History may repeat itself as we weather the current pandemic

Central's Bob Finamore (right) pursues Eastside's Ray Vivino on Thanksgiving Day in 1957.

As the nation watched the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, another Central High School – this one in Paterson, New Jersey – was faced with a challenge of its own.  The Colts and their opponents could not stay healthy long enough to play a football game.  Central lost to Clifton, its usual opening day opponent on the Passaic Valley Conference schedule, on September 28, and then set about preparing for the next Saturday’s meeting with East Rutherford.  On Wednesday though, Central administrators postponed the game.  Seven days later, Fair Lawn cancelled on the Colts.  The following week – on Monday – Lodi pulled the plug.

The autumn of 1957 sent shockwaves through American culture.  Within a two-week period from late September to early October, the Little Rock Nine began the process of turning Brown v. Board of Education from theory into reality, the Soviets took the lead in the Space Race with the launch of Sputnik, and the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants brought the big leagues west with the announcement of their moves to Los Angeles and San Francisco, respectively.  Amid these political and demographic changes that would forever change the course of American education, science, and economics, tens of millions of Americans encountered a personal obstacle – the Asian flu.

A new strain of influenza, an H2N2 virus, had emerged in China in February of 1957.  By April, the virus had spread significantly through Hong Kong, but received little attention in the United States until late May and early June.  Even then, when the American press did report on this “Asian” flu, the potential threat was initially minimized.  Headlines like “No Danger of Wide U.S. Flu, Says Government,” announced stories assuring Americans that “there is no danger of a nationwide flu epidemic spreading to this country from the Orient.”  That tune changed as July turned to August.  Both President Dwight Eisenhower and Congress recognized the growing threat and allocated $800,000 toward combatting the flu.  The Associated Press reported, “Production is being rushed on a vaccine to combat the disease."    

Schools opened in September and, almost immediately, inoculation was the topic of virtually every town council and school board meeting in Bergen and Passaic Counties, as the first flu cases in the area coincided with the return to classes.  Dozens of municipalities debated the merits of preventative measures, and most quickly started administering vaccinations.  Every town enacted its own plan – in some, only municipal employees were given immunizations; in others, shots were available to municipal workers and school personnel.  Some boards of education vaccinated only teachers; others provided shots to both teachers and students.  But, in one form or another, every local governing entity had a decision to make.  The number of New Jerseyans inoculated was so great that, by late in the month, the state was already faced with a shortage of available doses.

Vaccinations in September were only possible due to the foresight and research of Maurice Hilleman, perhaps the least remembered hero in recent American history.  Called “the father of modern vaccines” and “the vaccinologist of the 20th century,” Hilleman realized in April that the problems in Hong Kong could have catastrophic effects on the rest of the world and began sending warning messages across the medical community.

Central's Tony DeFranco is tackled by Eastside's Joe Doan in the all-Paterson Thanksgiving Day game at Hinchliffe Stadium in 1957.

The story goes that Hilleman, working at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, used his military contacts to obtain the saliva of a Navy sailor who had become infected in Asia.  Hilleman studied the sample and recognized that the virus had not merely mutated, as is seasonally typical, but that this was an entirely new strain of influenza.  He and his associates went to work on a vaccine, using small outbreaks at military bases in the United States as test cases.  Once they had an effective vaccine, Hilleman partnered with Merck and other pharmaceutical companies to commence production.  By the time infections increased substantially in September, the United States was already prepared with an arsenal that would eventually grow to 40 million doses by the end of November.  [The History Channel, one of several sources consulted for background information about Hilleman, points out that developing a vaccine for an entirely new virus like COVID-19 is very different than developing one for H2N2.  Existing flu vaccines provided an important starting point in 1957, and played a significant role in the speed with which Hilleman found success.]

In this atmosphere of awareness and caution, the North Jersey high school football season opened on Saturday, September 21 with a limited slate of games, in what would today be considered Week Zero.  The East Rutherford Wildcats, the preseason toast of Bergen County, were big winners, along with Queen of Peace, St. Cecilia’s, Westwood, and Ramsey.  On Monday, mixed among summaries and box scores recapping the weekend’s action, The Bergen Evening Record captioned a small blurb, “Contest In Ho-Ho-Kus Victim Of Asian Flu.”  Immaculate Conception High School of Montclair had been scheduled to visit St. Luke’s, but nine Immaculate players and at least one coach “had been hit by flu or colds on the eve of the contest.”  Although curious, this development went largely unnoticed, and teams throughout New Jersey continued their practice regimens in anticipation of games to come. 

