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Football historians talk about the game in a previous pandemic

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Football — college and the NFL — is wrestling with how to play amid the coronavirus. A look into the pages of history reveals some of the same questions surrounding travel restrictions and the desire to play just over a century ago.

The H1N1 virus — called the Spanish flu when it broke out in 1918 — is estimated to have infected 500 million people worldwide, with 675,000 deaths in the United States, according to information from the CDC.

Longtime Pro Football Hall of Fame historian Joe Horrigan and curator and historian at the College Football Hall of Fame Jeremy Swick have spent time over the past several months looking back at football during the 1918 flu pandemic.

“Something that struck me right away, that the circumstances, a time of social unrest, a health emergency like most had never seen and people trying to navigate all of that,” Horrigan, 68, said. “You see there is a sense of people wanting, really wanting, to try to get back to normal and that sports, even in those early days of pro football, pro football was going to try to have a role in that.”

Horrigan, who retired in June 2019 after 42 years with the Pro Football Hall of Fame, is considered the leading professional football historian. He says the impact of the Spanish flu on sports included a list of cancellations and schedule changes, such as the Cubs and Red Sox ending an abbreviated baseball season by playing the World Series in September 1918, a series that featured a young left-handed pitcher named Babe Ruth for the Red Sox. Players, coaches and umpires wore masks during the games.

Pro football in 1918 — the NFL wasn’t formally organized until 1920 — was largely a regional affair in the Midwest’s Rust Belt, with an irregular quilt of locally organized teams. Most of those teams elected not to play or were prevented from playing by local guidelines as men were being pulled into the military for World War I, as well as the effects of the pandemic. There also were travel restrictions and limitations on crowds.

There were just a few professional teams that played limited schedules, including in the Ohio League, which included what would be one of the NFL’s original teams: the Dayton Triangles, who won the title in the abbreviated 1918 season.

But if you’re looking for a record of professional football in 1918, the Hall of Fame lists no 1918 entry in its historical timeline.

“You just see the difficulty teams were having because of the difficulties the communities they were in were having,” Horrigan said.

College football was king at that time but many schools did not play in 1918, while others elected to play a limited schedule of three or four games. Because of the restrictions, few games were played until late October or early November.

“A lot of teams that were able to play, were able to play because perhaps many of their players had not yet shipped out — World War I was a relatively short war for those in the United States when compared to, say, World War II, so the cycle of men leaving and returning was different,” Swick said. “There were a lot of travel restrictions in place, however, for the war and the virus, so it became a local affair.”

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Louis Riddick applauds Dont’a Hightower and other players for opting out of the NFL season instead of putting others at risk.

ESPN senior writer Ivan Maisel, whose personal library includes about 300 books on college football, said information about the 1918 season is hard to come by.

“You see a lot of the information, the war and the pandemic are treated largely as one thing in the discussion about college football,” Maisel said. “And the fact is they were. They were very separate things, but you also see the pandemic isn’t really talked about in much detail. But the differences in who played, how many games they played, how the season looked for each school, I think that’s something we could see in the season to come.”

The Army-Navy game was not played in 1918, for example, and the Missouri Valley Conference, which included Missouri, Nebraska and Kansas at the time, canceled its conference season. LSU did not play football in 1918 and later honored it’s now-named “silent season” a century later in 2018 with a commemorative uniform.

Knute Rockne, in his first year as Notre Dame coach, saw his team’s travel restricted because of the flu outbreak and the war. The Fighting Irish finished the season 3-1-2. At one point, Notre Dame played a game — against Wabash — that had been scheduled the same day.

But President Woodrow Wilson, who later cited a need to improve “morale” in the country, ordered football teams to be created at military posts around the nation and those teams played some of college football’s powers in 1918.

John Heisman’s Georgia Tech team played almost a full schedule — it went 6-1 that season. Tech surpassed 100 points three times, with six games at their home field, including games against the Georgia Eleventh Cavalry and Camp Gordon, a camp built in Georgia for World War I that was closed in 1920.

“The NCAA did exist then, so there were guidelines for schools to follow to play, but I’m certain nobody was checking IDs on all of the players from those military teams,” Swick said. “It’s certainly possible there may have been some older players, players who might have been the age of those on professional teams at that time. There were likely a variety of players in some of those games.”

A photograph that has resurfaced plenty in recent months — taken by a Tech student during the 1918 season — shows fans at a game wearing masks.

The only away game Georgia Tech played that year was Nov. 23 at Pitt, which was coached by Glenn “Pop” Warner. Pitt won 32-0 and reports from the time list a crowd of about 30,000 at Forbes Field. That win had many declare Pitt as the national champion.

