Sheridan's football team from the fall of 1951, which had three games canceled due to polio. Photo courtesy of the Sheridan High yearbook.
Sheridan’s football team from the fall of 1951, which had three games canceled due to a polio outbreak. Photo courtesy of the Sheridan High yearbook.

It’s been more than 60 years since a pandemic has legitimately threatened high school football the way COVID-19 has done in 2020.

Already, two Wyoming schools — St. Stephens and Wyoming Indian — have canceled 2020 fall sports, including football.

High schools across the country are coming up with their own solutions, with many states choosing to wait until the new year for sports of any kind.

College teams across the country are scrambling as conferences postpone, cancel or reschedule games; the NFL’s direction is uncertain, too. Last week, the Mountain West — including the University of Wyoming — postponed its fall sports.

In Wyoming, COVID-19 will be the fourth wave of illness to threaten high school football. In 1918 and 1957, the culprit was influenza; in 1951, polio.

Every time, games were canceled. Every time, school leaders made hard decisions. Every time, players, coaches and teams had to sacrifice football for something bigger.

And once, a pandemic changed a team and community irreversibly, putting in perspective what it means to try to do normal things in times that are anything but.

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1918’s influenza outbreak

By far, the most severe of the previous football-delaying outbreaks came with the 1918 influenza epidemic.

That fall, Wyoming high school football teams didn’t play a single game.

In early October, schools across the state started shutting down due to the epidemic. Many did not reopen until January.

The sports affect was limited almost solely to football. Even then, only a small selection of high schools in the state had the sport. Only Sheridan, Buffalo, Cheyenne Central and Laramie fielded football teams in 1917; those same teams, plus Natrona, were the only schools to field football teams in 1919. The University of Wyoming football team also canceled its 1918 schedule.

By the late winter of 1919, the epidemic had cleared up, and the second annual state basketball tournament was played in Laramie that March.

About 675,000 people in the U.S. died from that influenza epidemic, and about 750 of those died in Wyoming between October 1918 and January 1919.

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1957’s (lighter) influenza concerns

In 1957, another influenza epidemic struck Wyoming. Although not as severe as the 1918 flu that wiped out the entire season, 18 Wyoming high school football games were lost to the flu in 1957.

The cancellations started on Sept. 27, when a game between Rock Springs and Green River was canceled. Rawlins and Evanston canceled their game the following week. Three more games were canceled the week of Oct. 11; the week of Oct. 18, the peak of the flu wave, nine games were canceled. Flu wiped out five more games after that.

The 1957 flu pandemic killed 116,000 people in the U.S. Of those, the number of flu deaths in Wyoming was quite low — reports from November 1957 indicated fewer than five.

But the caution of 1957 was informed by the tragedy of 1951.

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1951 brings polio and perspective

In 1951, the worry wasn’t the flu. It was polio.

In the 1951 calendar year, the United States had 28,386 cases and 1,551 deaths due to polio; in 1952, at the outbreak’s peak, the U.S. had 57,879 cases and 3,145 deaths.

Unofficially, eight Wyoming high school football games in 1951 were canceled due to polio. Another 11 games were canceled beyond that, although some were canceled during the first week in November, which brought a big snowstorm to Wyoming.

Sheridan was the first hotspot where multiple games were canceled. The Broncs had to give up three midseason games — games against Lead, S.D., Cheyenne Central and Riverton were all canceled after Sheridan’s schools were closed on Oct. 4. Sheridan’s schools re-opened on Oct. 22; by then, 25 people had contracted polio in the area and two people had died. The schools reopened only after no new cases were reported for a week. The Broncs finished their season, losing their final two games to finish 2-3-1. (Two other Sheridan County six-man games involving Ranchester were also canceled because of polio.)

A second hotspot was Guernsey. There, the toll was much higher — both for the football team and its players.

During the 1951 season, the Guernsey Longhorns (as they were known before combining with Sunrise in the 1960s) were in the middle of an amazing turnaround. After finishing winless in 1950, the Longhorns were a charmed team in 1951. Winning close game after close game — including 20-16 against Manville, 24-16 against Glenrock and 25-24 against archrival Sunrise on Oct. 26 — Guernsey was 7-0.