Local residents took notice two days later, when The Passaic Herald-News titled a front-page story, “Flu Hits 23 Passaic High Football Players.”  The article admitted that tests would be necessary to validate the illness specifically as the Asian flu, but includes team doctor Joseph Adamcik’s assertion:  “The players I examined all have the symptoms that are associated with the Asian flu.”  Adamcik instructed head coach Manlio Boverini to cancel practice for the rest of the week.  Saturday’s Passaic Valley Conference game against East Rutherford was tentatively rescheduled for November 23.  Furthermore, The Herald-News detailed the Passaic Health Department’s non-compulsory “inoculation program for city employees and public, Catholic, and private school personnel.”  The East Rutherford Board of Education, which had not yet dealt with the vaccination question, decided to leave the choice to each individual teacher and student. 

In Montclair, the number of sick Immaculate players had grown to 25, forcing the postponement of its upcoming meeting with St. Mary of Rutherford.   The flu also forced East Orange to postpone its September 28 game against Belleville.  Otherwise, the first full slate of games went off without a hitch.  In addition to Clifton’s victory over Central, important wins went to North Arlington, Pompton Lakes, Lyndhurst, Dumont, and Teaneck. 

But the Asian flu threat was growing.  September numbers had been highest in the Far West (particularly in California and Arizona), but they exploded in the Northeast in October.  Like clockwork, the front page of The Record on October 1 declared, “FLU OUTBREAK IS REPORTED IN GARFIELD HIGH.”  Vice principal Art Argauer, who had coached the 1939 Boilermakers to a mythical national championship and was in the middle a three-year return to the sideline in 1957, noted that over 30 percent of the student body was absent and that 130 pupils had been sent home sick the day before.  Their game against Dover was sunk. 

Conditions in Passaic had not gotten better either.  Daily absences totaled 536 and the Indians were about to lose a second week of practice.  Again, Passaic had to postpone its game, this time against neighboring Clifton.  Central, the predecessor to the current John F. Kennedy High School in Paterson, had less than 30 available players and postponed with East Rutherford.  Lodi, with 14 players out, cancelled on Hackensack.  Wallington was also snared by the flu, forcing the Panthers to cancel on Pompton Lakes.  A total of 24 games were postponed throughout the Garden State.  In an age when water breaks usually meant teammates drinking out of shared ladles, or sucking out of shared sponges, that were dipped and re-dipped in a common water bucket, the pace of the flu spread in football quarters should have come as no surprise.

High schools faced a problem larger than football during the week of October 6.  Absenteeism had increased so significantly that several districts considered closing temporarily until their flu cases subsided.  In Central Jersey – where cases were reaching North Jersey levels – several districts did close, in most cases for two or three days.  Absentee rates at some high schools topped 50 percent.  The threat of school closures throughout the state became so serious that Dr. Frederick Raubinger, New Jersey Commissioner of Education, sent a letter to all district superintendents, saying that “the closing of schools would serve no useful purpose,” essentially arguing that by the time the number of absent students was large enough to warrant a shutdown everyone in the school would have already been exposed to the virus.  The only scenario that required a closure, said Raubinger, would be one where a large portion of the teaching staff was sick and could not report to work. 

On the Bergen and Passaic gridirons, more football fell victim to the Asian flu.  Lodi continued to get crushed by the illness and cancelled its game against Lyndhurst.  Central was finally healthy but Fair Lawn was down 15 players, so the Cutters dropped the Colts.  Cases increased at both Hasbrouck Heights and Westwood, forcing a postponement.  Midland Park, playing a mixed schedule of varsity and junior varsity games in its first year as a high school, was forced to postpone the inaugural home contest in school history, against Hanover Park.  All told, ten games involving Bergen or Passaic schools were affected, among nearly 40 statewide.  On the bright side, circumstances had improved at both Passaic and Garfield, though the Boilermakers were still a bit shorthanded, and the teams combined for 18 points in the final few minutes of the fourth quarter – including an 85-yard kickoff return by the Indians’ Mel Williams with 40 seconds left – in a 12-12 tie.

