On a December weekend, a small town came together to celebrate a legacy of gritty professional football from the early 20th century that endures today.
The football chatter is palpable at the historic Stadium Lunch Tavern in Portsmouth, Ohio. It’s a football Sunday in December and there is memorabilia from two NFL franchises on display.
The crowd has come from nearby Municipal Stadium where the infamous “Iron Man” game was played on Dec. 4. In that contest, the NFL’s 1932 Portsmouth Spartans played the same 11 men the entire game and shut out their bitter rivals, the Green Bay Packers 19-0.
That championship game paved the way to dividing the NFL into two divisions, leading to what we now call Super Bowls.
Detroit sports historian Charles Avison brought his podcast, “Detroit, The City of Champions,” to Portsmouth for a weekend of dedications and remembrances. Portsmouth’s NFL franchise became the Detroit Lions, which won the 1935 NFL Championship. Avison said the 12 or so players who played in both championships deserve to be honored as local football heroes.
“You literally cannot tell the history of the Detroit Lions without factoring in the Portsmouth Spartans team,” Avison said. “It wasn’t like some random team name and they transferred a bunch of equipment in the back of a wagon. These were the players from Portsmouth who came to Detroit and they brought with them the rivalries that had been built in Portsmouth and so that’s when they came to Detroit with some of the greatest players of their era.”
Players like the legendary Jim Thorpe and Dutch Clark.
Avison’s podcast refers to the year 1935 in Detroit, when the Lions were one of more than an unprecedented 30 professional and amateur national and world sports champions including the Football Lions, Baseball Tigers, Hockey Red Wings, Boxing’s Joe Louis and Golf’s Walter Hagen.
To remember the Iron Man game and honor those leather helmet wearing legends, a volunteer group raised the funds needed to replace the old crumbling sign that welcomes visitors to the still-in-operation Portsmouth Municipal stadium.
Prof. Drew Feight, director of the Center for Public History at Portsmouth’s Shawnee State University, has worked tirelessly to insure the Iron Man game, and the Spartans-turned-Lions who played in it, won’t be forgotten,
“Portsmouth really is a football community. It has a really rich history. Its history is tied in with the early days of the NFL. And everybody loves the NFL today,” Feight said. “Just the fact that Portsmouth has such a fantastic team that really went toe-to-toe with the Green Bay Packers and other greats of the time, we are cherishing this history and taking care of our stadium.”
The walls of Portsmouth native Wil Mault’s restaurant, The Scioto Ribber, are covered with Spartan team pictures and memorabilia. Mault is one of many here thrilled with having a weekend of memories turned into monuments.
“I’m overwhelmed. I love the Portsmouth Spartans, and I love the current Detroit Lions which were the Portsmouth Spartans,” Mault said. “We have great camaraderie and great friends from Detroit, and we enjoy ourselves when we get together.”
Also making the trip in from Detroit was 82 year old Tom Eurich. In 1985, as a Motor City radio reporter, Eurich covered the 1935 Lions team’s 50th anniversary reunion. That’s where a few of the old, converted Spartan players felt slighted that the Portsmouth connection to the city of champions was forgotten. Eurich promised them he’d make that right. 88 years later, we’re not just dedicating a new sign this weekend, but putting up plaques honoring those players in Tom Eurich’s name.
”I told them, I would do everything I could, it raises a tear to my eye a little bit, to help Portsmouth know that they were included in the city of champions,” Eurich said. “It’s taken 88 years, but it’s now official. Portsmouth is part of the city of the greatest sports situation ever known.”
Without Eurich’s tenacity, none of this weekend’s small town, big emotion events would have happened.
“Tom Eurich felt that the story of Portsmouth really had not gotten the attention that it deserved, and that was what the old Spartan players felt as well,” Feight said. “Tom made them a promise, years and years ago, that he would do what he could to help keep this history alive. And we’re here today to make that happen.”