The Iron Man Game

The NFL Spartans Defeat the Green Bay Packers
in the Greatest Football Game in Portsmouth Sports History

On Sunday, 4 December 1932, the reigning NFL champion Green Bay Packers faced off the Portsmouth Spartans in what has come to be popularly known as the Iron Man Game. Played in Portsmouth’s Universal Stadium (now known as Spartan Municipal Stadium), interest in the game ran so high that city authorities brought in the National Guard for crowd control. The league’s 1932 championship hung in the balance and the prospects for professional football in smaller cities like Portsmouth and Green Bay were being put to the test.

Packers coach Curly Lambeau entered the game with the NFL’s best record, 10-1-1, with only two games left in the season. If the Packers defeated the Spartans they would clench their fourth league championship. The Spartans sat at 5-1-4 in the standings, and were tied for second place with the Chicago Bears. A victory over Green Bay would lead to a scenario in which the Spartans could finish the season as league champions, a scenario that would nearly playout two weeks later when the Spartans met the Chicago Bears in the first ever postseason NFL championship game. With the 1932 season reaching its climax with the Packers game in Portsmouth, Spartans coach George “Potsy” Clark, his players, and their fans not only wanted a shot at the championship, they wanted revenge by denying the title to their greatest rival -- the “World Champion” Green Bay Packers.

The Iron Man Game of 1932 is the most widely remembered Spartan contest thanks to its role in setting up the first postseason playoff game in the league’s history, one that would resolve a tie between the Spartans and the Chicago Bears. In 1994, the residents of Portsmouth commissioned Robert Dafford to design and paint a mural memorializing what many consider the greatest moment in Portsmouth sports history. Painted by Robert Dafford, the mural depicts the leather-helmeted, Glenn Presnell -- the Spartans’ star halfback -- scoring a touchdown in front of a cheering homefield crowd, which has jumped to its feet in celebration. With between 13,000 and 17,500 in attendance, the game may also mark the largest crowd ever assembled in Portsmouth. Unfortunately for the team’s finances, crowds of this size were far from usual and the Spartans never again attracted a crowd as large as that which witnessed the Iron Man Game.

The franchise’s local owners needed regular crowds of between 6,000 and 7,000 to break even. Such ticket sales proved elusive and a large share of the gate money from the big games (like that with the Packers) was reserved for the visiting team. With limited ticket sales, along with the expenses associated with hosting games in Universal Stadium and the cost of maintaining a traveling team, the Spartans found it impossible to make a profit. After having lost money every year from their NFL birth in 1930 through the 1933 season, the team’s owners voted in 1934 to sell the franchise to investors in Detroit, Michigan, where the Spartans would be rebranded the Lions.

The rivalry between the Spartans and Packers predates the Spartans entrance into the league. Formed in 1929, the pre-NFL Spartans were coached by former Green Bay players and its roster included a number of men who had spent time playing for Lambeau’s Packers. The rivalry, however, truly took hold in the Spartans’ second NFL season in 1931.

The Game Not Played, the Championship Not Won

Harry Snyder, the business manager and largest shareholder of the Spartans, hired Potsy Clark to coach the Spartans for the 1931 season. Clark had originally made a name coaching in the US Army during World War I. In the spring of 1919, he led the 89th Division's football team to the American Expeditionary Forces Championship. With the peace he took up coaching at the college-level, first at Illinois University (1919), then at Michigan State University (1920), The University of Kansas (1921-1925), Minnesota (1926), and, lastly, at Butler University in Indianapolis (1927-1929).  

Coach Clark brought discipline and a hard work ethic to the Spartans, and, held grueling training sessions and practices with little padding. “My experience in coaching college and professional athletes,” Clark once explained to the Portsmouth Daily Times, “leads me to believe that players properly trained and drilled do not demand heavy bunglesome pads. We need to protect the vulnerable spots, but not the body in general. The untrained boy must be taught the art of falling - later, blocking, etc.” Clark warned against unsupervised, unorganized play: “The untrained boy should not play football unless the play is properly organized. Pads will not prevent injuries to these immature, untrained lads.” Author Kyle Crichton described Clark as "a kindly fellow who is good to his family, pays his debts and always honks his horn when driving out of an alley; but as a football coach he belongs to the school which holds that a man who can't run a hundred yards in ten flat with a broken leg is a geranium." Players later mused that Clark's intensity was a result of "the old army spirit." 

