FUN FACT: Singlehandedly saving the season

The 1918 flu pandemic remains a widely researched topic as it was one of the deadliest natural disasters in human history. An estimated 50 to 100 million people — roughly 3 to 5 percent of the world’s population — died during the year-long influenza outbreak. Despite the devastation, one student at St. James School near Hagerstown singlehandedly salvaged the school’s high school football season.

A bit of context is needed to better understand the accomplishments of John S. Newman Jr., a senior at St. James during the 1918-19 school year.

The flu pandemic is believed to have started in January of 1918 and spread around the world by March. A new, more deadly strand of the virus is reported to have surfaced in the U.S. during August of 1918, as school year was about to begin. As casualties of all ages mounted, several Maryland school systems — especially public schools — shut down for up to six weeks, according to various newspaper reports from The Frederick News-Post and Baltimore Sun. Boarding schools, such as St. James, however, were less affected since its students and faculty were largely confined to the campus and not interacting the general public as frequently as public school students and staff. Still, St. James opted to shut down for three weeks, the school’s yearbook reported in 1919. Given the varying lengths of school closures, the fall high school season was delayed — and in some cases never held. Reports in The Frederick News-Post said the decision to reopen schools in late October was done with the hope of getting the population to return to its normal routine.

Enter John S. Newman Jr.

Newman previously had been named St. James’ team captain for the 1918 football season, which appeared to be a lost year when students returned to campus. Undeterred, Newman arranged for St. James to play two games against St. Albans (D.C.), first in D.C., on Nov. 22, and then seven days later on Nov. 29, at St. James. The school yearbook indicates the team had no official coach that season as it embarked on its two-game schedule. St. James swept the contests, winning in D.C. 27-0 and then at home by a 7-0 margin, thus earning the school’s first undefeated — albeit abbreviated — season.

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