Dropping Back In NFL History: Laying New Turf
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.
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).