With Potsy Clark at their head, the Spartans had an impressive line-up of recent college stars. All-American Quarterback Earl ‘Dutch’ Clark (Colorado College), Halfback Father Lumpkin (Georgia Tech) and Halfback Glenn Presnell (University of Nebraska), were the standout starters. Presnell had more recently been a member of the Ironton Tanks, a semi-pro team just 25 miles up river from Portsmouth. He even led the Tanks to upset victories over the Chicago Bears and New York Giants in 1930. 

The Ironton Evening Tribune reported that Presnell had signed with the Spartans for “a reported salary of $4,200.” Portsmouth punched above weight, paying top dollar for talent, and in some instances, offering higher pay than more established teams with deeper pockets. “Both Ironton and Portsmouth fans,” noted the Ironton Tribune, “look to Presnell to establish himself as one of the leaders in the national pro league. …. He is powerful on off-tackle smashes and end runs, a superb quick kicker and a passer of such excellence.” 

Presnell and Dutch Clark led the Spartans to the NFL’s second best record in 1931 (11-3), just behind the league leading Green Bay Packers (12-2). Before the start of the season, the two teams had agreed to play a late season game in Portsmouth, but the game had not been included in the official regular season schedule. Concerns about mid-December weather, which could drive down attendance (and gate receipts) had kept the game off the season’s official schedule. The game was understood to be “tentatively scheduled,” pending the weather. Football historian Carl Becker has noted, “At that time no one saw the Spartans as a contender for the championship.” Yet, when the Packers lost to the Bears on December 6th, placing their title in jeopardy, Green Bay’s Board of Directors decided to back out of the tentative agreement, canceling their appearance in Portsmouth, which had been scheduled for December 13th. 

The decision was announced following a contentious three hour meeting with Harry Snyder, the Spartan business manager, Packer officials, and Joe Carr, the League president. Harry Snyder telegraphed the news to Lynn Wittenburg, the Sports Editor at the Portsmouth Daily Times. Snyder held out some hope for a possible reversal of the decision: “Just concluded about three hours conference with Green Bay officials and Joe Carr, president of the league. Green Bay refuses to jeopardize its league standing by playing Portsmouth. They would give us no answer until after the Chicago game. Continued pressure is being brought by influential parties, however, and they may change their decision.”

The decision would stand and the Packers would be crowned the kings of the NFL for the third time, yet during the 1931 season they had never once played the Spartans, who ended the year with the second best record in the league.

Had the Packers lost to the Spartans, there would have been a tie with both teams ending the season with a 12-3 record. The Spartans hoped that if they could defeat the Packers in a season finale, they would go on to play the Packers, a second time, in a first-ever, postseason playoff game. It was not to be. Packer’s President L.H. Joaness announced: “We have won the championship and there is no logical reason why we should play Portsmouth. The directors of the Green Bay Football Corporation have voted against the game and Portsmouth has been so notified.” According to the Green Bay Press-Gazette, Joaness noted that “weather conditions might be unfavorable at game time and the crowd might be a small one and Green Bay would suffer a financial loss.” While Portsmouth fans viewed this as little more than a face-saving excuse, the finances of the Packers were nearly as bad as those of the Spartans.

Fans in Portsmouth, as well as sports writers across the country, were up in arms. The Associated Press reported “The Packers are only one game ahead of the fast traveling Portsmouth Spartans and to lay a clear claim to the title Green Bay will have to defeat the Portsmouth team.” When the Portsmouth Daily Times reported the news, Wittenburg ran it under the headline: “Green Bay Must Defeat Portsmouth Spartans to Have Clear Claim to Rag [League Title].” In bold print, the Ironton Tribune proclaimed: “Packers Keep Title Safe By Quitting: Lose to Bears and refuse to Meet the Spartans. ‘Champs’ Run Away From Deciding Game.” 

In his account of the controversy, historian Carl Becker concluded that “relations between the franchises, once cordial, now turned sour, the Spartans looking for revenge, the Packers haughtily ignoring them. Taking instruction from the affair, club owners hereafter became more careful in scheduling, defining clearly games that were on the league and had to be played. Giving greater formality to their task, they adopted a measure in 1933 turning scheduling over to a three-member committee appointed by the league president. They then had to ratify the committee's proposed schedule by at least a three-fourths vote. Never again was there a dispute over whether a scheduled game was tentative or official and had to be played. But the Spartans' fans would long remember and lament the game not played, the championship not won.” 

