The Year the Flu Won
By BRANDON HURLEY
Their opponents refused to take the field.
Afraid to contract a wildly contagious disease, but most of all, as stubborn as many teenagers are, Scranton’s gridiron foes of 1957 didn’t exactly cherish the ensuing embarrassment.
The Trojans, due to several crippling factors out of their control, never acquired that prestigious third straight title they so badly desired.
No, the small, now defunct Greene County high school was robbed of history some 63 years ago due to a mysterious and quick-moving virus.
They had already achieved substantial history (back-to-back state titles in ’55 and ’56 as well as a 22 game winning-streak), but the graduating class of ’57 wanted more. The Trojans were poised to obtain that dream before the sudden, quick-moving Asian Flu (The H2N2 virus, to be politically correct) outbreak swept the nation and canceled the final month of the high school football season for both Scranton and Jefferson High Schools.
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History often repeats itself. Precautions never come soon enough, and it usually seems to cripple an entire generation.
The most troubling aspect of the H2N2 virus, which first originated during the early stages of February 1957 in Singapore, was how incredibly contagious it was. Powerful waves of persons contracted the disease at a startling rate, with millions infected all at once. The virus meandered its way to the United States by the summer, killing more than 1 million people worldwide (116,000 citizens in the U.S.) and disabling 8 million Americans before the end of the year.
The Iowa State Department of Public Health after at first balking at the H2N2’s severity, finally voiced concern in the Oct. 17 Jefferson Herald “Health authorities are concerned not because the disease is more serious or that more people will die as a result of it, but because of the large numbers of people who may be ill at one time and the consequent disruption of community life.”
H2N2 symptoms were rather difficult to differentiate from the normal flu, not unlike today’s outbreak of COVID-19, which, frankly, held little importance. A person who was stricken by the Asian Flu would likely experience a fever between 101-104 degrees, sweats, chills, headache, sore throat, aching muscles, and most crippling of all, vomiting - all symptoms of the everyday flu. In the time it took to analyze whether or not one had contracted the H2N2 virus, it would already have run its course. The health department said patients would recover before the test results were ever released to said patient. The onslaught of symptoms was sudden, which was why so many communities were ill-prepared to handle the outbreak. The virus essentially restricted individuals to bed rest, though recovery was fairly quick (three to five days). Doctors also suggested infected individuals could experience weakness and exhaustion for several days after the virus had been eradicated.
Fifty Iowa school districts shuttered their doors for a few days in mid-October, including the local school districts of Paton, Churdan, Cooper and Scranton. The students were dropping like flies - more than half of Scranton’s 500 student body grades K-12 were absent at one time while Jefferson’s single day high was 490 students absent on Friday, October 25.
“I think it was entirely different (than today),” former Jefferson Bee and Herald owner Rick Morain said. Morain was a junior on the Jefferson football team during the fall of 1957. While he said some of his memories are shaky from that time, he was able to depict how the community and schools handled the H2N2 outbreak in its infancy.
“We didn’t shelter-in-place. If you didn’t have symptoms, you still went to school or work,” Morain said. “We even still practiced and the school was the same way. But the kids kept dropping out.”
The Jefferson school district never officially closed its doors, even when the absentee totals climbed near 500 and despite other county schools canceling classes. Sixty-nine of Scranton’s 135 high school students were home sick on Oct. 15, which caused the district to shutter its doors for several days.
Medication was only given to the infected in an effort to relieve pain, there was no antidote at the time as the H2N2 virus was immune to the current flu vaccine. The Asian Flu (given the name because of its origins in East Asia) was also immune to antibiotics, which made it that more troubling. Sick persons were encouraged to dress in warm clothing and avoid and harsh outdoor elements, such as cold, wind and rain. The Asian Flu’s greatest threat was among the older generation or those with debilitating conditions such as heart disease and tuberculosis. Bed rest was recommended as the safest and quickest antidote, as hospitals were suddenly running out of room and were often a hub for greater contraction.
