The third of the eventual four Black 'n' Blue Division (NFC North) teams came into existence this week when the owner of Detroit's WJR radio station bought the Portsmouth Spartans and moved them to Detroit and renamed them the Lions.

In another of this week's events the NFL finds that invading Europe without establishing a solid beach head is a failure waiting to happen. The Wayback Machine is going on a worldwide tour this week.

 
Events This Week:

June 24, 1922 – The American Professional Football Association changes its name to the National Football League.
 
June 30, 1934 – The Portsmouth Spartans moved to Detroit and became the Lions.
In the late 1920’s there were professional teams spread throughout the rust belt cities of Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, etc. that established themselves, played from one to three seasons, then folded. Some of those were teams that competed in the early NFL; some would take on “all comers”, competing against teams from neighboring cities or NFL teams that were looking to either pad their records or grab an extra payday, and in many cases both. In 1929, one of these teams formed in the city of Portsmouth, Ohio.

The Portsmouth Spartans made an impressive showing in their inaugural season by defeating a regional professional football powerhouse, the Ironton Tanks. The Tanks were an independent pro team but often the equal to many NFL teams of the time.

In 1930 the Tanks defeated both the Chicago Bears and New York Giants. After the 1929 season and beating the Tanks, the city of Portsmouth decided to push for “big league” status. Despite the previous year’s stock market crash and a worsening economy the city approved construction of a football stadium. With financing in place, the NFL awarded Portsmouth a franchise starting with the 1930 NFL season.

The Spartans won their inaugural NFL game and for their second game on Wednesday, September 24th, they set up lights and played one of, if not the earliest night game in NFL history, defeating the Brooklyn Dodgers 12-0. The Spartans charged out to a 4-1-1 record before struggling to the finish line and a 5-6-3 to tie for seventh place in the 11 team league.

For 1931, the Spartans hired a new head coach from Butler University. George “Potsy” Clark had never coached professional football before but brought the discipline that he had instilled into his college team and that the Spartans needed. Clark only retained six of the previous season’s players and added five players from the Ironton Tanks, who folded after their 1930 season. Among his other additions for the 1931 season was future Pro Football Hall of Fame back Earl “Dutch” Clark.

The Spartans began 1931 by running off eight straight victories before losing to the Giants and Bears on consecutive weekends. In the final weeks of the season, the 10-3 Spartans trailed the 12-1 Packers in the standings with two games remaining against the Bears and Packers. Green Bay had two road games scheduled against the Bears and the Spartans. Portsmouth needed to win both games and hope the Bears beat the Packers to force a tie for first and a playoff for the league championship.

The Spartans did their part, beating the Bears 3-0 on a muddy field that prevented their Hall of Fame backfield of Bronko Nagurski and Red Grange from establishing a running game. The following week the Bears beat the Packers 7-6 to set up a chance for Portsmouth to tie Green Bay for first and force a playoff game for the league championship.

The Packers had other ideas though. They contended that the game had only been tentatively scheduled and no contract for the game had been signed, leaving them the option to cancel the game. The Spartans appealed to league president Joe Carr but he ruled that arrangements for the game had been made after the official league schedule had been finalized therefore the Packers weren’t obligated to play the game and had won the NFL Championship for that season.

As the 1932 season approached, the Spartans were barely hanging on financially. They had reported losses of $16,000 dollars for the 1931 season so to save money they cut back on their roster and began travelling by bus instead of train to save money.

Even with the tough times though, the Spartans found themselves in a battle for the league championship again. As the season wound down, the Packers led with a 10-1-1 record with two road games against the Spartans and the Bears remaining. Both were tied for second place. Green Bay had already handed the Spartans their only loss in the third week of the season by a score of 15-10 at home.

On Sunday, December 4th, according to reports downtown Portsmouth was jammed with traffic heading for the stadium. Over 14,000, with long memories of what the Packers did to them the year before, jammed into Universal Stadium.

According to Back Glenn Presnell, one of the former Ironton Tanks on the Spartans, Potsy Clark told the team before they took the field, “I am going to start eleven men and the only way you’re going to come off that field is if we have to carry you off.” In what is called the “Iron Man” game, those eleven men knocked the Packers out of the championship race with a 19-0 victory.

