Jim Thorpe and the Shoe-Steels

Portsmouth, Ohio's First Professional Football Team

In Portsmouth, Ohio, the birth of professional football involved one of America’s greatest athletes of all time — Jim Thorpe — and one of the city’s most forgotten civic leaders — Jack Creasy. Jim Thorpe’s one season in the city as the player-coach of the Shoe-Steels (the precursor of the Spartans), helped build the local support needed for Portsmouth’s entrance into the National Football League (NFL). Jack Creasy, on the other hand, was the Portsmouth native and high school athletic star who managed the Shoe-Steels and brought Jim Thorpe out of retirement to play for Portsmouth. Together, Creasy and Thorpe would help give rise to the Portsmouth Spartans (and what is now the Detroit Lions).

At the end of the 1926 season, Jacques 'Jack' Creasy, at the age of 25, purchased the equipment of the Studebaker Presidents -- an amateur football team that had enjoyed moderate success and ignited the excitement of football fans in Portsmouth -- and sought out the financial backing of the city’s two largest employers: the Selby Shoe Company and the Whitaker-Glessner Company, owner of the Portsmouth Steel works in New Boston. By the end of August of 1927, Creasy had enough private commitments to call a public meeting for all parties interested in starting a new team.

“A Real Team on the Gridiron”: Jim Thorpe and the Portsmouth Shoe-Steels

Held in the old City Building on Government Square, the Times reported that “Jim Thorpe, former Olympic star, one the best all-around grid players this country has produced, is in the city, to discuss with Manager Creasy the city’s prospects for a football team that will be able to hold its own with other teams in this section.” Creasy’s vision was to anchor the squad with Thorpe as a player-coach. The chance to see Thorpe play in person would drive ticket sales and the former NFL superstar’s ability to recruit top-quality talent would ensure the team had a good chance for a winning season and regional championship.

James Francis Thorpe (May 22 or 28 1887 – March 28, 1953) was born near Prague, Indian Territory (Oklahoma), on the grounds of the Sac and Fox Nation. His birth name was Wa-Tho-Huk, which is most commonly translated as "Bright Path.” At the time of first European contact in the 1600s, the Sac and Fox peoples inhabited the Lake Huron and Lake Michigan regions. After having fought against the United States in the Blackhawk War and losing, the nation was forcibly relocated first to Iowa in the 1830s and then, in the 1870s, to a federal reservation in what became Oklahoma.

Jim Thorpe, as he would become known to the wide world, would be sent to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where he played for the school's football team and gained national recognition as a two-time “All-American.” Even before his Gold Medal performances at the Stockholm Olympics in 1912, Thorpe was a nationally recognized athlete, known for his Native American ancestry and football playing prowess.

As an “All-American,” Thorpe had been a member of the nation’s original fantasy football team. It was with Major League Baseball, however, where Thorpe first made a living as a paid athlete. Beginning in 1913, Thorpe played six seasons with the New York Giants. In 1915, during the baseball off-season, he returned to football and helped establish the Canton Bulldogs and what became the National Football League, serving nominally as the first President of the NFL from 1920 to 1921.

When Jack Creasy contacted Thorpe in the summer of 1927, the famed athlete, now age 41, was well into the first year of his retirement from professional football. He had led the Canton Bulldogs to three championships before moving to Cleveland, where he played for the NFL Indians in 1922 and 1923. Then, after playing three more seasons with various other NFL teams, Thorpe returned to Canton in 1926 for one last year. By then he was injury-prone and unable to play more than 30 minutes per game. “One must quit sometime,” said Thorpe. “My earning days in athletics are at an end and while sports have been my livelihood, I really played for the love of competition. Now, I have a yearning to hunt and fish back with my people.”

As has become a familiar phenomenon with great sports stars, Thorpe’s announced retirement proved temporary. Job offers would continue to come in. Jack Creasy pursued Thorpe, believing his name would draw attention to a new fully-professional Portsmouth team. By 1927, historian Carl Becker has noted, Thorpe had “lost the decisive edge of his speed and power,” but he had gained “the experience of playing with eight different clubs in the NFL.” His connection with the NFL and his ability to recruit from his extended network of professional players would help Creasy build a new, successful squad.

Following Thorpe’s initial visit to Portsmouth in late August of 1927, H. Coleman Grimes, the City Editor at the Times noted that “Thorpe is regarded as one of the greatest exponents of the game, and should his services be secured here it would mean that Portsmouth would be placed back on the football map.” By all accounts, Thorpe’s first visit to Portsmouth had left him impressed with the community and Creasy’s offer — a 10-game contract that made him both coach and player for the new Portsmouth Shoe-Steels. The amount of Thorpe’s promised salary has been lost to history.

“Jim Thorpe Accepts Terms,” read the Times’ headline. Thorpe telegraphed Creasy on September 8th: “Terms satisfactory. Will report to you not later than next Tuesday. …. I am coming to Portsmouth to play and coach the team and you can believe me, it will be a winner.” Coleman Grimes of the Times proclaimed: “This means that Portsmouth at last will be represented by a real team on the gridiron. …. No other man could boost the game in the Peerless City as much as the colorful and well known athlete. …. Thorpe has played on some wonderful teams and needs no introduction to the football fans of the city. All he asks is their wholehearted support. He will get that and then some. Bring on the Tanks.”

