Fans keep NFL's Portsmouth Spartans alive

The Portsmouth Spartans, seen here in 1932, became the Detroit Lions. But they're not forgotten. AP Photo

Today, the NFL is about giant stadiums, bigger revenue streams and larger-than-life multimedia stars.

But Jim Kennedy and Billy McClurg want people to know it wasn’t always that way.

Once, their little hometown of Portsmouth, Ohio, on the banks of the Ohio River, had its own NFL team -- one that could go leather-helmet-to-leather-helmet with the New York Giants and Chicago Bears.

From 1930 to 1933, the Portsmouth Spartans played their games on the field at old Universal Stadium -- a weathered edifice that still stands –- before the franchise was sold, moved to Detroit and renamed the Lions.

Kennedy, a longtime collector of Spartans memorabilia and one of the founding members of the Portsmouth Spartans Historical Society, is proud of his town and its NFL heritage. He tells tales to newcomers and visitors alike of Hall of Famer Earl “Dutch” Clark, star tailback Glenn Presnell and coach Potsy Clark.

“I try to make them aware, you know, that we haven’t always been a rundown river town,” Kennedy says. “At one time we had something going. I try to let everyone know.”

Like the Dayton Triangles, Canton Bulldogs, Columbus Tigers and Akron Indians, the Portsmouth Spartans are a long-gone and mostly forgotten part of the rich, early history of the NFL in the '20s and ’30s.

McClurg, who runs the Spartans Historical Society’s website and Facebook page, says many Portsmouth-area residents have no idea their town had an NFL team -- just as some Detroit Lions fans he’s spoken with don’t know their team was born in Ohio.

McClurg, however, has been intrigued by the Spartans since the third grade, when a coach regaled his youngsters with tales of NFL history, including the Spartans.

“He was the first adult to ever share the knowledge that there was a professional team here,” says McClurg, who now lives about an hour away in Proctorville, Ohio.

McClurg, a lifelong Browns fan, says the Portsmouth Spartans Historical Society sprung from conversations among Browns backers in the late 1990s. The more they talked about the Spartans, the more they decided there needed to be a group to celebrate the team and pursue two goals:

First, get Presnell -- the former Nebraska star who was a first- or second-team All-NFL pick in his three Portsmouth seasons -- into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

And second, protect Spartan Municipal Stadium (formerly Universal Stadium). Now the site of semipro and high school games, it’s been labeled by one publication, “the oldest NFL structure that has continuously housed football.”

“When [people in town] started talking about demolishing the stadium, that’s when we said, ‘OK, let’s form a society and stop this,’” McClurg says.

Ten original members, including Kennedy and McClurg, held meetings, invited Presnell -- who was in his 90s and living in nearby Ironton -- to public functions, campaigned for his induction at Canton and raised awareness about the city-owned stadium that some believed should be demolished.

Kennedy continues to speak of Presnell and his accomplishments as a single-wing tailback and two-way player.

Kennedy says Presnell told them great stories of his years in Portsmouth. It was a short but lively span that included the Spartans playing the Bears in the first league championship game in 1932, and a 1931 season in which the Spartans went 11-3. That year, Portsmouth was denied a chance at the title when 12-2 Green Bay refused to play a previously agreed-to December game against Portsmouth -- and the Packers were declared champions.

The next season, the Spartans whipped the Packers 19-0 in Portsmouth in what’s been called the “Iron Man Game” because Clark never made a substitution.

“As far as we’re concerned, Portsmouth -- they were the champions,” McClurg says.

Says Kennedy of Presnell: “I loved being around him. Not too many people [you meet] knew Red Grange.”

The society’s Hall of Fame campaign for Presnell never got much traction, however. Although Presnell was a fine player and helped the Lions win the NFL championship for Detroit the year after the team left Portsmouth, Kennedy says they couldn’t get their hero enshrined.

“The old guys are forgotten,” says Kennedy.

With the death of Presnell in 2004 at the age of 99 and the designation of the stadium as a state historical site in 2003, the Historical Society lost a lot of its momentum.

Though McClurg vows to always maintain the group’s website and Facebook page, he says, “I don’t know if there’s much of a society anymore, to be honest with you.”

Yet he and Kennedy continue to spread the word about the Spartans.

“I don’t want to let this die,” McClurg says. “It’s nice to try to keep the memory alive that there once was a professional team in Portsmouth.”

Kennedy, who has collected photos, game programs, matchbook covers, tickets and other Spartans memorabilia, allows them to be displayed from time to time in town. There is no formal Spartans museum.

Kennedy agrees with McClurg that many in the area don’t know about the Spartans. But he says that’s changed a bit in recent years. In 2011, for instance, a story in the Columbus Dispatch explored Portsmouth’s NFL history during Super Bowl week, when former Portsmouth rival Green Bay was preparing to play the Steelers. At one time, Green Bay and Portsmouth were the NFL’s smallest cities.

Today, Green Bay has a population of more than 100,000. Portsmouth, once a lively steel and manufacturing center with a population of about 42,000 when the Spartans played, has shrunk to about 20,000 residents. Signs that the NFL played in the city are few, yet the stadium stands and a giant mural depicting the “Iron Man Game” graces part of the floodwall that protects Portsmouth from the Ohio River.

And, McClurg and Kennedy continue to keep the message alive.

The Portsmouth Spartans Historical Society might have lost some momentum, but it hasn’t lost its passionate few.

“As long as I’m around, it will always be here,” McClurg says.