The following Sunday the Bears beat the Packers 9-0 to create a first place tie with the Spartans and the teams agreed to play a game in Chicago to determine the NFL Championship. As game time approached, snowstorms and bitter cold threatened to cancel the game so George Halas suggested they play the game indoors at the Chicago Stadium.

With the circus scheduled there the following week, the Black Hawks hockey rink had been dismantled and a dirt floor laid down. An 80-yard field was laid out and special rules were put in place to adjust for the tighter dimensions. The goal posts were moved from the end lines to the goal lines. Since the sidelines were laid out right next to the wall separating the field from the stands the ball would be moved on or between the hash marks for every play.

The game was scoreless until late in the fourth quarter. After an interception the Bears took over on the Spartans' seven yard line. Three cracks into the line by Bronko Nagurski set up fourth and goal on the two yard line. Fullback Bronko Nagurski took another handoff, lowered his head and the Spartans defense prepared to meet him when Nagurski stopped, backed up and threw a touchdown pass to Red Grange.

Potsy Clark ran out and disputed the play, claiming Nagurski wasn’t the required five yards behind the line of scrimmage before he passed the ball but the touchdown stood. The Bears added a safety near the end of the game to win 9-0.

While the touchdown was disputed, the excitement and money the game generated made the entire league take notice. At the 1933 league meetings the owners made sure there would be a playoff game each season by establishing an Eastern and Western Division. They also moved the crossbar up to the goal line from the end line, ruled that balls would be brought in to the hash marks on out-of-bounds plays instead of one yard in and passing would be allowed from anywhere behind the line of scrimmage.

The 1933 season became the last for the Spartans in Portsmouth. They finished second in the Western Conference with a 6-5 record but with the depression entering its worst years the team was deep in debt. In the spring of 1934 George Richards, the owner of Detroit’s WJR radio station, put together a group to purchase the team and relocate them in Detroit.

That summer the Detroit Lions were officially accepted into the NFL. The team not only changed cities but uniform colors, going from the Spartans’ purple to the blue that the Lions still wear today.

With head coach Potsy Clark and the players he brought with him from Portsmouth, the Lions continued as a league powerhouse for the rest of the 30’s. In 1934 they finished second to the Bears again in the Western Division with a 10-3 record and won their first championship in 1935, defeating the Giants 26-7 in the Championship Game.

July 1, 1989 – NFL Owners voted unanimously to form the World League of American Football
Unlike the other three major sports in the United States (baseball, basketball and Texas hold ‘em poker), the popularity of football has never stretched farther than Canada for an international appeal. While Americans were learning how to throw passes, block and sack quarterbacks, the rest of the world continued to play, root with unequaled passion for, and sometimes riot about the sport of futbol or soccer as it’s known in the U.S.
 
F • O • O • T • B • A • L • L’s popularity meter overseas began to edge upwards in 1982 when the British Broadcasting Corporation began showing NFL games in Great Britain. As the BBC continued to show games, new fans began to adopt teams that they could root for each week.

Because of this growth in popularity, the NFL decided to play preseason games labeled as The American Bowl in London beginning in 1986. The first two teams to play football (two o’s) in Wembley Stadium were the Super Bowl XX Champion Chicago Bears and the Dallas Cowboys.

The Bears fielded a roster of personalities that was unrivaled by any other team in NFL history (and if anyone wants to nominate a team they think was their equal, go for it). Oversized, at least by 1980’s standards, defensive tackle William “The Refrigerator” Perry, Jim McMahon, Walter Payton and the rest of the team took London by storm. The Cowboys played the part of the Washington Generals (the Harlem Globetrotters old traveling opponent) as both teams made appearances in London during the week before the Bears beat the Cowboys 17-6 in the game.

Once NFL owners believed they had an untapped audience that would welcome a sport that didn’t consider the score of 3-0 to be a blowout, they decided to establish a league made up of teams based both in the U.S. and Europe (with plans for Mexico City possibly to follow).

The hopes were that the World League of American Football would play competitive games that counted in standings and further spread the sport’s audience internationally. The league would also serve to give NFL teams a place to send signed players for additional work and development before bringing them back for another training camp.