The Iron Man Game and the Spartan’s Revenge

The following season, the Spartans and Packers would meet twice and Potsy Clark and the Spartans once again found themselves high in the standings as the season was finishing up. Their 5-1-4 record left them tied for second place with the Chicago Bears. Meanwhile, the Packers and Curly Lambeau, once again, led the NFL with an impressive record of 10-1-1.

The Pack had beaten the Spartans in their first game of the 1932 season. Playing in Green Bay, Lambeau’s men soundly defeated the Spartans by a score of 15-to-0. Now, with the season coming to a close, they had to travel to Portsmouth to face off their sworn rivals. The Wilmington (Ohio) News-Journal reported on 30 November 1932, “‘Potsy’ Clark, Spartan coach, is drilling his 17 ‘iron men’ hard this week and with his scoring aces, ‘Dutch’ Clark, Glenn Presnell and Gutowsky, in the best of condition, grid fans will see pro football at its zenith.” The News-Journal reminded its readers that “the Spartans with five victories, one defeat and four tie games this season, are tied with the Chicago Bears for second place in the Joe Carr [NFL] loop, a position they held at the close of the 1931 season. Additional interest is attached to the game Sunday, by the fact that the Packers, scheduled to meet the Spartans at Portsmouth in the closing game of 1931, cancelled the contest.”

W. P. Minego, author of the popular “Huddle Whispers” column at the Portsmouth Daily Times, noted that “Lambeau is a wily, foxy, clever coach and he is not going to be caught napping Sunday. A victory here would mean pennant No. 4 for his club and a swell joy ride through the high spots in the colorful west.” A Spartan victory, on the other hand, would put an end to the Packer’s dream and realize Portsmouth’s own -- the chance for the Spartans to win the national championship in a postseason playoff.

In advance of the Packer game the Spartans ran advertisements promoting the contest as the “game that virtually decides World Championship.” “Let’s all turn out Sunday and back the 17 IRON MEN in their final battle for the WORLD’S CHAMPIONSHIP!” “Show your loyalty. Be there to cheer the ‘Iron Men’ to Victory and the Championship.” By December of 1932, the term “Iron Man” had come to refer to a footballer who played the full 60-minutes of a game, playing on both offense and defense. Portsmouth, being an old iron and steel manufacturing center, may have found the Iron Men nickname particularly apt, but whatever the case, the players were already being described as Iron Men in the press before the fateful game of December 4th. So-called 60-minute men were not unusual in the NFL before the 1940s, when league rules changed, allowing for unlimited substitutions and the fielding of two separate offensive and defensive teams. With limitations on substitutions and the expense of carrying two teams of players proving to be cost-prohibitive during Great Depression, Potsy Clark had seventeen Spartans on his roster in 1932, when league rules capped rosters at twenty-two.

According to the Lancaster Eagle-Gazette, the Spartans were “known wide and near” as the “17 iron men” because “they have surged to the top with only six men available for substitutions. As the climatic game with the Packers approached, the Wilmington News-Journal reported, “‘Potsy’ Clark, Spartan coach, is drilling his 17 ‘iron men’ hard this week and with his scoring aces, ‘Dutch’ Clark, Glenn Presnell and Gutowsky, in the best of condition, grid fans will see pro football at its zenith.” The News-Journal reminded its readers that “the Spartans with five victories, one defeat and four tie games this season, are tied with the Chicago Bears for second place in the Joe Carr loop, a position they held at the close of the 1931 season. Additional interest is attached to the game Sunday, by the fact that the Packers, scheduled to meet the Spartans at Portsmouth in the closing game of 1931, cancelled the contest.”

The Portsmouth Daily Times reported, that “17 Portsmouth Spartans, Iron Men of the gridiron, [were] raging to get at the Green Bay Packers, their arch enemies, to avenge an old grudge precipitated last season when the Packers refused to risk their pro football crown by meeting the Spartans, their only rivals, in a game here, one that had already been tentatively booked earlier in the season. Portsmouth and Ohio Valley fans have waited months for the epochal battle which will take place at Universal Stadium.” 