The day of the victory against Sunrise, though, the Longhorns were understandably distracted. One of their teammates, 16-year-old junior Floyd Stellpflug, had gone into the hospital in Scottsbluff, Neb., the night before. He had polio.

The Longhorns still won. On the field, a district championship and a place in the state playoffs was still nearly in reach. After beating Sunrise, the only conference game that remained was against twice-beaten Huntley on Nov. 2. With a victory, the Longhorns would reach the playoffs for the first time in program history.

The game never happened.

Four days after entering the hospital, and four days before the Huntley game, Stellpflug died.

Within 48 hours of Stellpflug’s death, Guernsey’s school board ordered the school closed for a week to limit the disease’s spread. By then, two of Stellpflug’s teammates (Johnny Hall and Johnny Sudbury) and Stellpflug’s sister-in-law (Mary Stellpflug) were also in various Wyoming hospitals being treated for what was thought to be polio, as well. However, at least one case (Mary Stellpflug’s) was pneumonia, not polio.

The closure of the school also brought about a closure to Guernsey’s football season. The Longhorns canceled their final two games, finishing 7-0 but also finishing without Stellpflug.

Two others Platte County boys — a 9-year-old from Guernsey and an 8-year-old from Wheatland — died later in November. (For perspective, Hall died in 2016 at age 82. His obituary said he struggled with the side effects of his affliction with polio for the rest of his life.)

Wyoming had 211 total polio cases in 1951, and more than 30 people died, including Stellpflug and the two other Platte County children.

Although polio peaked across the country in 1952, its effects were limited in Wyoming that year. In 1952, Wyoming only had five high school football games canceled. None of the cancellations were attributed to polio.

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Now, in 2020, Wyoming’s football players, coaches and administrators are preparing for a fight that they haven’t had to face in more than 60 years.

As of Aug. 17, Wyoming has had 3,286 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and 30 attributed deaths statewide.

The disease has already had a massive effect on Wyoming high school sports.

The Class 4A/3A state basketball tournament was canceled on March 12, the morning after Wyoming had its first verified active case of COVID-19. For the first time since 1936 (and a scarlet fever outbreak), the state basketball tournament was canceled.

The 2020 spring sports seasons were canceled on April 7, when the state was averaging 13 to 14 new lab-confirmed COVID-19 cases per day.

As of Aug. 17, Wyoming is averaging nearly 30 new lab-confirmed COVID-19 cases per day.

Part of why leaders can justify returning to fall sports when the number of lab-confirmed cases per day is nearly triple what it was when spring sports were canceled is that we know much more about COVID-19 now than we did in April. We understand better how it travels. We understand better how to protect ourselves. We understand better how to manage the sickness if we are infected.

But, like polio and influenza, COVID-19 still has the potential to incapacitate and kill.

To think we won’t have cancellations or school closures this fall is naive (but I love the optimism). To think football will go on unaffected is misguided; COVID-19 has already affected sports, as we’ve seen with Wyoming Indian and St. Stephens.

It’s easy to maintain a status quo, to move forward as if nothing’s wrong. As a state, Wyoming and her citizens have to be prepared to make, and abide by, hard decisions, decisions that disrupt that status quo. In fact, some such decisions have already been made.

Teams, coaches, players and fans have to mentally commit now — if they haven’t already — to do the things that will help save the season. Be willing to wear the mask. Be willing to forgo the pregame tailgate. Be willing not to have the pep band. Be willing to give up attending a game due to distancing restrictions. Be willing to have a big rivalry game canceled. Be willing to sacrifice a perfect season or a state championship.

Players, especially, have to commit to speaking up if they exhibit symptoms. No team has any room for selfish players this fall. If symptomatic, players have to speak, and they need to be in homes, in schools and on teams that encourage them to speak — before they get others sick, before the disease ends not just that player’s season but his entire team’s, before schools close, before the curve becomes a spike, before another funeral.

Be willing to do these things, and football can continue. It won’t be “normal” football, but these aren’t normal times.

Be willing, in Floyd Stellpflug’s memory — and his lesson.

–patrick

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