What went unspoken, with the WAFL games to be played in the spring, and with another full league’s worth of players under contract, there would be no more room for another upstart league to make trouble for the NFL. There also wouldn’t be any un-served cities clamoring for their own professional team. The NFL had finally driven the United States Football League out of business after “losing” the anti-trust suit the USFL had brought in an attempt to move their schedule to the fall (which is a story in itself).


In 1991, the inaugural season, 10 teams took the field, six in the U.S., one in Montreal, Canada and Europe represented by the Barcelona Dragons, Frankfort Galaxy and the London Monarchs, split into three divisions. At the end of the first season the three Europe based teams boasted a combined record of 24-6 while no North American team finished better than 5-5. In the first World Bowl after that season, London beat Barcelona 21-0.

In 1992 all three European teams had losing seasons and, although they continued to draw fans, the overall league was losing money and NFL owners weren’t willing to continue the investment. The league shut down for two years and a new WLAF was launched in 1995 with all European teams.

The three original franchises stayed an Amsterdam, Dusseldorf (Rhein) and Edinburgh (Scotland). This attempt at European football (no “u”) lasted until the end of the 1997 season when all teams but the Rhein Fire were struggling financially.

The NFL tried twice more to establish a presence in Europe but the only country where they were ever successful was Germany. By 2005, six of the seven teams in the league were in German cities, those teams won all seven World Bowls between 1998 and 2004. The last incarnation of the attempt, NFL Europa played out the 2006 season before the NFL pulled the plug on the effort.

The NFL hasn’t surrendered in the effort to gain international attention to football (two “ll’s”). Starting in 2007 with the Miami Dolphins facing the New York Giants, the NFL has played one regular season game a year in London at Wembley Stadium. In 2012 this game will feature the St. Louis Rams as the home team (and also tentatively scheduled to be the home team in 2013 and 2014 also) against the New England Patriots.

The WLAF and NFL Europe attempts did generate a few benefits in the end. The WLAF served as the initial testing ground for sideline to helmet radios that are a generally accepted part of today’s NFL. The two-point conversion rule was used, which the NFL adopted in 1994. Instead of teams having 45 seconds between plays WLAF teams were given 35 seconds. In 1993 the NFL split the difference and ruled 40 seconds to increase the number of plays in a game.

There weren’t many, but a handful of players received enough experience and exposure playing for the WLAF and its successor leagues that never would have received additional opportunities otherwise. Kurt Warner followed up his initial success in the Arena Football League with one season playing for the Amsterdam Admirals in 1997 before signing with the St. Louis Rams in 1998.

Jon Kitna is another quarterback who used his experience in Europe to create an NFL career. Defensive tackle La’Roi Glover and kicker Adam Vinatieri also used the league as a springboard into the NFL and have successful careers.

It's difficult to say that the NFL's various European ventures were a "good try" at increasing interest in football (not futbol) overseas. A unified vision of what the European leagues was supposed to accomplish, whether to grow as an independent entity or serve as a developmental league, was never decided upon, so the attempts failed when they tried to be both. The interest is there, especially in Germany. It remains to be seen whether the NFL can do anything with it.

Deaths This Week:

June 26, 2002 – Jay Berwanger died from lung cancer at his home in Oak Brook, Illinois.
Berwanger, as mentioned before in an the first Dropping Back column, was an All-American halfback for the University of Chicago Maroons and in 1935 became the first winner of the Heisman Trophy. He was also the first player ever selected in an NFL draft, the first overall of all in a sense.

The Philadelphia Eagles anticipated difficulties in signing Berwanger and traded him to the Chicago Bears, who failed to come to a contract agreement with him. Berwanger never played a down in the NFL.

June 27, 1962 – Cleveland Browns safety Don Rogers died of a heart attack caused by cocaine use
Rogers was selected in the first round (No. 18) in the 1984 draft by the Browns and won the Defensive Rookie of the Year award. He died the day before his wedding and eight days after basketball star Len Bias, first round pick of the Boston Celtics, died in the same way.

