The Portsmouth Spartans

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The Portsmouth Spartans are an ancestor to today’s Detroit Lions and who date back to 1929. The team was based in Portsmouth, Ohio and were part of the NFL’s first ever playoff game (against the Chicago Bears).

How did the Spartans Start up?

The Portsmouth Spartans were formed in 1929, bringing together the remnants of defunct football teams in the Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia area that were hard hit by the stock market crash of 1929. In July 1930, Portsmouth, Ohio was granted an NFL franchise in recognition of the efforts made by Portsmouth residents to make their team successful. The new team would play at the newly constructed Universal stadium.

Portsmouth Spartans most Notable Moments

Today, thanks to Monday Night Football, the glamor of night games has been forgotten. On September 24, 1930, the Spartans played against the Brooklyn Dodgers in what would be the NFL’s first night game. The grandstand bulbs that flooded the pitch with light provided a mystifying air around the stadium for fans. The game itself, a 12-0 win over the Dodgers was secondary to the lights themselves as most of the post-game reports concentrated on capturing the glittering effect created by the lights.

The Spartans were seemingly a team of firsts. In 1932, having finished tied for first with the Chicago Bears, they found themselves having to play a one-off fixture whose winner would be crowned champion. That would be the NFL’s first playoff game. The contest was played on December 18, 1932 at the indoor Chicago Stadium, a less than regulation size ground enforced on the teams by heavy snow which made the rightful arena, Wrigley Field unsuitable. The only touchdown of the game came from a disputed play from Bronko Narguski. The Bears ran out 9-0 winners after successfully shutting out the Spartans.

Portsmouth Spartans most Notable Players

Roy Lumpkins played for the Spartans in quarterback and fullback positions and he formed a formidable partnership with Dutch Clark. He was with the Spartans between 1930 and 1933. His defensive play was his most important contribution but he made 47 rushing yards and 80 receiving yards in 1932 and 26 rushing yards and 191 receiving yards in 1933

Glenn Presnell was an influential halfback for the Spartans, with whom he played from 1931 to 1933. Presnell’s best season was 1933, when he led the league in total offense with 1296 yards. He also added 64 points, breaking the season record for scoring.

Quarterback Dutch Clark played for the Spartans in 1931 and 1932 seasons. He led the league in scoring with 55 points in 1932. In both seasons, Clark made the NFL first team All-Pro.

The Portsmouth Spartans in Competition

The Spartans made their NFL debut on September 24, 1930, a game in which they beat the Newark Tornadoes 13-6. In their second contest, one of the earliest NFL night games, the Spartans won the game 12-0 over the Brooklyn Dodgers in front of 6,000 fans at the Universal Stadium. The team finished the season with a 5-6-3 record. In 1931, the Spartans were in contention for first place during most of the season but they ended up finishing in second place behind the Green Bay Packers, who won their third straight title.

In 1932, the Spartans were again near the summit of the league standings and finished tied with the Chicago Bears 6-1-4. This necessitated a playoff, the first ever in NFL history. The Spartans lost to the Bears 9-0. They struggled throughout the 1933 season, and finished with a 6-5 record, still good enough for second place in the Western Division. That would be their last season in Portsmouth.

What Happened to the Portsmouth Spartans?

With the Great Depression in full gear, small team towns had it especially hard. Portsmouth was the league’s second smallest market, only behind Green Bay. Although the Spartans were a very popular team, not enough people could afford tickets to see games at the Universal Arena. Dutch Clark once mused that up to 5,000 people would come to watch practice sessions but less than 2,000 turned up for games.

The team inevitably sank into financial difficulty and had to pay players in team shares instead of cash. In 1934, radio executive George Richards bought the team and put into motion plans to move it to Detroit. The sale price was reported as being between $15,000 and 16,500. After the relocation to Detroit, the team was renamed Detroit Lions who won the NFL championship in their very first season.