In 1954, despite Hurricane Hazel and a polio outbreak, NCSU and FSU played

Tim Peeler, Contributor to The Wolfpacker
The Wolfpacker
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NC State media relations

In retrospect 63 years later, maybe NC State and Florida State shouldn’t have played their football game on Oct. 16, 1954.

And it has nothing to do with the controversial ending, in which the slightly favored Seminoles ruined the Riddick Stadium debut of first-year NC State coach Earle Edwards with a 13-7 victory on a chilly, rain-swept evening.

Sure, it would have been the first football game in Florida State’s short history — the former women’s college went co-ed and began playing football in 1947 — to be canceled, something that didn’t happen until this year.

The Seminoles, who host NC State on Saturday at Doak Campbell Stadium, have had two games affected this season by Hurricane Irma. The game against Louisiana-Monroe was canceled, a first in 73 seasons of football, and the ACC game against Miami last weekend was postponed until Oct. 7, the third time since 2001 that a Seminole game has been rescheduled.

Saturday’s game will be the Seminoles’ first time on the field since its season-opening 24-7 loss to Alabama on Sept. 2.

There were actually two reasons the ’54 game could have been axed: A little more than 24 hours before the 8 p.m. kickoff, Hurricane Hazel made an unexpected turn through Raleigh. It made landfall in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, moved up the coast to Wilmington and then followed the future path of Interstate-40 through Raleigh and into Virginia before charging all the way into Toronto, leaving massive wind damage, destruction and flooding in its path.

It was the third calamitous storm in a month, with Carol and Edna causing more than 100 deaths before Hazel blew in and caused more than 600 deaths in Haiti, the United States and Canada.

On NC State’s campus, which was generally spared serious impact, the cupola on Becton Hall was destroyed, the roof of the open-air press box at Riddick Stadium was blown off and multiple trees were toppled.

Much of the eastern part of the state, however, was decimated by the Category 4 storm.

It was North Carolina’s most destructive hurricane until Hurricane Fran blew in along the same path in 1996, killing 11 people in the state, including the friend of two UNC-Chapel Hill students who were all out taking pictures of the damage in Durham. The two students suffered serious injuries.

The other reason? The biggest outbreak of polio in Florida history, a particularly widespread but mild version of the virus known today as the “Tallahassee strain.” The week before, Florida A&M had its football game with Fort Valley (Georgia) State, slated to be played in Tallahassee, canceled because of the epidemic.

Leon County High School, located in Tallahassee, played one game in two months because other schools in the area refused to play against them at home or on the road for fear of their players contracting what was then an incurable and life-altering disease. Teenage males in warmer climates were particularly susceptible to the disease. When the epidemic was over, Leon County played four games in 10 days.

Health officials in Tallahassee and others around the state discouraged large groups of visitors from traveling to or from the state capital during the outbreak from late July until early November. Canceling the game in Raleigh would not have been considered a drastic measure in the face of a polio outbreak.

Tallahassee was a virtual leper colony during the outbreak, with nearly 784 of the state’s 1,798 cases reported in Leon County alone. For nearly two months, Tallahassee Memorial Hospital dealt with around 125 patients a day, about twice its capacity.

NC State officials were well aware of such troubles. Two years before, North Carolina canceled games against the Wolfpack and Georgia because of an outbreak of polio on its campus in Chapel Hill. Five Tar Heel athletes, including one football player, contracted the disease, though none suffered lasting effects. It’s the only time that the Wolfpack and Tar Heels have failed to meet in an annual game since the end of World War II.

In the end, neither disaster had an impact on the game.

The polio outbreak, for all the fear and panic it caused, turned out to be one of the mildest on record, despite the high number of reported cases. The next year, Dr. Jonas Salk perfected a vaccine for the disease, virtually ending polio as a worldwide health hazard.

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The Seminole football team managed to fly safely from Tallahassee to Charlotte, eat dinner during a brief stopover, and then travel on to Raleigh. The two 24-passenger chartered planes were delayed from leaving Florida by some three hours, and when the Seminoles arrived at the Raleigh-Durham airport around 10:30 p.m., there was no electricity to greet them either at the airport or at their downtown Raleigh hotel.

Trees were down, electrical poles were toppled and telephone wires were strewn about. By game-time, however, few of the 9,000 spectators in attendance could tell much of a difference from Riddick Stadium’s every-day dilapidated appearance.

An afternoon shower wetted the field and a chilly breeze blew throughout the game. The Wolfpack owned a 7-0 lead at the half, putting everyone in a good mood for the halftime show by the visiting Florida State High-Flying Circus.

That mood was deflated in the second half by FSU backup quarterback Harry Massey, who completed just two passes in the contest, both of which went for touchdowns.

The game was decided midway through the fourth quarter when Wolfpack halfback and punter George Marinkov dropped back to punt near his own end zone. The kick was partially blocked, but Marinkov recovered the ball and advanced to the 13-yard line, which would have been enough for a first down.

However, game official ruled that the blocked kick did not cross the line of scrimmage, meaning Florida State did not have an adequate opportunity to receive the ball. They declared the ball dead where Marinkov recovered it, giving it to the Seminoles on the Wolfpack 5-yard-line over Edwards’ and the fans’ vehement protests.

Two plays later, Massey threw his second touchdown pass of the game.

Marinkov, who had returned a kick for 76 yards and intercepted two passes in the game, led two last-ditch drives, including giving the offense the ball on the FSU 31-yard line following an interception. But the Pack was unable to score again.

Florida State returned to Tallahassee the next day. The victory over NC State kicked off a five-game winning streak that ended with the Seminoles being invited to their first major-college postseason game. They lost to Texas-El Paso, 47-20, in the Sun Bowl on Jan. 1, 1955. The Wolfpack lost five of its final six games to finish 2-8 in Edwards’ inaugural season.

In the end, one disaster ended the other for the people of Tallahassee. Hurricane Hazel brought unseasonably cool weather to northern Florida over the next two weeks, enough to end the threat of polio, which generally spread only in warm weather.

The epidemic officially was declared over in the state of Florida on Nov. 5, 1954.

Tim Peeler is a regular contributor to The Wolfpacker and can be reached at tmpeeler@ncsu.edu.

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