Perhaps the most impressive bit of scheduling throughout the entirety of the pandemic came from Hackensack athletic director John Steinhilber.  After Cliffside Park postponed their game on Thursday, October 10, Steinhilber worked the phones and had a substitute opponent by Friday morning.  The Comets, who had yet to play a game, would host Freeport High School from the South Shore of Long Island.  (Hackensack had not scheduled any September games and had been dropped by Lodi a week earlier.)  Freeport, the defending champion of its Nassau County conference, with two games already under its belt, beat the Comets, 25-6.   

Calling off a high school football game in 1957 was no small matter.  From the 1940s through the 1970s, game attendance was frequently in the thousands, and numbers that reached five digits were not uncommon for Thanksgiving and other big games.  Photographs from the era typically show packed bleachers and fences lined with people.  A cancelled game took away one of a community’s primary vehicles for socializing and bonding, and left a void on autumn Saturdays.  Yet, in some instances in 1957, teams were not able to play games even with mostly healthy rosters.  There were several occasions during the season when squads returned to mostly full strength near the end of a week, but had not practiced in the preceding days.  Disappointingly, though not surprisingly, those games were shelved.

Week Four produced more of the same, with over 30 postponements or cancellations statewide, including another ten involving Bergen and Passaic teams.  Two schools took a page out of Hackensack’s playbook and scheduled a substitute opponent.  In Paterson, Central replaced one set of Rams with another.  With Lodi still unable to put its team on the field, Central athletic director Peter Nigro and coach Nelson Graham made phone calls and found interest from both Roselle and Hackettstown.  The Colts ultimately settled on the former, which had cancelled with Hillside and Bound Brook the two weeks prior and, like Central, had not played since September 28.  The Roselle Rams came to Hinchliffe Stadium and won, 35-0.  Further north, Park Ridge replaced Mountain Lakes with Our Lady of the Valley, but lost to the Orange school, 13-6.

The weekend of October 19 also produced a rare case of bad blood on the Asian flu front.  Rutherford waited until Friday afternoon to postpone its Northern New Jersey Interscholastic League game against Englewood, a decision that irked Maroon Raiders coach George Baldwin.  Although it did not quote him directly, The Record indicated that Baldwin was bothered by the timing of the Bulldogs’ decision, especially in light of the fact that several Englewood starters had the flu and the game would have been played with both teams shorthanded.  Rutherford coach Jim Grantham countered with, “Last Friday we had 13 members of the first and second teams home sick…  In addition, several other boys were sick.  The only way we could have played would have been to field a team largely composed of sophomores.”

And just like that, the Asian flu began to disappear in North Jersey.  As October neared its end, flu cases went down and school attendance figures went up.  Throughout the country, the illness was moving in the correct direction, but Americans were not entirely out of the woods.  Vaccinations continued, spurred in part by Public Health Service announcements that aired, in the early days of television, on stations throughout the country.  After a dramatic downturn in November and December, a second, but slightly less severe, wave of the virus appeared in early January and lasted through March.  Today, the Center for Disease Control classifies the Asian flu of 1957 and 1958 as one of the major pandemics of the 20th Century (the word “pandemic” was not used at the time), with an estimated 116,000 deaths in the United States among 1.1 million worldwide.

Week Five of the football season saw no postponements in Bergen and Passaic Counties and very few in other parts of the state.  Newspaper headlines on October 25 and 26 included, “Scholastic Grid Offers First Complete Schedule” in The Herald-News; “Bergen Schoolboys Have 19-Game Slate – Flu Hasn’t Entered Picture For First Time This Year” in The Record; and “School Gridders To Play Full Schedule This Week-End” in The Paterson Morning Call.  The season was back on track with more than a month of football still to be played.

