoping that the government will permit the sport to be continued.” 

In an article placed directly next to the football update, the death of an Ames family’s grandson at a naval training center in Minnesota due to the Spanish flu was noted as “a shock (to the family), who did not know of his illness.”

Threats converge in Ames

The pandemic and the war effort struck at Iowa State football essentially simultaneously.

The Oct. 4 edition of the Ames Evening Times reported that 2% — about 40 men — of the army detachment at Iowa State had been hospitalized due to the virus.

In response, first-year Ames Mayor E.H. Graves issued a proclamation closing “moving picture houses, dance halls and places of amusement as well as all churches.” 

”It is the patriotic duty of the citizens of Ames, Iowa, to use every precautionary measure to prevent the spread of this disease,” the mayor’s proclamation read.

Days earlier, the War Department barred football games that would take students away from campus “for a longer period than from noon to taps on Saturday” during the month of October, essentially canceling much of that month’s schedule.

Iowa State’s season-opener on Oct. 5, though, was a casualty not of the War Department, but of the pandemic, according to coach Charles Mayser. “This action was taken because the men were in quarantine,” he told the paper.

Regardless of who was the blame, this was clear: Iowa State’s four-game October schedule was wiped out.

A city under quarantine

By the end of October, the city of Ames was quarantined.

“There is little hope that the schools will be opened before Monday of next week,” wrote the Ames Tri Weekly Tribune on Oct. 30 after 17 new cases in the city of about 6,000 people were reported in a 48-hour period. “Mayor Graves believes in getting the strangle hold on the disease before opening anything and not being at the necessity of opening all places and then having to close them again.”

While Ames was idled, the University of Iowa continued on with its football season.

The Hawkeyes sneaked a game in at the end of September, played Oct. 5 at Nebraska (presumably just as Iowa State could have played the same day at Illinois if not for quarantine) and then hosted Coe of Cedar Rapids and Cornell of Mount Vernon, which allowed for the programs to abide by the War Department’s “noon to taps” window for football on Saturdays.

Those facts did not sit well in Ames.

“Despite the fact that football has been under ban for the past several weeks, the University of Iowa, as well as a number of other colleges forming the ‘Big Ten,’ have been going right along,” complained the Ames Evening Times. “Perfecting their machines, holding practice sessions and in other ways getting ready for the season.

“It stuns that the law which applies to Ames does not apply to those of the ‘Big Ten’ for practice continues and games were played.”

Eventually, though, Iowa State was able to begin its season, with a previously unscheduled game against soldiers at Camp Dodge in Des Moines

The game, a 6-0 Iowa State loss, was not without a bit of controversy itself.

“Two days before the game, four of the most promising players were taken off the team and sent to an Officers’ Training camp,” wrote The Bomb, Iowa State’s yearbook, “which, of course, did not add to the effectiveness of team play.”

Rows of cots line the State Gymnasium floor to accommodate soldiers suffering from the Spanish influenza epidemic. The gym is full and some of the healthy soldiers are assisting the sick ones.

An uncertain rivalry game

With the first competition of the season under its belt, Iowa State’s attention turned to the Hawkeyes. For a city that had struggled with disease and isolation for weeks, the prospect of hosting their rivals was a light amid dark days.

“We have been so ‘cooped’ up for the past month that getting out into the air for such a game will add to the pleasure of life,” wrote the Ames Tri Weekly Tribune. “The bigger the crowd the more (the team) will fight the lowly Iowa City team for the big end of the score.”

That lofty excitement was soon met with crushing disappointment.

“There is gloom in the ranks of all Ames and the college today,” said the Ames Evening Times, “because the annual football game between Iowa City and the Iowa State college has been transferred from the home of the Cyclones to Iowa City.”

With the Spanish flu still at elevated levels in Ames, medical and university officials made the decision to remove the game from the city.

There were efforts to move the contest to Des Moines, but a field could not be secured, leaving Iowa City as the only option “large enough to accommodate the crowd that gathers for this annual event.” Rather than canceling the game, Iowa State acquiesced to a change of venue.

Iowa City had 30 deaths in the previous three months of 1918 while Ames exceeded that number in just a two-week stretch in October. 

Neither the Iowa State band nor student fans were permitted to attend the game due to outbreak fears. The Cyclones were forced to play even more shorthanded.

“The (Army) elephant again stepped in and mussed matters up,” wrote The Bomb. “Two days before the Iowa game three more players were asked to leave for an (Officer's Training Corps), one of these being a quarterback.”

Once a beacon of hope for a community sending its young men to war while fighting a pandemic at home, the game suddenly was a burden to be endured.

“What was once considered the classic football event in the state will this year sink into insignificance,” groused the Ames Evening Times.“Football at Ames is decidedly below par this fall.

“The quarantine and other interruptions have robbed the boys of all spirit.”

The 1918 Iowa State-Iowa football game was moved from Ames to Iowa City due to an outbreak of the Spanish Flu in Ames. The Hawkeyes won, 21-0

The game

“While Iowa was predicting 40 of 50 points,” wrote the Iowa State yearbook, “Ames was hoping.”

Just 18 Iowa State players boarded the train on the morning of Nov. 16, 1918, to Iowa City to play the Hawkeyes, with little chance of returning home with more than bruised bodies and egos.

The Cyclones, though, intended to make the Hawkeyes work for it.

Iowa’s superior and stronger offense marched on Iowa State throughout the first half, but in three trips inside Ames’ 15-yard line, Iowa had zero points thanks to three fumbles.

“Whenever Old Gold threatened the Iowa State College line,” wrote the Ames Evening Times, “the men stiffened and beat off their attack.”

Ames’ offense, though, was similarly stifled.

“(Iowa State) Stopped all forward passes, they shot around the end for long gains,” wrote the paper, “but they were unable to quite reach the goal posts.”

The teams went into halftime knotted in a scoreless tie.

The scoreboard stayed idle throughout much of the third quarter before Iowa finally broke through with a score with under 2 minutes to play in the frame. Eventually, the Hawkeyes took a 21-0 victory.

“The Iowa adherents themselves admitted that had Ames been in shape for a hard and long battle,” wrote The Bomb, “the results might have been different.

“At any rate, Ames may well feel proud of this achievement.”

A 'Shakespearean' end to the season

That 21-0 loss to the Hawkeyes may well have turned out to be the high point of the season while Iowa went on to a 6-2-1 mark.

After the loss, Iowa State returned to Ames to prepare to finish out the season with a game at Kansas State and hosting Drake.

While heading out to the practice field ahead of the game against the Wildcats, a guard turned a gun on the Cyclones, mistakenly believing he was ordered to keep anyone, including the football team, off the football field.

The next day, military vehicles tore up Iowa State’s practice field, leaving the Cyclones to reconstruct it.

They followed that up with an 11-0 loss to Kansas State. Then, the season finale against Drake was canceled due to a snowstorm, leaving Iowa State with a 0-3 record while having been outscored 38-0 and overwhelmed by war, pestilence and circumstance.

“Shakespeare,” wrote The Bomb, “”had nothing on the ‘Comedy of Errors’ as played here in Ames this fall.”