COVID-19 upended the 2020 college football season with teams canceling, delaying, or reducing their schedules. During and after that season, the aptest comparison was to the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, which also caused a reshuffling of college football schedules.
However, games were canceled in the late 1940s through the mid-1950s when polio reared its ugly head. Unlike the Spanish Flu or COVID-19, polio was less transmissible and appeared more sporadically. Still, more than five percent of polio cases died in 1952 while the disease crippled others, so each outbreak created significant concern.
Those with active polio infections can transmit the disease for several weeks. Without effective treatments, communities in the 1940s and 1950s depended on isolation and quarantines to stop its spread, and those tactics periodically affected football schedules. Yale, for example, canceled its 1949 game with Fordham after a team member was diagnosed with polio. Teammates underwent twice daily medical exams until health authorities were satisfied they had contained the disease.
Three years later, a North Carolina football team member was diagnosed with polio, leading to a Thursday morning announcement of the cancellation of two games; their game with Georgia that Saturday (October 4) and the contest with NC State the following week (October 11).
Georgia had only three home games scheduled that year and initially considered scheduling a service team to replace UNC, but NC State had a better idea. The Wolfpack were slated to play Davidson on October 4, but since Davidson had an open date the following Saturday when NC State was supposed to play UNC in a now-canceled game, Davidson agreed to move the NC State game back one week. That allowed NC State to arrange travel to Georgia for a Saturday game, a fantastic scheduling feat in the early 1950s.
NC State's quick response was admirable, but they might as well have stayed home. Georgia, led by star quarterback Zeke Bratkowski ran out to a 35-0 halftime lead before slowing down in the second half to win 49-0. The Wolfpack redeemed themselves the following week by beating Davidson 28-6 on their way to a 3-7 season.
Other college games were canceled due to polio, and outbreaks regularly led to the cancellation of high school games in the 1950s. Thankfully, the vaccine developed by Jonas Salk and others effectively wiped out the disease in most of the world. It would be nearly seventy years before we faced similar circumstances.
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