“I would say, in looking back at it, you see the teams that succeeded were simply more fortunate,” Swick said. “It’s a virus, it didn’t pick and choose then and know who was coaching the team or how organized you were or how much talent you had or if more of your players had simply not shipped out to war yet. It was far more of a roll-of-a-dice thing about who won and lost.”

Pro football took the uncertainty of the schedule, travel and scarcity of players as a sign it needed to be better organized.

“And in looking back, you see a sense of the pandemic, as World War I was ending, having somewhat of role in everything that was happening in the country, having a role to push people to organize in pro football,” Horrigan said. “That the need for organization for teams, for players, could clearly be seen by those trying to make pro football a reality as they tried to navigate everything that was going on … and in 1920, just two years later, the NFL is born.”

Swick said he has found references to some college campuses “using correspondence to hold classes,” so students were not allowed on campuses for part of the 1918 school year.

“It’s hard to tell fully what it was like because the culture sometimes wasn’t to save things,” Swick said. “Some things are lost in someone’s attic right now or have been thrown into a dump long ago, but you see places where the students weren’t on campus, but there were attempts to have school so that impacted the ability for some to play sports, including college football, beyond simply having many able-bodied males fighting a war.”

To get a sense of life and the reach of pro football in those pre-NFL years, Horrigan has mined newspaper clippings to see how people grappled with the desire to return to games and gatherings as the virus was active.

A notice about school closures in an October 1918 issue of the Lansing (Mich.) State Journal said teachers were trying to find the best way to limit their contact with students as “some of them have declined to go into homes where there are serious cases in influenza and pneumonia fearing they might contract the disease.”

A notice in the Ransom (Kan.) Record in December 1918 offered “considerable pressure has been brought to persuade the health board to remove the ban from public gatherings, in view of the approaching holiday season that the people may indulge in Christmas-tree festivities and other social entertainments” and that people would be allowed to return to some gatherings if there wasn’t a “serious turn in the course of the prevailing pandemic scourge.”

Said Horrigan: “Those are the kinds of cities, especially in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Michigan, in that part of the country, where pro football is operating. And while large public gatherings were banned at times and the football season, college and pro, was largely canceled, you do see these attempts to play. And in looking at it, you really have to believe that with the aftermath of war, of the pandemic, those events put people in a position to try to reorganize things, and the NFL is one of the things that came out of that.”

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Raiders’ Jon Gruden calls backup QB Marcus Mariota ‘dazzling playmaker’

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HENDERSON, Nev. — While Derek Carr is firmly entrenched as the Las Vegas Raiders starting quarterback, the guy signed to be his backup, Marcus Mariota, impressed coach Jon Gruden on Friday, the third practice of training camp in which players wore helmets.

“He’s interesting,” Gruden said with a smile of Mariota. “He took off a couple times today and it really fired me up. He’s been hurt, but looks like the ankle really turned a corner. He’s a dazzling playmaker with his feet and that’s the key to his game.

“I saw glimpses of that today. It’s exciting. Started off slow on 7-on-7 [drills], but [he] picked it up, had a nice day. Had a real nice day.”

Indeed, Mariota, who lost his starting job with the Tennessee Titans to Ryan Tannehill last season, struggled early in practice, missing tight end Jason Witten badly on an intermediate pass to the right sideline. And he throws a different ball than Carr.

But it is Mariota’s scrambling ability and willingness to extend plays with his legs that makes him a good fit for Gruden’s offense. Even as Mariota, the 2014 Heisman Trophy winner, has said since signing as a free agent with Las Vegas in March that the Raiders were Carr’s team.

In fact, both Mariota, the No. 2 overall pick of the 2015 NFL draft by the Titans, and Carr, a second-round pick of the Raiders in 2014, suffered season-ending broken legs on the same day in Week 16 of the 2016 season.

“It’s like weird, crazy things that link you together,” Carr said earlier in camp.

“I’ll tell you one thing, in our quarterback group you have to compete and that’s what I do. Anyone that’s around me, all I’m going to do is compete. I’ve had multiple starters in the NFL come in here and be in the same room as me. You can go through the list about who’s started games and who’s been in our quarterback room. It happens all the time, but when you go 7-9, people like to make up stuff.”

Raiders offensive coordinator Greg Olson said Mariota would push Carr, a three-time Pro Bowler and the franchise’s all-time leading passer who is coming off career highs in passing yardage (4,054), completion percentage (70.4%) and Total QBR (62.2) but is just 39-55 as a starter, with one winning season in six years.

And as Raiders owner Mark Davis told ESPN.com, “The best quarterbacks are the ones that have the wins; stats will follow.”

Mariota is 29-32 as a starter.

“Competition brings out the best in any player in any sport,” Olson said.

“I would say it’s the best competition that we’ve had since we’ve been here.”