Notable Birthdays This Week:
June 25, 1928–Tank Younger; Linebacker/Fullback (Rams/Steelers) 1949–1958; 1-time First-Team All-Pro;
                                                         4-time Pro Bowler; Inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2000

June 26, 1968–Shannon Sharpe; Tight End (Broncos/Ravens) 1990–2003; 4-time First-Team All-Pro;
                                                               8-time Pro Bowler; Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2011

June 26, 1980–Michael Vick; Quarterback (Falcons/Eagles) 2001–2011; 4-time Pro Bowler

June 28, 1960–John Elway; Quarterback (Broncos) 1983–1998; 9-time Pro Bowler;
                                                     Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2004

June 29, 1949–Dan Dierdorf; Right Tackle (Cardinals) 1971–1983; 3-time First-Team All-Pro; 6-time Pro Bowler;
                                                       Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1996

July 1, 1953–Mike Haynes; Defensive Back (Patriots/Raiders)1976–1989; 2-time First-Team All-Pro;
                                                   9-time Pro Bowler; Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1997


The Rest of This Week’s Birthdays:
June 25th
1912–Bill Sortet; Right End (Steelers) 1933–1940
1933–George Preas; Right Tackle (Colts) 1955–1965              
1939–Curtis McClinton; Fullback (Chiefs) 1962–1969; 3-time Pro Bowler
1944–Al Beauchamp; Linebacker (Bengals/Cardinals) 1968–1976
1962–Dan Turk; Center (Steelers/Buccaneers/Raiders/Redskins) 1985–1999
1978–Marcus Stroud; Defensive Tackle (Jaguars/Bills) 2001–2010; 3-time Pro Bowler
1981–Matt Schaub; Quarterback (Falcons/Texans) 2004–2011; 1-time Pro Bowler
1982–Erik Pears; Tackle (Broncos/Raiders/Bills) 2006–2011
1986–Bradley Fletcher; Cornerback (Rams) 2009–2011
1988–Aaron Berry; Cornerback (Lions) 2010–2011

June 26th
1952–Mark Cotney; Safety (Oilers/Buccaneers) 1975–1984   
1960–Jumpy Geathers; Defensive End (Saints/Redskins/Falcons/Broncos) 1984–1996 
1976–Chad Pennington; Quarterback (Jets/Dolphins) 2000–2010        
1976–Chad Clifton; Tackle (Packers) 2000–2011; 2-time Pro Bowler
1987–Mike Neal; Linebacker (Packers) 2010–2011  

June 27th
1897–Russ Method; Back (Duluth Eskimos/Cardinals) 1923–1929      
1916–Larry Craig; Back/End (Packers) 1939–1949; 3-time Pro Bowler
1928–Jimmy Hill; Cornerback (Cardinals/Lions/Chiefs) 1955–1966; 3-time Pro Bowler
1932–Jim Schrader; Center (Redskins/Eagles) 1954–1964; 3-time Pro Bowler
1933–John Tracey; Linebacker (Cardinals/Eagles/Bills) 1959–1967; 2-time Pro Bowler
1935–Dan Currie; Linebacker (Packers/Rams) 1958–1966; 1-time First-Team All-Pro; 1-time Pro Bowler
1941–Errol Mann; Placekicker (Packers/Lions/Raiders) 1968–1978     
1943–Willie Young; Left Tackle (Giants) 1966–1975 
1944–Doug Buffone; Linebacker (Bears) 1966–1979               
1948–Vern Holland; Tackle (Bengals/Giants/Lions) 1971–1980             
1967–Lester Archambeau; Defensive End (Packers/Falcons/Broncos) 1990–2000         
1988–LaQuan Williams; Wide Receiver (Ravens) 2011–2011