As the pregame excitement grew, Lambeau and his team practiced in Columbus, where the Packers ran their drills on the grounds of a local high school. They would travel to Portsmouth by railroad and would be met by a rowdy crowd of Spartan fans when they disembarked at the N&W Railway Station. Football fans in Portsmouth were abuzz. City officials called on the police and fire departments to help control the flow of traffic and ultimately requested the assistance of the Ohio National Guard. The Daily Times reported that “Twenty members of Battery B rode their prancing steeds around the stadium” and noted that “it was probably the first time in the history of the pro circuit that the national guard had to be called out to keep back the crowd.” 

Harry Snyder and the Spartan organization were forced to build new seating and borrow stands from the nearby Selby Shoes and Portsmouth High School gyms. And indeed, two hours before kickoff, a massive traffic jam clogged the city streets. While some accounts place the crowd at over 17,500, others place the number around 13,000, with Universal Stadium holding between 11,000 and 12,000 fans, and an additional thousand-plus watching from outside the stadium, atop the floodwall that protected the stadium and its East End neighborhood from the mighty Ohio River.

Potsy Clark’s Immortal Eleven

At the start of the game, when the men lined up to run out on the field, Potsy Clark announced to the team, “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.” Clark’s Immortal Eleven included: (1) Bill McKalip, (2) Ray Davis, (3) Maury Bodenger, (4) Clare Randolph, (5) Ox Emerson, (6) George Christensen, (7) Harry Ebdling, (8) Earl ‘Dutch’ Clark, (9) Father Lumpkin, (10) Glenn Presnell, and (11) Ace Gutowsky.

When the final whistle blew and the game was entered into the books, the Box Score recorded eight substitutions for Green Bay, none for Portsmouth. It was a smashing victory, 19-to-0, made all the more incredible by the fact that all eleven Spartan starters had played every down, offense and defense, for the full 60-minute game.

“Portsmouth Trounce Green Bay 19-0,” read the Daily Times headline. Portsmouth fans were ecstatic, not only had they beaten their rivals, they also set themselves up for a championship title run. “Portsmouth climbs into first place over the prostrate bodies of their enemy and will become world champions if Bears lose to Packers,” wrote Lynn A. Wittenburg. With much hyperbole and a flair for the dramatic, Wittenburg was unmatched in play-by-play commentary:

“A purple tornado, riding abreast a mile a minute gale of almost cyclonic fury swept out of the timbered hills of Southern Ohio Sunday afternoon at Universal Stadium before a record concourse of 12,000 frenzied fans and blew the Wisconsin Green Bay Packers far off the world’s football throne. As the mighty Packers toppled from their lofty seat, the Spartans took their place, reaching the highest pinnacle the football world offers, after years of battling misfortune, disappointment, reversed and great odds, pushing courageously and tenaciously onward to their coveted goal, Portsmouth’s victory insures the Spartans of at least a tie for first place.

“Eleven of Coach Potsy Clark’s 17 iron men blasted Green Bay from power, wrapped up the Packers in a 19-0 defeat shroud, packed them in a black creped casket, and laid them to rest in the football mausoleum. Not even a victory over the Chicago Bears next Sunday can resurrect them and restore them to the football kingship. Whether Portsmouth wins the pennant or not, the season is a complete success. The fans have their revenge by eliminating the Packers.” 

Some of the rhetoric played with popular Appalachian stereotypes of the time, suggesting that the Spartans embodied the feud violence commonly associated with the region. The Daily Times’ Wittenburg opined that the “Spartans fought their feud with typical hill savagery, they asked no quarter and gave none.” “Like a trained boxer who had planned his campaign thoroughly, the Spartans feinted and struck, dealing the Packer a staggering blow in the first round with a touchdown to the Green Bay chin on a 60 yard blow. Finding their foe groggy, the Spartans planted another punch on the button in the second round, a powerful 23 yard jab for another touchdown had the Packers all but out. Twice in the third round the Purple strove the land the finishing blow, but the lunges fell short. Twas the fourth round came the coup de grace. Touchdown number three caught the Packers in the solar plexus and they were carried off the field a once champion team knocked cold.”

In their original reporting on the game, the Portsmouth Daily Times, concluded, “Portsmouth has haunted Green Bay ever since the floodwallers entered the league. Results of the game will continue to haunt Green Bay's memory down through the ages. …. It was a gala affair. Depression was forgotten. No matter what the sacrifice to get those [tickets] that furnished entrance to the game, they were easily worth it and then some.”

