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A look back…before we look forward

In 1918, Fort Dodge put together a banner football season in the middle of a World War and flu pandemic

Photo from the 1919 Big Dodger The Fort Dodge football team went 8-0 in the fall of 1918 before falling to Des Moines North in the "state championship" game on Thanksgiving Day.

It’s only natural for people to dust off the history books during a global health crisis.

We do a lot of comparing and contrasting when faced with adversity or tragedy. So naturally, the flu pandemic of 1918-20 became an immediate reference point when COVID-19 first hit the mainstream vernacular in the United States last month.

This H1N1 influenza virus was a monster over 100 years ago. Estimates say it infected nearly a quarter of the world’s population before all was said and done, and killed anywhere from 17 to 100 million people after nearly three full years of struggle.

As World War I was reaching its conclusion in late fall of 1918, the flu was really starting to show its teeth in the United States — so much so that some schools closed temporarily in October to try and slow the spread.

The Fort Dodge High School football program, led by second-year head coach Frank H. Waters, was rounding into form at that time. According to the Messenger record books, they defeated all eight of their opponents in the fall of 1918 — Mason City, Central Sioux City, Webster City, Eagle Grove, Des Moines West, West Waterloo, Algona and Oredale — scoring a then-school record 327 points while only allowing 18.

Meanwhile, another high school gridiron power, Des Moines North, had become just as dominant. Earlier this month, the Des Moines Public School District reproduced a yearbook page from that school year, stating North went 5-0 during the regular season with victories over Fort Madison, Iowa Falls, Omaha, Des Moines East and Des Moines West without surrendering a single point.

The issue in Des Moines during that period of time was its close proximity to Camp Dodge, as Des Moines Public Schools staff writer Mike Wellman noted in a recent blog about the DMPS’s battle with the flu pandemic. Camp Dodge was in its early years of construction and it became an epicenter for the virus, as infected troops were carrying the virus and intermingling with workers.

Influenza spread became so prevalent that the DMPS district closed schools for 18 days — from October 10-28. This likely explains North’s “shortened” football campaign of three less games than FDHS. Unfortunately, once schools reopened in Des Moines, the virus returned.

Eventually, Fort Dodge and North squared off on a muddy, snowy Thanksgiving Day for what the Des Moines Register reported as Iowa’s 1918 “state championship” game. The Iowa High School Athletic Association wasn’t formed until 1923, so whether this contest was official or sanctioned remains unknown.

North won the game, 14-0, to hand Fort Dodge its only setback during an otherwise-unblemished two-year stretch for the program. In Wellman’s blog post, he said that the Des Moines Register “included that account in a newsletter insert to its December 8 editions … readers were encouraged to clip and mail to Iowa boys on the WWI frontlines in France.”

Because of on-going flu concerns, schools in Des Moines were closed again after Thanksgiving for over a month. Wellman added, “other points of interest include that spitting on the sidewalk was grounds for arrest in 1918, and citizens were encouraged to donate lemons to the troops at Camp Dodge as a therapeutic measure to prevent and treat the flu afflicting their ranks.”

According to Messenger records, Waters’ next group — the 1919 Fort Dodge High School squad — went 9-0 and was awarded a trophy by the Des Moines Register and Des Moines Tribune as the best in the state. That year, Fort Dodge defeated Manson, Eagle Grove, Iowa Falls, Webster City, Des Moines West, Algona, Mason City, Sioux City and Odebolt, scoring 383 points while allowing just 13.

Waters left before the 1920 season, and Fort Dodge didn’t experience another unbeaten, untied campaign until Forrest Marquis’ 1945 team did so and was recognized as Iowa’s high school champion.

Some historical perspective for antsy sports fans patiently (?) waiting for the games to commence.

TRAGIC LOSS: Word quickly spread in and around the Fort Dodge community on Sunday that Matt Stiles had died suddenly over the weekend.

Stiles, who graduated from Fort Dodge Senior High in 1997, was a starting defensive lineman for Sam Moser’s Dodgers and a two-year varsity tennis player. He continued his career collegiately on the gridiron under head coach Kevin Twait at Iowa Central, then attended and graduated from Iowa State University.

Stiles was living in the Minneapolis area with his wife and 5-year-old son. He collapsed during a bike ride on Saturday, according to Facebook posts from relatives.

Stiles’ father, Scott, graduated from FDSH in 1972 and is currently a Fort Dodge resident. He was an all-state football, track and baseball standout with the Dodgers.

Stiles will be remembered as a kind individual who cared deeply about his family and friends. Our respects and condolences are extended to Scott; Matt’s mother, Leslie; sister, Jenny; stepmother, Karen; and everyone else touched by his love.

Eric Pratt is Sports Editor at The Messenger. Contact him via email at sports@messengernews.net, or on Twitter @MessengerSports

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