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Seahawks’ Tyler Lockett ‘had lot of hesitation’ about playing before deciding not to opt out

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RENTON, Wash. — Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Tyler Lockett said he “definitely had a lot of hesitation” about playing this season amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Lockett’s concern stemmed from a preexisting heart abnormality as well as the fact that much of his family has asthma. Before the Seahawks drafted Lockett in the third round in 2015, medical checks at the scouting combine revealed that his aorta is on his right side. At the time, Lockett was briefly unsure if he would be able to continue playing football.

“So just with everything that happened in COVID, that was one of my biggest issues was just trying to make sure [this heart condition] wasn’t gonna affect me if I was able to go out there and play,” Lockett said Friday on a video conference with reporters. “Obviously, nobody really knows. You’ve got doctors who kind of give you what you need to know up front, what they think and what their biggest opinion is of it, but I think I had my chance to opt out, and I said that if I come up here, I’m gonna just play.

“I know that we’ve got Pete [Carroll], we’ve got a lot of older coaches. They don’t want to put themselves in a situation to get sick neither, so I told myself if they could do it then I know I could do it. And if I’m going to come out here and play, then I’m just going to do what needs to be done. I’m not going to stress about COVID. I did that from February to before we came into camp.”

The 27-year-old Lockett has led the Seahawks in receiving in each of the past two seasons.

His family experienced a scare earlier this year when a cousin contracted COVID-19. The woman had previously lived with Lockett in Seattle.

“It was bad,” he said. “I would get messages from her mom and she would send me like a long paragraph and stuff because my cousin never told me. She was just telling me how she was having a hard time breathing, she really didn’t feel good, and when I ended up talking to my cousin after she ended up overcoming it, she had told me that there was one day where her body was just aching so much she had told a woman … basically like she really didn’t think she was going to make it. She was like, she didn’t think her body was going to be able to deal with what she really felt another day.”

Lockett said the cousin has asthma, as does much of his father’s side of his family.

“That’s why it made me question if I wanted to come play,” he said. “I have a lot of stuff in my family to where I don’t want to put anybody in jeopardy.”

The Seahawks had one player, guard Chance Warmack, opt out of the 2020 season due to coronavirus concerns. As of Friday, they had placed only one player on the reserve/COVID-19 list, and that was due to a false positive test to wide receiver John Ursua, who has since been activated and is taking part in practice.

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Colts’ Jacoby Brissett says he knows he’ll start at QB again somewhere

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INDIANAPOLIS — Jacoby Brissett might never start another game at quarterback for the Colts. But in his mind, he believes he’ll be a starter again in the NFL at some point down the road after he failed to hold on to the job in Indianapolis in 2019.

Brissett said he was surprised when coach Frank Reich gave him the news last winter that they were replacing him with veteran Philip Rivers as the starter. Reich acknowledged that Brissett, like any other player would be, was upset by the demotion.

“I still believe in myself,” Brissett said Friday in his first public comments since Rivers’ arrival. “I know I’m a starter in this league. I know I can play at a high level. I did it last year.”

Brissett became the starter when Andrew Luck announced his retirement two weeks before the regular season last year. The Colts gave Brissett a two-year contract, allowing him the opportunity to prove he could be the next franchise quarterback.

Brissett, however, didn’t consistently play at a level needed to lead a team to the playoffs last year. He started strong in leading the Colts to a 5-2 record, including victories over playoff teams Houston, Tennessee and Kansas City. But Brissett, who suffered a knee injury at Pittsburgh in early November, faltered down the stretch as the Colts lost seven of their final nine games to miss the playoffs.

He finished 29th in the NFL with 196.1 yards per game and was hesitant to take shots down the field.

General manager Chris Ballard gave an indication a change was going to occur when he said the jury was still out on Brissett at the end of last season. Rivers is a 38-year-old veteran who has passed for 59,271 yards and 397 touchdowns in his 16-year career. Brissett said he still plans to compete even though Rivers is now the starter.

“I really can’t say enough positive [things] about how he has been with this change, I guess — I don’t know another word for it, with me being here and also how he has just been,” Rivers said. “He’s an impressive guy to be around. The way he works at it and then how helpful he’s been with little things, ‘Here’s how we signal this. Here’s how I usually set that. Here is how I set that.’ Then the few things that I’m like, ‘Gosh, can we do this? Can we do that?’ He’s like, ‘Yeah, I’ll learn it. Whatever you are most comfortable with.’ So he has been super helpful, gracious.”

Brissett still has significant value to the Colts. Reich has said they plan to have special packages for Brissett to get him onto the field this season. And Brissett has to be ready to step in and start at any moment, especially with the uncertainty when it comes to the coronavirus pandemic.

Brissett, like Rivers, will be a free agent at the end of this season. “I know I’ll be a starter in this league one day again,” Brissett said. “Wherever that may be.”

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