After the game, Dr. W.W. Kelly, director of the Green Bay Football corporation, blamed a travel schedule that had worn out their players and some questionable officiating on important plays. "The team is pretty well battered and tired out,” he explained, “but we must not forget that they won nearly as many games as the Spartans and Bears put together.” Kelly insisted that “another factor which must be taken into consideration ... is the attitude taken by the spectators. In all my connection with professional football, I have never seen a crowd so unsportsmanlike and insulting as that crowd at Portsmouth.” 

Clark Hinkle, the Packer fullback, recalled that “the mood of that crowd was ugly. When we got off the team bus they threw oranges and eggs at us." According to Dr. Kelly, “from the moment the Packers arrived at the field, until the time they left, they were subjected to a barrage of epithets and collection of abuse which would have taken the heart out of any team.” And, he noted, “this unfortunate attitude was not confined to the male fans, but was general among the women as well." Dr. Kelly concluded: “All this, however, must not detract from the fact that the Portsmouth team is a smart one, and well coached. As conditions were, they deserved to win and the players themselves cannot be accused of any unsportsmanlike conduct. They played a clean game, and as results show, they outsmarted and outplayed the Packers.”

For many Spartan fans, the Iron Man Game is recalled as the greatest football game in Portsmouth sports history, when the “Purple Herd” proved that they were truly the best NFL team in 1932. They had defeated their rivals, the reigning “world champions,” denying the Packers their fourth NFL championship, and set themselves up to either take home the crown for Portsmouth or tie for first in the standings with the Chicago Bears. And, then, at the end of regular season play in 1932, when the Bears and the Spartans found themselves tied for first place, the teams agreed to meet in the first ever, postseason NFL championship game. Due to frigid weather and concerns about lackluster gate receipts the game was moved indoors, thus making it also the first indoor game in the league’s history. All of that NFL history had been made possible by the Spartans’ astonishing victory over the Packers in the Iron Man Game.

The Spartans victory over the Packers may never be forgotten, but without a league championship and the ability to draw more than 6,000-to-7,000 fans on a regular basis, the Spartans’ finances were in trouble. In retrospect, the Iron Man Game marked the zenith of professional football in Portsmouth. The Spartans would only play one more season in the River City.

In 1934, when the franchise moved to Detroit and became the Lions, many of the Spartan players continued their careers in the Motor City. Glenn Presnell would go onto score the Lion’s first touchdown. Dutch Clark, as quarterback, would lead the Lions to their first NFL Championship in 1935, enjoying the honors with a number of fellow, former Spartans. Clark would be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame with its inaugural class in 1951 and the Pro Football Hall of Fame with its inaugural class in 1963. Fittingly, Robert Dafford’s mural, which has done so much to keep Spartan history alive, notes that the NFL Spartans are “Gone But Not Forgotten.”

Sources

Kyle Crichton, "For Love and Money", Collier's (1 December 1934).

Carl M Becker, "Home & Away", The Rise and Fall of Professional Football on the Banks of the Ohio, 1919-1934 (Athens:  Ohio University Press, 1998).

"Tentative Game is Vetoed by Directors of Football Corporation," Green Bay Gazette (30 November 1931).

"Packers Face Spartans in Crucial Game Sunday: Sunday Crowd to Set Record in Portsmouth. All Southern Ohio Excited about Championship Battle," Green Bay Gazette (3 December 1932). 

"Presnell Resigns at Russel; Signs with Spartans: Tank Ace will Wear Spartan Uniform During Full Season," Ironton Evening Tribune (8 February 1931).

"Packers Keep Title Safe by Quitting: Lose to Bears and Refuse to Meet Spartans," Ironton Evening Tribune (7 December 1931).

"Green Bay Must Defeat Portsmouth Spartans to Have Clear Claim to Rag," Portsmouth Daily Times (7 December 1931).

"Potsy Clark Urges More Training, Less Padding," Portsmouth Daily Times (14 February 1932).

"Packers, Spartans Eager for Fray: Spartans Raging to Settle Old Grudge with Wisconsin Rivals," Portsmouth Daily Times (4 December 1932).

"Spartans Trounce Green Bay, 19-0: Potsy Clark Uses Only 11 Men to Topple Green Bay Champions from Throne With a Smashing Victory of 19 to 0," Portsmouth Daily Times (5 December 1932).

"Portsmouth Spartans to Meet Packers Sunday: Pro Title will be at Stake in Gridiron Clash. More than 15,000 Fans to see Contest in River City," Wilmington News-Journal (30 November 1932).

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