Jefferson’s football team, which was in the first year of the Ray Byrnes era, displayed several characteristics often present in units of the young and inexperienced variety. The virus outbreak may have been a blessing in disguise. They weren’t quite ready for the big time. They struggled to put points on the board and stick with their opponents. Scranton, on the other hand, was galloping toward history when the epidemic tore through Greene County.
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“At halftime, just about everybody was throwing up,” Class of ’57 Scranton quarterback Dale Hoyt said. “It was pretty surreal.”
A locker room ransacked by H2N2 and intense vomiting barely even slowed the magnificent juggernaut that was the 1957 Scranton football team.
In an disturbing twist of fate more fitting for the silver screen, the Scranton Trojans entered the halftime break Oct. 11, 1957 with a commanding 21-0 lead over Manilla. Things quickly spiraled out of hand - and mouth, if you will.
The Trojans were on a mission, utterly enraged they’d let Glidden ruin their shot at a perfect season a few weeks prior. If it weren’t for an injury to star running back Wes Finch and a torrential downpour, they’d have easily handled their rivals to the west. Eleventh-rated Manilla was next up, and as it turns out, hardly stood a chance. Then, vomiting ensued.
“We had been ranked No. 1 in the state, the (Des Moines) Register had picked us to lose to Manilla. We were ahead of them pretty good at halftime,” Hoyt said. “We couldn’t figure out if it was a mixture of whether we were sick or happy. But a lot of people were sick.”
The Trojans were able to pull themselves together (likely not informing any officials of their current state) and miraculously punched home a dizzying touchdown midway through the third quarter - mere moments after the locker room purge - as Wes Finch, one of the most heavily stricken players, corralled a hand-off and broke down the sidelines for an 80-yard touchdown and a 27-0 lead. The Manilla players - also struggling to pull things together - were shocked. The Jefferson Herald captured the monumental score perfectly.
“The run gave the fans a thrill to remember for years to come, as the Trojan blockers mowed down the opposition like bowling pins to shake the 165 pound speed merchant in the clear, he made like a junior jet taking off” read the Oct. 15 Jefferson Herald.
Remarkably, the first half played out rather smoothly. Hoyt said none of his teammates were showing symptoms during the opening two quarters, as he threw a pair of touchdowns and watched the Trojans build an insurmountable lead.
Manilla entered the contest 5-0 and flying high. Scranton eliminated any hopes of a perfect season rather quickly on that fall night. Following the contest, the Jefferson Herald all but crowned Scranton as the four-time Coon Valley Conference champion with a headline that read “Trojans look like champs.”
The Trojans had finished atop Class II as the No. 1 team in back-to-back seasons, anchored by a perfect run in 1955 - this was supposed to be the year. They had won 17 of their last 18, boosted by a 22-game win streak that was snapped at the tail end of 1956. During a three-year span from 1955-57, the Trojans were 22-2, with their only losses coming at the hands of Glidden. The IHSAA did not institute a playoff system until 1972, which meant state champions in Iowa’s only two divisions - Class I and Class II, were determined by a panel of voters. Scranton held on to the No. 1 spot all of 1956 despite a record of 8-1, and edged out Holstein by seven votes in the final poll, securing their second straight title.
Scranton was the 1957 preseason favorite thanks to three straight Coon Valley Conference championships. They were poised to dominate the competition behind a surplus of veteran talent. With Hoyt at quarterback and one of the state’s top running backs in the lightning quick Wes Finch, the Trojans were no match for opposing defenses. Bruce Eason secured a fifth-team all state honor as an offensive end in 1957. He’d later wrestle at Iowa State, obtaining a Ph.D in biochemistry. The pieces were all in place.
“We had a bunch of really fast people,” Hoyt said, who’d eventually first team All Coon Valley Conference honors. “Finch was the fastest guy in the Coon Valley Conference for three years. We had tough guys that played some good football. It was one of those cycles that you go through about every 40 years where everything seems to come together.”