The game that stood out among all others during the next few weeks came at Riggin Field on November 2, between host East Rutherford and visiting Clifton.  The Wildcats, considered Bergen’s best by many in 1957, and the Mustangs, perennially Passaic’s finest, battled in the rain for the top place on the PVC ladder.  Behind three touchdown passes from quarterback Bob Gursky, Clifton won, 19-13, in front of 7,000 fans.  Each team featured an eventual First Team All-State back:  senior running back George Telesh of Clifton and junior quarterback Julian Malinski of East Rutherford.

Rescheduling as many flu-impacted games as possible became a top priority for coaches and athletic directors.  All parties acknowledged that there was not room on the calendar to make up every contest, so the goal became making up every conference game and fitting in as many non-conference games as possible.  In the era before high school football playoffs, most teams were usually off the weekend before Thanksgiving, which provided a natural opening.  For three of the five area leagues – the Bergen County Scholastic League, North Bergen Interscholastic League, and Lakeland Conference – this arrangement worked out perfectly, but the PVC and the NNJIL had to get creative. 

Thankfully – for the PVC, at least – the NJSIAA voted on October 28 to allow the season to extend to December 7.  With East Rutherford and Passaic each needing to reschedule two league games – one against each other, and a second against Central and Clifton, respectively – the schools decided to leave East Rutherford-Passaic on November 23 and play the other two games on December 7. 

The NNJIL, the only North Jersey conference that had not left the weekend before Thanksgiving open, needed to reschedule three games:  Cliffside Park-Hackensack, Englewood-Rutherford, and Leonia-Teaneck.  Without November 23 as an option, and with no desire by the schools’ principals to extend the season into December, the league decided to play the games on Tuesday, November 5 – Election Day – at 2:00.  This plan meant the schools would play three games in eight days, and the NJSIAA was having none of it. 

Believing this schedule would prove too taxing for high school athletes, the state association’s executive committee ruled that the league had to find a different solution.  The NNJIL, however, argued that the NJSIAA was attempting to insert a rule where none existed, and went ahead with the Election Day games in defiance of the state.  The Record called the NJSIAA “powerless to stop [the] games,” and columnist Gerry de la Ree later wrote, “Members of the NJSIAA, red-faced to be sure, looked on helplessly.”  Hackensack and Teaneck recorded lopsided victories, and Englewood remained undefeated with a 25-6 win.

With eleven flu-rescheduled games on tap, along with four regularly scheduled NNJIL games, November 23 turned into an impromptu “Championship Saturday” of sorts in Bergen and Passaic Counties.  In the Lakeland Conference, a league consisting of Passaic and eastern Morris County schools, the Dover-Passaic Valley matchup that had originally been slated for October 19 was now for the outright title, as both teams had already swept the rest of their conference opponents.  The Hornets broke a ten-game losing streak to the Tigers, winning on their home field in Little Falls, 39-20.  In the BCSL, Westwood and Dumont both entered their games with a chance at the crown, but the Cardinals’ 27-0 shutout of Hasbrouck Heights made the Huskies’ win over Wood-Ridge moot. 

In the PVC, East Rutherford kept its championship hopes alive, beating Passaic, 33-6.  And in the NNJIL, Hackensack shocked Englewood, 12-6, putting a portion of the league title on the line in its Thanksgiving meeting with Teaneck.

League honors aside, the biggest game of November 23 was a non-conference clash between Clifton and Bloomfield that was rescheduled from October 12.  Both Group IV giants entered the game with unblemished records, and were ranked first and third, respectively, in the Saylor Poll, an unofficial statewide ranking of New Jersey football teams.  Despite the potential for excitement, the game was a dud.  The Bengals walloped the visiting Mustangs, 33-6, in front of 13,500 fans at Foley Field.  What would have otherwise been a limited Saturday schedule turned into arguably the most significant weekend of the flu-riddled campaign.

Thanksgiving brought two more league championships, and an end to the wild season for most teams.  In the NBIL, the only conference that had not played at least one game the previous weekend, Ridgewood gave Fair Lawn its only league loss, 34-6, and the Maroons claimed their second consecutive league title.  In the NNJIL, and with 10,000 fans in the Teaneck stands, the Highwaymen beat the Comets, 28-19, to improve their league record to 6-1 and share the crown with Englewood.

