History of Pro Football in Ohio

Posted Jan 29, 2013 Rob Kunz | 4 comments

In many ways, the state of Ohio is a perfect microcosm of the United States of America.

There are densely populated urban areas, and rural farm-land that stretches as far as the eye can see. There are areas that time has forgotten, area of continued growth, and other areas that still appear as a fresh slice of Norman Rockwell-esque, Pollyanna Americana.

This state bills itself as the “heart of it all” and the “birthplace of aviation”.

There have been eight Ohioans elected President of the United States, tied with Virginia for the most (both states count William Henry Harrison, who was born in Virginia, but lived in Ohio when elected…consult your nearest history blog for more).

It should come as no surprise then that Ohio was beyond instrumental in the birth, development and growth of professional football, and ultimately the NFL.

This topic will be covered at length during Wednesday’s “10TV News Presents” hour-long special at 7pm on 10TV. There is also a slide show that further illustrates the rich history of pro football and the NFL in the Buckeye state.

Some of the highlights of what we’ll touch on:

  • Columbus had two teams (Panhandles and Tigers) in the early days of the NFL
  • The NFL headquarters were in downtown Columbus from 1927-1939
  • The second president of the NFL (Joe F. Carr) was a Columbus native, and deserves a ton of credit for establishing the roots of the league.
  • LaRue, a village in Marion County had an NFL team for two years, starring the legendary Jim Thorpe.
  • Portsmouth, along the Ohio River, had a successful NFL team that ultimately had to move due to the Great Depression. The team was sold to a businessman in Detroit, where it remains today as the Lions.
  • The Pro Football Hall of Fame is located in Canton, partly because the American Professional Football Association was formed there in 1920. That league had its named changed to the National Football League two years later.
  • As many as nine cities (Akron, Canton, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, LaRue, Portsmouth and Toledo) have had teams in the NFL. That’s more the any other state (New York is next with 7).
  • Outside of the NFL, several other semi-pro teams (such as the Massillon Tigers, Ironton Tanks and others organizations that went on to join the NFL) helped create the interest in professional football.

Personally, it was a thrill to work on this story. Traveling to places like Portsmouth, Ironton, LaRue, Dayton and locations right here in Columbus combined two passions of mine…sports and history.

The biggest thing I took away from this story was the pride that these communities still have. While those directly connected are now few and far between, others work hard to keep the memories and legacies alive.

I could see the pride in Billy McClurg, a member of the Portsmouth Spartans Historical Society, as he talked about his relationship with former player Glenn Presnell (who should be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, by the way). McClurg has several programs and artifacts from the Spartans playing days, and he treats them like the treasures they are.

We visited downtown LaRue, and dropped in on the barber shop, run by Mark Poling. He still has pictures of the Oorang Indians on the wall, and easily recalled the stories of that team, and its owner, Walter Lingo. There might be less than 1,000 in LaRue, but they all are proud of the fact that there used to be an NFL team there.

It was also a pleasure to meet three of Joe F. Carr’s grandsons. As I researched the story, I gained a tremendous amount of admiration for Carr. While his accomplishments are properly credited, his legacy has been overshadowed as the NFL has become the most popular league in the United States.

Furthermore, I think more needs to be done to recognize Carr’s contributions in his hometown. Not only was Carr the NFL’s President, but he also president of the Columbus Senators (baseball) and the American Basketball League at the same time.

All it takes is a statue, historical marker, street name…any of those tributes seem in-line for Carr. Bottom line…he is a Columbus native in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. More people need to know that.

Speaking of that research, I owe a debt of gratitude to Chris Willis, the head of the research library at NFL Films. Unfortunately, we were not able to work it out to interview Chris, who is certainly the foremost expert on this subject.

If you have been the least bit interested in any of this, I recommend reading three books authored by Willis; “The Columbus Panhandles”, “Joe F. Carr: The Man Who Built The National Football League” and “Old Leather: An Oral History of Early Pro Football in Ohio 1920-35”. Retail options may be limited, but I found all three at the main branch of the Columbus Public Library.

A big “thank you” to the Ohio Historical Society as well, which opened its archives to us to gather video of still images. That building is magical, and worth checking out for a visit (http://www.ohiohistory.org/).

Thanks as well to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and Joe Horrigan. They pulled several images as well for us to get video of, all the while during a complete overhaul of the building in Canton. Joe’s expertise was amazing, as you’ll see in the ten-minute long story. 

Finally, there’s a running joke in my family that my Grandpa “never met a historical marker he didn’t like”. Not only is he my namesake, but I share his love of history. In 17+ years in this business, this has been one of the most fun assignments I’ve worked on.

I hope you’ll enjoy the story and slide-show as much as I did.