By Bob Herzog
Even in this age of offense-driven football at all levels, many coaches still embrace the adage that “defense wins championships.” That saying could easily apply to influenza (better known as flu) prevention.
“The first line of defense against the flu is for everyone age 6 months and older to get vaccinated annually,” said Marla Dalton, CAE executive director and CEO of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID). NFID wants everyone to know that flu can be serious—even for healthy people, flu-related complications can result in hospitalization and even death. Unfortunately, flu vaccination rates in the United States continue to fall short of public health goals, both for football players and the public at large.
To promote the importance of flu prevention, NFID is in the second year of a sponsorship of the Outland Trophy, awarded each season to the nation’s best college football interior lineman. The NFID and the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) have joined forces in a national campaign (#FightFlu) to remind football fans and players to get vaccinated every year. They have even recruited former Outland Trophy winners Joe Thomas (Wisconsin, 2006), Barrett Jones (Alabama, 2011) and Mark May (Pittsburgh, 1980) for a public service campaign to remind football fans of the importance of annual flu shots.
“We provide free flu shots for the varsity football team and coaching staff. But it’s hard to get 90 men to come in to get a shot,” said University of Rhode Island (URI) head athletic trainer Andy Llaguno. “Why? Because they are scared of the needle! They’ll say, ‘No, I don’t want any part of it.’ We highly encourage them to do it, but participation has not been as good as we’d like it.”
Llaguno attributed college football players’ reluctance to get flu shots, despite medical evidence that it most definitely helps, to common myths about the flu shot. According to Llaguno, “Some of them think they will get the flu from the shot. The other thing is that they’re just scared of needles.”
Flu vaccines are made with flu viruses that are either weakened or killed, and only broken up parts of the killed virus are included in the vaccine. Therefore, the flu vaccine cannot cause the flu. And for those who are afraid of needles, flu vaccine is available as a nasal spray. The pain associated with flu is much worse than the pain of a needle.
Llaguno worked with the football programs at Penn State, Boston College and West Virginia before coming to URI and said, “It was absolutely very similar there. The difference is that at a place like Penn State, the coaching staff does have a little more influence to make sure the players get the shots.”
If football players studied the history of the flu as much as they study their playbooks, getting vaccinated would be a no-brainer.
A lengthy 2018 story in The Athletic detailed how a world-wide flu pandemic struck in 1918, during World War I, decades before a flu vaccine became available. Roughly one-third of the world’s population was infected and an estimated 50 million people died from the flu.
So even though the declared co-national champions Michigan and Pittsburgh played only five games because of the war and quarantines related to the flu scare, sports historian S.W. Pope told The Athletic that the 1918 season, “effectively helped transform the game of college football. It became a national sport.”
Thanks to flu vaccines that have been publicly available in the United States for more than 50 years, flu vaccination has prevented millions of illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths.
But NFID reminds us that the flu is still a serious illness, and vaccines don’t work if they sit on the shelf. Though the very young and very old are most vulnerable, even healthy football players and coaches are at risk. The acronym, FACTS (Fever, Aches, Chills, Tiredness, and Sudden Onset), helps remind people of the symptoms of flu.
NFID supports the ‘Take 3’ approach to flu prevention recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): 1) Get a flu vaccine each year, 2) practice healthy habits—cover coughs and sneezes, wash your hands, and stay home if you are sick; and 3) take flu antiviral drugs if prescribed.
Limiting contact with others, however, is exactly the opposite of what football players do. So football and the flu continue to converge. In September of 2009, more than 40 University of Wisconsin football players showed flu-like symptoms the week leading up to the Badgers’ game against Fresno State. They all suited up for a double-overtime victory, but one starter played only briefly before leaving the game with an illness. It was later reported that some of the team got infected by a rare swine flu virus. All recovered within a week, according to news reports.
That fall, football teams at Washington State, the University of Mississippi, Tulane and Duke also were hit hard by the flu, further raising awareness of flu and its symptoms and treatment.
The Ravens defeated the New England Patriots in the AFC championship game, staying at a hotel in Providence instead of Boston, which had declared a state of emergency because of the flu outbreak which affected some Patriots’ players that week.
You would think such incidents would make it an easy sell for athletic trainers to convince football players to get vaccinated against flu. But in many instances, that is not the case.
“Even these big, tough guys are still afraid of needles,” Llaguno said of his Rhode Island Rams. “In some ways it’s comical, but it’s not funny that we haven’t gotten the participation that we want. It is getting better though. We started with a dozen players, got it up to a couple of dozen last year, and we’re hoping for more than 60 percent this year.”
After all, the best way offense in combatting the disease is a good defense.
(Bob Herzog retired from Newsday in 2018 after a 46-year career as a sportswriter and editor. He lives in Rhode Island, where he teaches at URI.)