As most teams turned in their helmets and shoulder pads and got ready for basketball season, the four PVC squads – Central, East Rutherford, Clifton, and Passaic – still faced a week of practice before the December 7 games.  But a snowstorm from Tuesday into Wednesday dumped over 13 inches of snow on North Jersey, and left the games in doubt.  The host schools, Clifton and East Rutherford, both preferring to play in better conditions, postponed the games and appealed to the NJSIAA for permission to play on December 14.  Though the state association granted the appeal, Passaic decided football season had gone on long enough and the basketball team should have its full roster.  Once the Indians backed out – marking the only season between 1923 and 1974 without a Clifton-Passaic game – East Rutherford, needing a Clifton loss and a win of its own to share the PVC title, called off its game with Central.  The PVC awarded its title to Clifton, based on the November 2 win over East Rutherford.  [See Note 1.]    

The worry and frustration of September and October notwithstanding, the 1957 season looked, for the most part, like any other.  Players had regained their health, games had been played, and league championships had been earned.  In the end, fifteen games involving at least one Bergen or Passaic school remained unplayed, but teams found substitute opponents in several of those cases.  Lodi fared worse than any other school.  The Rams cancelled three games and were unable to reschedule any of them, due in part to the lack of a conference affiliation.

The NJSIAA awarded its sectional championships on December 16.  Prior to the playoff era, the state ranked teams by group and section using various mathematical formulas.  From 1937 through 1960, that formula was the Colliton System, a creation of Trenton math teacher J. Whitney Colliton, which relied heavily on strength of schedule.  In North Jersey Section 1, Group IV, the Colliton numbers clearly favored Joe Grecco’s Clifton Mustangs.  Group II accolades went to Paul Kelley’s North Arlington Vikings, who, according to Herald-News columnist Bob Harding, “went through the year undefeated, untied, and unattacked by the flu.”  (This statement is not entirely correct.  The North Arlington team had indeed endured an outbreak, but never elected to cancel a game.)  [See Note 2.]

Things got interesting in Group III.  The NJSIAA, perhaps not entirely powerless, refused to recognize Englewood’s Election Day win, leaving the Maroon Raiders with only six victories instead of the seven they had earned on the field.  They still had enough points to earn the sectional title, but the lack of a seventh win kept second-ranked East Rutherford within the Colliton’s percentage differential and the teams shared a co-championship.  Lou Fittipaldi’s Wildcats were evidently the real winners on Election Day.  As happened on occasion when no teams met the championship criteria, the NJSIAA offered no awards in Section 1, Group I nor in either North Parochial A or C.  

And in North Jersey Parochial B? Immaculate Conception of Montclair, which had cancelled both of its September starts, finally opened on October 6 with a 7-6 loss to St. Joseph of West New York.  From there, Joe Garvey’s squad outscored its opponents 176-24, holding four scoreless, and finished with a 7-1 record to claim the sectional title.  The team that first caught the flu had apparently recovered pretty well.

1:  Had they really wanted to, Clifton and East Rutherford could have cleared their fields and played on December 7.  Only a few miles from both Clifton School Stadium and Riggin Field, the Nutley grounds crew cleared the Park Oval of snow, allowing their middling Maroon Raiders to end the season with a 13-0 upset of the one-loss Belleville Bellboys in a game that was rescheduled from October 12.  At least one newspaper account implies that Passaic backed out of the game before December 7.

2:  Bloomfield, Clifton, and Montclair all played each other – Bloomfield and Montclair in a Big Ten Conference game, and Clifton in non-conference games with each.  Clifton crushed Montclair, 26-0, on November 16; Bloomfield beat Clifton the following week; and Montclair defeated Bloomfield, 21-3, on Thanksgiving.  This three-way split produced interesting postseason honors.  On the sectional level, Clifton claimed sole possession of the Section 1, Group IV championship.  With both Bloomfield and Montclair in Section 2, however, the Thanksgiving game served as a tiebreaker and the Mounties won the section outright.  Despite the split, the Bengals were shut out of a sectional crown.  On the state level, where no official NJSIAA titles were awarded, The Newark Evening News declared a three-way tie for #1 and awarded a trophy to each school.  The Bloomfield-Montclair Thanksgiving game, which aired live on the DuMont Network (Channel 5), is believed to be the first high school football game ever televised in the New York City metropolitan area.