Early NFL Stadium of Portsmouth Spartans Receives Ohio Historical Designation
By Jim Ridgeway
Spartan Municipal Stadium was designated as an Ohio historical site on October 5, 2003 in front of a crowd estimated at 300. Opening as Universal Stadium, the stadium is rich in NFL history and now serves as a site for high school football.
In 1929, the residents of Portsmouth, Ohio funded a bond issue in order to build the city a football stadium that equaled those used by semi-professional squads from neighboring communities along the Ohio River. The approval of the stadium issue resulted in a modern stadium that helped Portsmouth acquire a NFL franchise.
The Portsmouth Spartans officially received a NFL franchise in July of 1930 and became the NFL's second smallest city ahead of only Green Bay. For four glorious seasons, the Spartans entertained fans and nearly won two league championships.
NFL Commissioner, Paul Tagliabue, mailed a letter that was read at the ceremony. Commissioner Tagliabue wrote, "With Ohio celebrating its Bicentennial this year, it is certainly appropriate that Spartan Municipal Stadium today receives an Ohio Historical Society marker for being one of the early NFL stadiums still in use today."
Chris Willis, an archivist at NFL Films, was the keynote speaker and spoke about the stadium and its fans. "The four years the Spartans spent playing home games here, their home record was nineteen wins, two losses, and four ties. No other team in the NFL at that time, within those four years, had a better record at home," said Willis.
The highlight of the day was the presence of Glenn Presnell. At 98 years of age, Presnell is the only surviving Spartan. Presnell addressed the crowd and recalled how the Spartans traveled by bus in order to save money. "I can remember the one bus trip we took. We went to Washington, then back to New York, from New York to St. Louis, St. Louis to Chicago, and then Chicago back to Portsmouth. I will always remember the long number of fans that met us out at Lucasville to escort us into town and I don't think we lost a game."
Presnell was an all-American at the University of Nebraska and helped the Ironton Tanks defeat three NFL squads in 1930. Presnell scored on an 88-yard run against a Bears team featuring Bronko Nagurski and Red Grange to give the Tanks a decisive victory. The New York Giants went down in defeat on a last second touchdown pass from Presnell. The Portsmouth Spartans were the other league victim of Presnell's athletic feats as an Ironton Tank.
Following the Tanks financial collapse, Presnell joined the Spartans for the 1931 NFL season. Teaming with Earl (Dutch) Clark, the Spartans became a solid NFL team and finished behind only the Packers in 1931 and the Bears in 1932.
Arguably, Presnell's finest football was played in a Portsmouth uniform. Besides being named all-Pro, Presnell was the NFL scoring leader in 1933. Presnell was a true 60-minute man. His exploits as a defensive back rival his achievements on the offensive side of the ball.
Following the 1933 season, Presnell and the majority of his teammates became Detroit Lions. In 1934, Presnell kicked a league record 54-yard field goal against Green Bay. That field goal was a league record for 19 years and a team record until 1995.
Behind the play of Presnell, the Lions won the NFL title in 1935. That championship came two seasons too late for Portsmouth and Spartan Municipal Stadium.
Today, the stadium stands as a reminder of when the NFL was a small city game played in places like Portsmouth, Ohio. The days when men like Glenn Presnell played for the love of the game and helped build a National Football League.
Mr. Ridgeway is a member of the Portsmouth Spartans Historical Society. This article was originally published in Gridiron Greats, Volume 2, Issue 5 (Fall 2003).