Scranton began the year with a convincing 20-point shutout of Guthrie Center, and seemed poised to run the table like two years prior. But Finch’s lingering injury from a week prior bumped him from the week 2 matchup with Glidden. The Carroll County school was a thorn in Scranton’s side. They ended the Trojans’ record-setting win streak and remained the only school to have beaten them in the last three years. Sprinkle in a rainstorm that tore the field apart and Scranton’s Wing T running attack was completely ineffective. Glidden’s defense locked down the Finch-less Trojans, pulling off the mammoth upset with a 6-0 shutout. The missing piece was the difference, Hoyt said.
“The Wing T depended on a lot of deception,” Hoyt said, who now works at Town and Farm Realty in Jefferson. We would’ve been undefeated. Finch was the difference. He was tremendous.”
Despite all hopes of a second undefeated season in three years completely dashed, Scranton remained No. 1 in the Des Moines Register’s poll for the next three weeks. The Trojans absolutely obliterated their awaiting foes during that span. They outscored Bayard, Coon Rapids and Manilla by a total score of 85-7, aided by a pair of shutouts and victories of at least 20 in each game. In fact, Glidden seemed to have awoken a sleeping giant, as the Scranton defense only allowed 13 total points in six games that fall.
While Scranton was living up to its high expectations, Jefferson was struggling through a rebuilding year in the first season without Hall of Famer Frank Linduska. Ray Byrnes led his young squad to a 6-6 tie in the opening game against Lake City, but things crumbled downhill from there. Jefferson lost its next four contests, never once scoring more than 10 points and often getting run off the field. At the midway point, Jefferson stood at 0-4-1.
Two schools headed in seemingly different directions were about to have their seasons turned upside down as the H2N2 virus began to gain a foothold. Perhaps a blessing in disguise for Jefferson, staring down a winless season while Scranton was about to get robbed of history. Eventually, disappointment emerged through the Asian Flu, putting an end to a potentially historic year.
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Initially, the H2N2 virus was handled like normal flu bug because of its similar qualities. Officials in Iowa believed this strain could be curtailed by the common flu vaccine. With the H2N2 virus sweeping the nation, six pharmaceutical firms bound together to conjure up a possible vaccine. While it worked, the vaccine was only about 75 percent effective and scarcely available. States were only allowed to purchase a certain amount of the new vaccine based on population. Due to Iowa’s much smaller inhabitance in the 1950s, the state only received 1.5 percent of the total vaccines.
Cases continued to run rampant while only doctors, patients with TB and residents who provided essential services were given the vaccine.
Football practice suffered crushing blows for both Jefferson and Scranton. At one point, only three of Jefferson 47 athletes were yet to contract the flu, while 19 of Scranton’s 25 players had contracted the disease. The times were challenging, to say the least, which ultimately helped accelerate cancellations. The virus struck quickly as well, it spread with frightening ease throughout the team.
“We started to flake off, the practices got smaller and smaller,” Morain said of Jefferson’s experience. “It didn’t matter what grade, it went through all of them.”
The coaches - both Byrnes at Jefferson and Robert ‘Doc’ Richards at Scranton began to taper off their practices. Frankly put, there weren’t enough available bodies to conduct the usual drills and scrimmages. Practices were few and far between, causing programs to start postponing contests. Jefferson and Guthrie Center agreed to suspend the Ramblers’ homecoming game while Scranton and Nevada postponed their Oct. 18 contest. The outbreak had several residual effects, as the players weren’t able to get their usual exercise in, leaving them rather winded.
“It was hard to stay in game shape with no practice,” Hoyt said. “We wanted to play so bad. We were frustrated that we couldn’t play.”
Scranton never officially canceled its season, though three games were eventually called off along with several days of school. As Hoyt recalls, the cancellations were a matter of the H2N2 infections along with other schools refusing to take the field against his team. The former quarterback believes schools were hesitant to take on the two-time defending champs, not only because of their contagious players.
