The high school football team had 28 players show up for its first workout, the most in recent memory, and its ambitious schedule was touted as the best in years.
With such superlatives, no wonder the local newspaper’s preview of the team exuded optimism, despite noting the loss of seven stars from the previous season.
“Prospects for a winning aggregation look bright,” an article in the Sept. 11, 1918 edition of The Frederick News-Post read. “The majority of the men are green, but with a little experience it is felt that they will round into shape.”
But none of those green players seemed to get as much experience as expected that season.
They played for Frederick’s Boys’ High School, which merged later with the city’s Girls’ School to form Frederick High, and their 1918 season was disrupted by the Spanish Flu pandemic. Their situation bears some resemblance to what current Frederick County athletes are experiencing during the shutdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
The eight-game schedule published with the aforementioned Boys’ High School preview was apparently shortened. Only two games for Frederick’s 1918 team have been documented, an 82-0 loss to Mount St. Mary’s College’s Prep team in late October and a 12-0 win over Hagerstown on Nov. 20.
“For Frederick, we only have two games on record for them that year,” said local sports historian Sheldon Shealer, adding that he and Brandon Brewbaker — Frederick High’s girls lacrosse coach — sifted through various newspaper archives researching that season. “Is it possible they played more? Perhaps. But it’s never been documented anywhere.”
Still, no matter how many games they played, 1918 Boys’ High School players got to start their season, something current Frederick County spring athletes hope to do. And that Frederick football team got to finish its season, something three current county basketball teams hope to do in the state tournament.
With a nickname that has endured, Cadets, the Boys’ High School planned to open the 1918 season against Friends School of Baltimore on Oct. 5. But by that time, the pandemic, which first surfaced the previous spring, had returned and was in its most lethal stage.
“Although the influenza pandemic stretched over two years, perhaps two-thirds of those deaths occurred in a period of twenty-four weeks,” John M. Barry wrote in his book, “The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History.” “And more than half of those deaths occurred in even less time, from mid-September to early December 1918.”
Spreading and killing at an alarming rate, the health crisis forced schools throughout Maryland, including in Frederick, to shut down. In The Frederick News-Post on Oct. 9, 1918, health notices for Frederick and Buckeystown ordered schools to close.
There is no result on record for the Cadets’ scheduled season opener against Friends, and a search turned up no contemporaneous stories in The Frederick News-Post about how the Spanish Flu disrupted the football team’s season. But an Oct 3, 1918 Washington Post article gives a hint of what the situation was like for local athletes in the region.
“Scholastic athletics in the District received a blow yesterday when it was announced that all athletic activities would cease with the closing of the schools on account of the Spanish influenza epidemic,” it read. “Practice for football teams will not be resumed until the schools reopen. Just when this will be is indefinite.”
That story said D.C. teams still had a chance to open their season as planned on Oct. 22. That late start seems strange these days, when high school football teams typically start playing games in early September. But Shealer said teams in the early 1900s typically played seven, eight or nine games.
And those 1918 Cadets players, unlike their modern counterparts, didn’t fine tune their skills during preseason workouts in the summer.
“They would literally round up a team and start practice whenever they got back to school and then would set up a schedule in the first week or two or three of the school year,” Shealer said.
The first Cadets game documented from 1918 is their lopsided loss to the Mount’s Prep team. It’s not clear when it was played, but it was chronicled in the Oct. 30 Frederick News-Post, and the paper later reported that Mount’s Prep team opened its season on Oct. 26.
Next up for the Cadets was a road game against Washington County High School. A Hagerstown Morning Herald preview of that game suggests both teams had been dealing with the flu that was ravaging the world.
“The visitors have been hampered quite a bit on account of influenza as also have the W.C.H.S. boys,” it reads. “However, both schools have teams capable of taking their part in any high school battle and the outlook is that the contest will be one of the hardest fought games ever witnessed in this city.”
If the Cadets only played two games because of flu-related school closings, they wouldn’t have been alone. Shealer said Washington County’s St. James, which was on the Boys’ High School schedule, endured the same fate that season. St. James played just two games, both against St. Albans of Washington, according to Shealer.
It was better than nothing, though, a sentiment today’s high school athletes would surely share if they could return to fields, courts and tracks before summer.
“In an attempt to bring back as much normalcy as possible, they wanted to resurrect a football season,” Shealer said. “And that, I think, was really a driving factor anywhere where high school football ended up being played that fall. Even if it was a two-game season, well, at least they had something.”
Shealer said that in those days, high school football coaches often also coached their school’s soccer teams.
A search of Frederick News-Post archives for 1918 high school soccer matches turned up just one article, which gave some details on a Dec. 20 match between Frederick and Brunswick High Schools. This was reportedly the first of a series of Public Athletic League matches, and it included Middletown.
It’s impossible to say whether these were the only soccer matches played in the county in 1918. And again, there’s no mention in the paper about the high school soccer season being disrupted by the Spanish Influenza pandemic.
But assuming it was, at least there was some sort of season that year, giving kids a chance to compete and enjoy some normalcy after having life disrupted by a pandemic.