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A Detroit Lions Fan Visits Portsmouth, Ohio

by Randy Snow

Original to www.theworldoffootball.com, Friday, July 10, 2015

Any fan of the Detroit Lions can tell you that the team’s history dates back to 1934, and that it won three NFL titles in the 1950s. They can also name great players from the past like Bobby Layne, Lem Barney and Dick “Night Train” Layne. But many Lions fans are unaware that the team had actually been in the NFL for four years prior to 1934 and it even played in the first ever NFL title game in 1932. The team’s history can be traced back to a small town in a neighboring state.

Prior to moving to Detroit in 1934, and being renamed the Lions, the team was known as the Portsmouth Spartans and played in the small town of Portsmouth, Ohio.

The Spartans actually began playing in 1929 as an independent pro team, one of many in Ohio at the time. They joined the NFL a year later, in 1930 and their original stadium is still there today.

I had been wanting to visit Portsmouth for a number of years and I finally made the trip this year. I wanted to see the town that spawned my favorite team and to get a sense of its long forgotten roots.

My son and I traveled to Portsmouth a few months ago looking for the original stadium that the team played in. Believe it or not, it is still in use by local high school teams. I was not quite sure where the stadium was located when we arrived in town, but I thought, “How hard could it be to find a football stadium in a small town?” It turned out to be a little harder than I had imagined.

There was another attraction in Portsmouth that I had heard about that I also wanted to see. A set of mural paintings on the retaining wall next to the Ohio River. We drove all the way through town and did not see any signs that would direct us to where the murals were. So we turned around and headed back through town. This time, we did see a sign and turned off the main road. Along Front Street, which goes behind the downtown businesses, we found the murals. They were huge, about 20 feet tall, and beautiful. Each mural depicted a different scene from the town and the county’s rich history. Across the street from the murals were placards that explained the story behind each picture on the wall.

I was most interested in the mural that depicted the Spartans team, but there were a few others that were interesting as well. One showed cowboy star Roy Rogers and his horse, Trigger. I had no idea what connection he had to Portsmouth until I read the sign across the street. It told how Rogers grew up in the area. There were even direction on how to get to his boyhood home on Duck Run Road. There is a historical marker at the home dedicated to him. I also learned that there is a Roy Rogers Festival held in Portsmouth each year during the first weekend in June.

Another mural showed a picture of Jim Thorpe when he was a player-coach for a semi-pro team in town called the Portsmouth Shoe-Steels in 1927.

Still another mural was of famed baseball executive Branch Rickey. He also grew up on Duck Run Road and was the man who signed Jackie Robinson to a Major League Baseball contract in 1946, breaking the baseball color barrier.

After spending some time viewing and photographing the murals, we went to lunch at the local Bob Evans Restaurant. Having seen no sign to indicate where the Spartans’ stadium was actually located, I asked the cashier if she knew how to find the stadium. She knew exactly where it was and explained how to get there.

In my mind the directions were perfectly clear, but once we got back on the road we found that we had once again left town and were heading towards Kentucky. We turned around and headed back into town. I recalled that the lady said the stadium was on Williams Street, so we plugged that information into the GPS and followed it right to where we wanted to go. And speaking of my GPS, it allows me to change the vehicle icon on the display. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that one of the icons is actually a football!

The stadium is on the southeast side of town, once again, right by the river. Originally called Portsmouth Universal Stadium, it is now known as Spartan Municipal Stadium. It was the site of the first ever night game played in the NFL on September 24, 1930 and the Spartans defeated the Brooklyn Dodgers, 12-0 that night.  

The team featured head coach Potsy Clark, quarterback Dutch Clark and halfback Glenn Presnell, who all followed the team to Detroit and won an NFL title in 1935, just their second year in the Motor City, beating the New York Giants, 26-7.

But it was not the first time that the team had played for an NFL title. In 1932, the Spartans and the Chicago Bears ended up tied at the end of the regular season. This has never happened in the 11 previous seasons that the league had been in operation. Bears owner George Halas suggested that a championship game be played to decide the league title. The game was supposed to be played at Wrigley Field in Chicago, but a bitter snowstorm hit the city that weekend. The game was moved indoors at the Chicago Stadium, where the Chicago Blackhawks hockey team played. Ironically, there had been a circus there just a few days before, so there was already a layer of dirt on the ground. The field was only 80 yards long and there was only one set of goal posts at one end. The Bears won the game 9-0. The NFL has been playing a championship game ever since.

A sign at Spartan stadium even states that it was the original home of the Detroit Lions. A historical marker nearby also tells of how the team had a record on 19 wins, two losses and four ties during its four NFL years in the stadium. The marker also describes the most famous game ever played at the stadium. It has become known as “The Iron Man Game” and the Spartans, with only 11 players and no substitutes, defeated the world champion Green Bay Packers, 19-0 on December 4, 1932.

Seeing the Lions’ original stadium and getting a feel for where the teams roots are seeded gave me a greater appreciation for the history of the Lions team. If you are a diehard Lions fan, and are traveling in the vicinity of Portsmouth, Ohio, I recommend making a trip through town to see the murals and the stadium. You’ll be glad you did.

See Related articles;

Ohio Man Keeps NFL Portsmouth Spartans History Alive

Book Report: Dutch Clark

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