GridIron on the Great Lake

The 1918 Fort Ontario Army football team (based in Oswego) was the best amateur 11 in Central New York and, arguably, one of the finest service teams in the country at the time. The team – made up of players representing a variety of religions, races and ethnicities from across the U.S., was both unbeaten and unscored upon. Author Doug Bigelow’s GridIron On The Great Lake follow’s the team along the football season as it battles its opponents, the influenza epidemic and the horror of dealing with the casualties of the first World War.

Bigelow will donate $5 from the sale of each book to Clear Path for Veterans. In addition, the publishing company will make a donation for each book sold.

You can read more information about the book here.

You can order the book here.

 

You can read the introduction below:

Neither God, the Kaiser nor their gridiron adversaries could defeat the 1918 Fort Ontario Soldiers. They survived the Spanish Influenza that infected 500 million people and killed 4 percent of the world’s population. They survived the War to End All Wars that killed 16 million, including 117,000 Americans. And they survived the five opponents that meant to conquer them on the frozen turfs of central New York.

The city of Oswego (home of Fort Ontario) was like thousands of other communities across the United States. They sent their masses across the Pacific Ocean to fight a war with the German Empire. Some didn’t even know why our country was at war. They didn’t know who the assassinated Archduke of Austria-Este was. But, they were patriotic and their country needed them.

Many were one generation removed from the places they were venturing to: England, France, Germany. They were the children of immigrants or in many cases, immigrants themselves.

There were stories of courage and bravery about the sons of Oswego. The letters would find their way home telling the exploits of the young warriors. For a time, they would be revered. In time, they would be forgotten – much like the football team at the Fort. In 1918, it was recognized for its greatness, but a century later few if any, knew its story.

 

The world around this football team was progressing. Man had only been able to fly for 15 years. Since the time of the Wright brothers and their 12 horsepower aerial “kite” at Kitty Hawk to the 320 horsepower war machines flying over the battlefields of France, technology was advancing in leaps and bounds.

Electric washing machines, coffee filters, bras, Cornflakes and crossword puzzles were all recent additions to the American lifestyle.

Automobiles had been around for 30 years, but Henry Ford made his first Model T, changing the world, in 1908. Five years later, he invented the moving assembly line, making manufacturing quicker, cars cheaper, and the lives of average citizens more mobile.

In the last ten years, man had explored both the North and South Poles. Few places on earth had not felt the touch of mankind.

While the world moved forward, life itself took a step backwards. Millions would die unnaturally, either from war or disease, during the dreadful year of 1918. The average lifespan of a man in 1918 was 36.6 years, 42.2 for a woman, a full 12 years less for each than the year before.

As if the horrific wounds inflicted by the modern war machines wasn’t enough, the Fort’s staff would have to face a dreaded plague of epic proportions. A disease that by some estimates would kill more people than any other. One-third of the world’s population was affected and estimates of 50-100 million people on the planet perished from it. It was as if Mother Nature was making a statement that she would not be outdone in this grisly contest for loss of life. She would not take a back seat to man’s war.

Whether they died in the dirt beds of France, or whether they died in the linen beds of Oswego, the bullets and viruses didn’t discriminate - sons died, daughters died.

To battle these death dealers, the Fort went from a small outpost to a large medical facility almost overnight - capable of tending 1,000 sick and wounded at a time. The staff included some of the finest doctors and nurses available. Many of the doctors came from New York City, trained in the best practices of the time. The Red Cross nurses came from all over the country with a sacrificial eagerness to ply their healing touch to those afflicted.

Some distraction had to be put in place to help them forget the constant visits of the Grim Reaper. Football wasn’t the only escape, but it certainly was a prosperous one.

The sport played in 1918 holds a resemblance to the contest of today. Basically the same game, the same rules, with slight variations. But the style was greatly different, as was the equipment. With leather helmets, for those who chose to wear one, there was scant protection. They had no face guards, so longtime players had crooked noses from repeated breakings and gaps in their smiles from repeated molar losses. These extractions were caused by an elbow or a knee to the mouth or by their face being driven into the sod instead of by a dentists’ tool.

A broken nose or a lost tooth was a bargain in this age of football. The game was deadly, much deadlier than the modern faction. It was a gladiatorial sport. Hand-to-hand combat in front of large crowds, sometimes in coliseums for public amusement. These weren’t Romans or slaves, they were farmers and clerks.

Life wasn’t easy at the Fort. When the men could break from their duties, break from the death that surrounded them, they played a game that in itself could leave them broken, or in some cases, in the graveyard. It wasn’t common, but the game at times took victims. Crazy as it seems, the war might not get them, the epidemic influenza might not get them, but there was always a chance that the gridiron would, and the men knew the risks.

The game of 1918 was the product of years of rules changes to be tweaked for the benefit of the players and the fans. Changes that were made to make the game safer, to make the game more exciting. These are two areas that continue to this day. The game is never ending and forever changing, but one thing has never changed. The game is fought hard by men who leave their all on the field.

The “Army Eleven” on the Great Lake was an assemblage of everything America was at the turn of the century. There were players who had been born in Scotland, Russia, Norway and Ireland as well as locally rooted boys. There were players whose parents and grandparents had come to this country from across the “big pond” in Europe to make a new life. Players to whom English was their second language. The team chaplain and manager was of German descent. His parents were born in the Rhineland. There was a Native American playing next to a Jew. Men born of farmer stock playing next to men whose fathers were physicians. There were men who hadn’t made it beyond grammar school suited up with men who had graduated college.

The Native American was a star player who had traveled 1,400 miles east to serve his country. Playing football on the shores of Lake Ontario was a pleasant by-product of time and place. The team’s best player, a college man, was an Irish immigrant from one of the many Hibernian communities in Massachusetts. There was a third standout, a tough statured local man who came from the nearby city of Syracuse. Others came from far upstate, a few from Pennsylvania, a few more from the Midwest.

This collage was just one of many teams in Central New York. Cities fielded amateur teams and semi-professional teams. This was pre-NFL, before there was much organization. Each team was a separate entity unto itself. Many teams had disbanded or suspended operations due to the war’s manpower shortage. Those teams that still existed were oftentimes a collection of other squads. In some cases, they were better than the originals.

Besides the Fort’s successful Central New York team, there was a multitude of service squads spread across the nation. At war’s end, another large contingent played on the European Continent. All of them fought for the right to be called the military’s champion. The soldiers of Oswego beat the Kaiser. They beat an epidemic disease. They beat all comers. Fort Ontario wasn’t at the top, but champions they were indeed.