“It was pretty tough. We thought some teams were ducking us because they knew they couldn’t beat us,” Hoyt said. “Even though we were well enough to play, no one wanted to.
They canceled everything. It was a pretty wild time.” he added. ““It was surreal. The halls were so quiet.”
Jefferson, on the other hand, flat out canceled the final three games following the suspension of the Guthrie Center contest. The school district was slow to enact the decision, holding a public meeting to announce the decision. The entire football team voted to keep playing, but a pair of doctors - Barton Bridge and George Canady - demanded that the season be shut down.
Before the athletes and students settled into the new normal of no school and practice, the virus magically evaporated. The football season was halted, but not even three weeks later and everything seemed back to normal. Kids quickly healed. Morain was one of the final Jefferson hold outs before he came down with the bug.
“I had a fever, chills and some nausea,” Morain said. “I slept a lot.”
Scranton, still holding onto the top spot in Class II, finally rescheduled their contest with Nevada in mid-November, which would be their last game of the year. The Trojans and Cubs were clearly out of shape due to limited practice time and a long layoff, but Scranton slugged out a defensive battle for a 6-0 victory. The win pushed the Trojans to a 5-1 overall record, and though voters had kept Scranton No. 1 during the three weeks of their layoff, they decided to change course and vote Cedar Falls and their 7-0 record champion in the final poll.
Sadly, the H2N2 virus took away a golden opportunity, stripping them of a third straight state championship. The talent on that year’s squad was evident, as Scranton sank back to earth the following year with a 1-8 record.
Quietly, Scranton’s dynasty had come to an end.
“It was really frustrating,” Hoyt said. “It seemed surreal at the time when you were going through it. Forty years later you wonder what all the fuss was about, but it was pretty real then.”
While a historic generation of Scranton athletes said goodbye to a dream a tad too soon, the cancelations may have been a wake up call for the team to the east.
Coach Ray Byrnes was building something special when the Asian Flu derailed his rookie year, even if the records didn’t quite show it. The Jefferson Ramblers were young and raw, and despite their winless record in five games, he saw a spark and stuck with it.
Morain remembers Byrnes pushing conditioning on his athletes. You better come prepared to run, the former linebacker said.
“He really pushed us before the season started,” Morain said. “He was a real stickler for conditioning.”
Byrnes planted the seeds of a successful future in 1957, as the Ramblers ripped off a 7-1-1 season the following year, finishing second in the Midwest Conference, which was Morain’s senior season. Their only loss was a 7-0 defeat at the hands of conference champion, Harlan. Morain admired Byrnes’ patience, and was even a little surprised when the Ramblers achieved so much success so quickly - a seven win improvement is quite drastic.
“The natural thing to say is that we had more talent than the class ahead of us, but I don’t know if that was true,” Morain said. “Ray played a Wing T offense and that was pretty effective for us.”
Jefferson dominated the competition rather easily, scoring at least 20 points in every game but two, averaging 27.9 points per game.
Morain trained hard and put on enough weight to secure a starting linebacker spot his final two, which allowed him to tie for the team lead in tackles along with Gary Smith (48) during the ’58 season. The Jefferson defense allowed just 8 TDs that fall. Morain admits he was a little skeptical once Frank Linduska retired, but Byrnes came over from Glidden, sporting a 36-8 career record. Despite that, the two were nearly polar opposites as far as coaching philosophies were concerned.
“Ray Byrnes appreciated good work,” Morain said. “I got up to 135 pounds my senior year. I was probably 130 or 120 before. I wasn’t particularly fast. I could do the basics, but I worked hard. Ray saw that. I think success breeds success.”
Jefferson’s breakout didn’t stop with Morain’s graduation, either, as Jefferson ripped off a perfect, 9-0 campaign during the fall of 1959. The run was tremendous considering the circumstances - the Ramblers were 16-1-1 the two years following the H2N2 virus. As it proves, a virus can impact a way of life, but it can’t halt a generation. Success isn’t given, it’s earned.