By BOB STRICKLEY
PDT Sports Editor
For the first time since 1999 the Detroit Lions will return to the playoffs behind quarterback Matthew Stafford, wide receiver Calvin Johnson and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.
They’re players that have become household names to casual sports fans but how many devoted Lions fans recall names like Potsy Clark, Earl “Dutch” Clark and Glenn Presnell? How many Portsmouth sports fans know the significance of those names?
Go back nearly eight decades and the same franchise that will take on the New Orleans Saints in the opening round of the NFL playoffs tonight had the stubborn Potsy Clark refusing to substitute in the “Iron Man” game, Presnell running halfback dives and Dutch Clark breaking the tackles of the best defenders the 1930s had to offer.
For four seasons Portsmouth stood among the elite of professional football as a host city of the National Football League and left a brief, but enduring footprint in the sport’s history.
The first NFL night game came at Universal Stadium, now Spartan Municipal Stadium, against the Brooklyn Dodgers on Sept. 24, 1930. That was five years before the more recognized Major League Baseball nighttime debut at Cincinnati’s Crosley Field in May 1935.
In 1932, the Spartans finished their season with the identical record of the Chicago Bears leading to the first NFL playoff game, a contest that had to be moved from Wrigley Field to the shortened, indoor field of Chicago Stadium due to a blizzard.
“Up until 1932 there was no post season and the team with the best record was the NFL champion, but (George) Halas and the Portsmouth executives came to an agreement to play the game to determine the champion that season,” said Chris Willis of NFL films and author of Old Leather: An Oral History of Early Pro Football in Ohio, 1920-1935. “It was not an exciting game and was limited by the dirt floor and shortened playing field.”
Portsmouth lost 9-0 without their best player, Dutch Clark. The signature play of the game came on a Bronco Nagurski touchdown pass to Red Grange. That pass and the Spartans’ subsequent objection to Nagurski throwing the pass while within five yards of the line of scrimmage, a penalty at the time, led to broad changes to NFL rules the following season.
“It was one of the top four or five games in NFL history,” Willis said. “It led to rule changes, including the implementation of hash marks in an effort by league leadership to open the game up to the caliber of athletes that were coming in. You can’t talk about the history of the NFL without talking about the Spartans and that game.”
Now, nearly 80 years later, the franchise is returning to the postseason they originally christened for the first time in a dozen seasons.
“I think there’s a disconnect between people in Portsmouth and the Spartans,” former Portsmouth resident and Spartans memorabilia collector Mike McConnell said.
The Lions have become something of a sports parallel for what has happened to the city of Portsmouth since they left behind the city and the Spartan moniker. The franchise left and shortly after that industry, employment and growth did as well.
“My 97-year-old mother used to tell me that during the Depression people didn’t have the money to pay and see the Spartans games so they would go to their practices and watch from the flood walls,” McConnell said.
Today, the monolith of Spartan Municipal Stadium stands to remind residents of the fading memory of a Portsmouth that once was considered the next Green Bay as the seconded-smallest NFL host city at the time.
“They were a very successful team,” Willis said. “If they had better financial backing or if they weren’t operating during the height of the Great Depression, things could have turned out differently. But during their time they were competing with the Bears, Packers and Giants to be the best; they just ran out of money.”
McConnell, Willis and Sciotoville resident Paul O’Neill were part of a group that helped raise money and support to declare Spartan Municipal Stadium a state historical site in October 2003.
“We were part of a group of about 20 people that who donated money along with local businesses in order to buy the marker and put the program together,” O’Neill said. “We had a ceremony with Ted Strickland and former Spartan Glenn Presnell in attendance among other area dignitaries.”
The historical marker stands outside the stadium today with a description of the stadium’s history.
“It’s just such a great stadium and to think Portsmouth had an NFL team and this stadium is still here,” O’Neill said. “I think it is something we need to preserve and cherish.”
Today, the football team of Portsmouth’s Notre Dame High School and the Semi-Professional Kentucky Warriors of the Heartland Football League play in the stadium that Willis says was one of the best home field venues during the Spartans’ NFL run.
“They were a great team at home,” Willis said. “Their overall record over the four seasons they played there was 19-2-4 making it a very tough place for visiting teams to play.”
Notre Dame football coach Bob Ashley says the history of his team’s home venue is not lost on his players and coaches.
“We are very aware of the history behind it,” Ashley said. “It’s one of the things we are very proud of and even from a personal aspect, my grandfather has one of, if not the last programs from a game between Green Bay and Portsmouth.”
Although the NFL has long left the gray, age-stained interior walls of Spartan Municipal Stadium, the lore surrounding a field where the pioneers of the league once played remains.
“I had a coach approach me about playing a scrimmage against us and it wasn’t so much about playing us as it was getting to coach in an old pro stadium where the Lions once were,” Ashley said. “It may not be much to look at but we are very proud of the history there.”
The resurgence of the long-dormant Lions into the national lexicon has stirred old memories of the franchise’s origins.
“Southern Ohio had a lot of semi-professional teams including the Shoe Steels in Portsmouth,” Willis said. “It was the local businesses getting together that formed the team in 1929. The sport was popular in the area and they were a good squad and they joined the NFL in 1930.”
If the Spartan players were to compare the game of their time to the high-flying offenses of today’s NFL it would not even appear to be the same sport. Outside of the instrumental changes in game play that Portsmouth helped initiate, the Spartans helped propel the league to the standard which all other levels of football mimic.
“The changes the NFL made to the rules after the 1932 season helped separate themselves from the college game,” Willis said. “At the time the college game was more popular but breaking from their rules and making their own started the transition over time to now where the NFL sets the rules and the college level and downward follows their model.”
Much of the history made by the Spartans has been forgotten but collectors such as McConnell and historians like Willis have made sure the legacy of the team will endure.
“It’s a shame that their memory has faded as much as it has,” McConnell said. “So much time has passed since they were in the city that I don’t think people there realize the Lions were once the Spartans and they were once in Portsmouth.”
When the Lions take the field at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome for their playoff game this evening, it will be because of players like Dutch Clark and Glenn Presnell, trailblazers of the most popular professional sport in America, changed the game while playing at Spartan Municipal Stadium.
Bob Strickley may be reached at 740-353-3101, ext. 203, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information on the history of the Portsmouth Spartans pick up a copy of Chris Willis’ Old Leather: An Oral History of Early Pro Football in Ohio 1920-1935 or visit PortsmouthSpartans.org.