Thorpe arrived in the city on the 12th of September, just under two weeks before the season opener against the Columbus Clothiers. The Times reported, “Jim Thorpe, famous athlete, who will coach the team and represent Portsmouth on the gridiron this season, … will don the spangles tonight and take charge of the candidates in Mound Park. …. He is full of confidence and enthusiasm and already likes Portsmouth and its famous cooperative spirit.” The Times called on “every loyal football fan … to buy a ticket and do his bit boosting the team to success.”

After his first practice session on a field laid out on the hilltop’s Mound Park, Thorpe would finally speak with the local press: “I mean business and Portsmouth is going to have a real eleven this fall, It’s too early to do any forecasting. I’m not prepared to make any statement, and I’m not taking any chances on making any wild statement, but the material looks good and from every indication we are going to have not only a heavy team, but a fast one. A few nights of hard work will tell me better just how we stand. Every man has to work for a job on this squad.”

Thorpe would put together the Shoe-Steels from some thirty players who turned out for a chance to make the team. Creasy ended up with a squad of talented and experienced athletes, drawn from Thorpe’s network and local veterans who had played for the Smoke House and Presidents.

Thorpe’s signing worked. It may be true he was often injured and when he did play it was for fewer minutes than earlier in his career, but the living legend of Thorpe gave confidence to the Portsmouth squad and boosted ticket sales. According to historian Carl Becker, “Creasy and Thorpe imparted to the community a sense of intensity, a determination to win hereto unknown in Portsmouth.” Hope and “a determination to win” fueled the efforts of Jack Creasy and the backers of the Shoe-Steels.

For their team captain, Thorpe’s players chose Jake Pfau, a local baker and veteran of the Presidents and the old Smoke House teams. Jack Creasy would also suit up to be held in reserve as a substitute. The opening game would break local sports attendance records and fueled fans’ visions of a new concrete stadium and sports complex at Labold Field. Over 2,500 were in attendance on September 25th, 1927, to see the Shoe-Steels defeat the Columbus Clothiers by a score of 13-0.

Thorpe, it turned out, never played in the opener due to an infection on his left foot, which required multiple lancings. By doctor’s orders and at the behest of his teammates, Thorpe stayed on the sidelines, where he coached them to victory. Creasy, according to the listed substitutions, saw action as a Center in the second half. Coleman Grimes reported that “many fans were disappointed” by Thorpe’s absence on the field, but the Shoe-Steels “showed that they have real football stuff in them and a lot can be expected of them this season. There were few fumbles and play was fast, the team worked like a well oiled machine.”

Thorpe would play the next Sunday and the team would have a winning record of 4-2 before their most anticipated game with the Ironton Tanks, who were undefeated at the time, with four wins and two ties. Interest in the rivalry ran higher than ever as game day (November 6th) approached. “Greatest Game in History to be played between Jim Thorpe’s Shoe-Steels and Tanks,” read the headline for November 3rd, 1927. The Times noted “the rivalry of the two teams is far known and will draw football fans from all over the tri-state region. It will be the greatest football battle every played in Portsmouth.”

The Peerless City finally had a team (they hoped) that could topple the Tanks and lead them to a regional championship. In the days leading up to the game, Creasy signed new players to bolster his lineup, a practice that was not uncommon in professional football’s early days. The Times reported: “With the addition of the center and backfield players who arrived here Wednesday to start practice on the Portsmouth Shoe-Steels, the players feel confident.” An estimated 4,500-5,000 fans showed up to see if Thorpe’s squad could finally defeat Ironton’s best.

Portsmouth fans would be disappointed, though. The Tanks shut out the Shoe-Steels 18-0. “Tanks Live up to Reputation; Win Easily from Portsmouth” read the headline the next day. Fans and players alike were shocked, but the river city rivals were scheduled to meet a second and final time just two weeks later.

Creasy and Thorpe worked furiously to recruit more players, pulling out all stops to give Portsmouth an edge. To add more size up front, the Shoe-Steels signed linemen Emil Mayer from Catholic University, as well as George Kidnerdine and Chal Joseph from the NFL’s Dayton Triangles.

The Portsmouth “Floodwallers” Defeat the Ironton Tanks (20 November 1927)

The rematch would be played in Ironton’s Beechwood Stadium. For the first time in the rivalry’s history, Portsmouth beat the Tanks by a score of 7-0. “Tell it to the Wide World, Shoe-Steels Beat Tanks 7-0,” read the headline. The Portsmouth Shoe-Steels, according to Coleman Grimes, had “won back all lost laurels and redeemed themselves in the eyes of Portsmouth football fans when they decisively defeated the famous Ironton Tanks. For the first time this season the Tanks tasted the bitter dregs of defeat. For the first time in gridiron history a Portsmouth professional team defeated the Tanks.”