June 28th
1934–Ray Lemek; Tackle/Guard (Redskins/Steelers) 1957–1965; 1-time Pro Bowler
1936–Chuck Howley; Linebacker (Bears/Cowboys) 1958–1973; 5-time First-Team All-Pro; 6-time Pro Bowler
1942–Dave Kopay; Running Back (49ers/Lions/Redskins/Saints/Packers) 1964–1972
1948–Raymond Chester; Tight End (Raiders/Colts) 1970–1981; 4-time Pro Bowler
1955–Dennis Swilley; Center (Vikings) 1977–1987
1955–Linden King; Linebacker (Chargers/Raiders) 1978–1989
1961–Jay Schroeder; Quarterback (Redskins/Raiders/Bengals/Cardinals) 1985–1994; 1-time Pro Bowler
1964–Dino Hackett;Linebacker (Chiefs/Seahawks) 1986–1993; 1-time Pro Bowler
1964–Bryan Barker; Punter (Chiefs/Eagles/Jaguars/Redskins/Packers/Rams) 1990–2005; 1-time First-Team All-Pro;
                                       1-time Pro Bowler
1972–Marvin Jones; Linebacker (Jets) 1993–2003
1979–Randy McMichael; Tight End (Dolphins/Rams/Chargers) 2002–2011
1984–Gosder Cherilus; Tackle (Lions) 2008–2011
1988–Spencer Paysinger; Linebacker (Giants) 2011–2011
1988–Terrence Cody; Defensive Tackle (Ravens) 2010–2011

June 29th
1932–Ed Cook; Tackle/Guard (Cardinals/Falcons) 1958–1967
1938–Bill Brown; Running Back (Bears/Vikings) 1961–1974; 4-time Pro Bowler
1944–Claude Humphrey; Defensive End (Falcons/Eagles) 1968–1981; 2-time First-Team All-Pro; 6-time Pro Bowler
1950–Bob Parsons; Tight End/Punter (Bears) 1972–1983
1954–Ray Pinney; Left Tackle (Steelers) 1976–1987
1955–Tom Skladany; Punter (Lions/Eagles) 1978–1983; 1-time Pro Bowler
1963–Jim Skow; Defensive End (Bengals/Buccaneers/Seahawks) 1986–1992
1977–Montae Reagor; Defensive Tackle (Broncos/Colts/Eagles) 1999–2007
1985–Dennis Pitta; Tight End (Ravens) 2010–2011
1985–Steven Hauschka; Placekicker (Ravens/Broncos/Seahawks) 2008–2011

June 30th
1946–Bill Lenkaitis; Guard/Center (Chargers/Patriots) 1968–1981
1957–Roy Green; Wide Receiver (Cardinals/Eagles) 1979–1992; 2-time First-Team All-Pro; 2-time Pro Bowler
1966–Louie Aguiar; Punter (Jets/Chiefs/Packers/Bears) 1991–2000
1984–Miles Austin; Wide Receiver (Cowboys) 2006–2011; 2-time Pro Bowler
1985–Tim Crowder; Defensive End (Broncos/Buccaneers) 2007–2011
1986–Arthur Jones; Defensive Tackle (Ravens) 2010–2011

July 1st
1934–Don Bishop; Cornerback (Steelers/Cowboys) 1958–1965; 1-time Pro Bowler
1944–Diron Talbert; Defensive Tackle (Rams/Redskins) 1967–1980; 1-time Pro Bowler
1947–Harold McLinton; Linebacker (Redskins) 1969–1978
1952–Roger Carr; Wide Receiver (Colts/Seahawks/Chargers) 1974–1983; 1-time Pro Bowler
1953–Mike Washington; Cornerback (Buccaneers) 1976–1984
1953–Bob Swenson; Linebacker (Broncos) 1975–1983; 1-time First-Team All-Pro; 1-time Pro Bowler
1953–Pat Donovan; Left Tackle (Cowboys) 1975–1983; 4-time Pro Bowler
1958–Dave Waymer; Defensive Back (Saints/49ers/Raiders) 1980–1992; 1-time Pro Bowler
1967–Tony Bennett;Defensive End (Packers/Colts) 1990–1997
1971–Bobby Hamilton; Defensive End (Jets/Patriots/Raiders/Jets/Browns) 1996–2007
1979–Ryan Diem; Tackle/Guard (Colts) 2001–2011
1986–Erin Henderson; Linebacker (Vikings) 2008–2011
1987–Garrett Reynolds; Tackle (Falcons) 2009–2011
1988–Major Wright; Safety (Bears) 2010–2011
1988–Kurt Coleman; Linebacker (Eagles) 2010–2011