“After nine years of history that chalked up nothing but defeat after defeat for a Portsmouth gridiron representative, Jim Thorpe’s Shoe Steels, the River City’s 1927 organization came to Ironton yesterday afternoon with blood in their eye and fire on their cleats, and backed the Tanks into the shadows of defeat.” Grimes concluded that the Portsmouth team had “displayed the best football ever shown on the local turf by a team bearing the colors of the Floodwallers.”

The Times City Editor credited Thorpe and Creasy with putting together the team and whipping the “Floodwallers” into shape. “The gridiron loving populace doff their lids to Coach Jim Thorpe, Manager Jack Creasy and every member of the Steel-Shoes team. .... All season long Thorpe and Creasy insisted that ultimately they would mould a team together that would trounce the Tanks. That sounded like a yarn as it has on previous occasions but the trick was turned and before a record crowd in Ironton. What a grand and glorious feeling.”

Thorpe’s Disappearing Act & the Valley Championship Game (4 December 1927)

The elated Shoe-Steels followed up their victory over Ironton with another win over the Columbus Bobbs (32-0). Then, with interest riding high, Creasy booked an eleventh game, a post-season match against the Ashland Armcos in a contest that would crown a regional champion. But Thorpe’s 10-game contract was up. According to historian Carl Becker, Thorpe “quarreled bitterly” with Creasy, who “offered him a raise but he refused it, sulking over a problem he would not publicly disclose.”

Before the championship game, Thorpe left Portsmouth, returning to his home near Marion, Ohio. He disappeared from local press coverage and into the pages of local sports history. Interestly, on the day of the final game (Sunday, December 4th, 1927), a “special dispatch,” headlined, “Portsmouth Plays Armcos at Ashland, Ky., Today — Jim Thorpe to Lead Invaders,” was published in the columns of the Cincinnati Enquirer. The unnamed correspondent (who was most likely Coleman Grimes, himself) reported that “the game is being billed as the final for the Valley championship, inasmuch as the Armcos have played two ties with the once-feared Ironton (Ohio) Tanks, while Portsmouth has a clean-cut 7-to-0 victory over the Tanks, so that the result of today’s conflict should give the ultimate victors undisputed title to being monarch of the pigskin chasers of the valley.”

Assistant Coach Walter Jean (a native of Chillicothe, Ohio) took over for Thorpe and, as a player-coach, Jean would lead the Shoe-Steels during their final match. Jean had joined the Shoe-Steels midseason, when Creasy recruited him from the Green Bay Packers. Meanwhile, Creasy worked furiously to shore up the team’s lineup and, with Jean’s connections, the Shoe-Steels booked more temporary players from Green Bay -- former Packers Joe Dunn, Eddie Kotel, Rex Enright, and Pid Purdy. But both Purdy and Enright were injured in an auto accident on their way from Wisconsin to Portsmouth. They never suited up and their absence may have changed the outcome of the game.

With some 3,200 fans in attendance at Armco Park in Ashland, but without Thorpe and his Green Bay reinforcements on the field, the Shoe-Steels lost a close 7-6 ballgame. “Creasy seemed on his way to building a team that had some standing in the community. His team had defeated the Tanks and enlisted some support from local newspapers and business interests, and had, apparently, solid players returning in 1928.” Creasy, however, in the words of Carl Becker, “would never again see football played along the river shore.”

The Death of Creasy and the Rise of the Spartans

Jack Creasy died unexpectedly at the age of 26, on July 14th, 1928. Following an emergency appendectomy at Portsmouth General Hospital, he contracted a fatal case of pneumonia. “Expressions of regret were heard on all sides Sunday over the passing of the affable, likeable, and courteous ‘Jack’ Creasy,” reported the Times. “Few of his friends realized the seriousness of his illness and the announcement of his death came as a cruel blow to them.”

With only months to go until the next season, football fans scrambled to fill the void left by Thorpe and now Creasy. The Times reported that “hundreds of the fans and downtown coaches” were asking “who will carry on the well laid plans of Jacques Creasy in building another powerful football team in Portsmouth this coming season?” The question, according to Coleman Grimes had “become a regular topic of conversation in the smoke shops, on the street corners, and other popular gathering places. …. In Jack Creasy the football fans lost a champion whose greatest desire was to build a football team that could defeat any other team in the Ohio Valley. He came close to reaching his ambition when he headed the Portsmouth Shoe Steels last fall. There was a football team that all Portsmouth will remember and Creasy had planned an even better team for this coming season when the hand of death stilled the heart of that lovable young fellow.”

Jack Creasy’s signing of Jim Thorpe, though mostly a publicity stunt, had worked. As player-coach Thorpe built on the successes of the the old Smoke House teams and the previous season’s Presidents. Thorpe and Creasy led the Shoe-Steels to a victory over the Tanks and a shot at the regional championship. And even though both men were no longer to be seen at Labold Field, Creasy and Thorpe had laid the foundation for professional football in Portsmouth and set the stage for the rise of the NFL Spartans.


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