Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

What if the NFL had stayed in town?

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
The Portsmouth Spartans, full-fledged members of the NFL, played here in the 1930s. The team became the Detroit Lions.
The Portsmouth Spartans, full-fledged members of the NFL, played here in the 1930s. The team became the Detroit Lions.
  • Bob Greene: Portsmouth, Ohio dwindled as manufacturing, retail jobs vanished
  • But in the 1930s, Portsmouth was proud home to an NFL football team, he says
  • Townsfolk cite Green Bay as a small town the NFL put on the map, Greene writes
  • Greene: Civic leaders think if the NFL had remained, the ailing town might have boomed

Editor's note: CNN contributor Bob Greene is a best-selling author whose books include "Late Edition: A Love Story" and "Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen."

(CNN) -- "Sometimes I'll drive by the old stadium," Lisa Carver said, "and it kind of feels like a dream. You can almost hear the cheers from the crowds, even though the place is empty."

Carver is the administrator of the Chamber of Commerce in Portsmouth, Ohio, a river town at the southern tip of the state. The town's population has dwindled to fewer than 20,000 as, over the decades, manufacturing and retail jobs have disappeared, and when Carver, from her car, glances at the stadium she can scarcely believe who once played there:

A National Football League team.

"I often think about how different things might be here if they had stayed in town," she said.

On Sunday, the Green Bay Packers play the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Super Bowl, and renewed attention will be paid to how the NFL has been such a large factor in putting its smallest member town, Green Bay, Wisconsin, on the map. For generations of Americans, the name Green Bay has equated to big league, because of the Packers and the NFL.

[Portsmouth] sometimes wonders how the course of its fortunes might have varied had it, like Green Bay, managed to stay in the game.
--Bob Greene

But in the early and struggling days of the NFL, when no one knew that the league would turn into the sports, entertainment and marketing giant it is today, it was not such a rarity for smaller towns to have a team. For four years in the 1930s, the Portsmouth Spartans were full-fledged members of the NFL. The team departed -- it moved to Michigan, where it was renamed the Detroit Lions -- but the stadium remained, and still stands, in a city that sometimes wonders how the course of its fortunes might have varied had it, like Green Bay, managed to stay in the game.

"I played in that stadium," said Portsmouth Mayor David Malone. "After the NFL team left town, the stadium was used for high school football, and it still is. I played safety and wide receiver for Portsmouth High School in the 1970s, but even by then, the Spartans had been gone for a long time, and people didn't talk about them much. We know that something like that will never happen again -- a National Football League team in a small town like ours."

It's hard to quantify the effect of a professional sports team on a city. Some of it is financial, but much is symbolic. What would have happened if Portsmouth had been able to hold on to the Spartans? In 1930, the first year that Portsmouth played in the NFL, the town's population was more than 42,000; the reasons that number has been more than cut in half have little directly to do with football. The big steel manufacturing plant closed down; other manufacturers also left town. Still, though, the civic leaders in Portsmouth today think that if the NFL had remained, the trajectory of the town might have been altered for the good.

"This was a booming shoe town," said the Chamber of Commerce's Carver. "There were four or five shoe factories here. One by one, they closed up. And, of course, when Detroit Steel left, everyone in the county felt the effect. You can't help thinking that if we still had an NFL team, people around the country would think of Portsmouth the way they do of Green Bay."

The Spartans, during their brief NFL life, had some pretty good years. In 1932, they tied for first place in the league with the Chicago Bears. The teams met for a playoff game in Chicago to determine the championship. Heavy snow and freezing temperatures necessitated moving the game indoors, to Chicago Stadium. The contest was played on a shortened 80-yard field, and was won by the Bears on a touchdown pass from -- how's this for big names? -- Bronko Nagurski to Red Grange. The Spartans came that close to bringing the championship of the National Football League home to Portsmouth.

Portsmouth has been going through some rugged times lately. The town and surrounding Scioto County were singled out in a recent Associated Press report that detailed the troubles that have come with rampant abuse and illegal sales of prescription painkillers. In the last 10 years, Portsmouth voters have twice removed sitting mayors in recall elections. Whatever excited noise and game-day color the National Football League once brought to the little town can seem like an increasingly distant echo.

"If they were still here, it would be such a great thing for the town to identify with," said Del Duduit, the sports editor of the Portsmouth Daily Times. "My goodness, it would have been the town's lifeblood. Look at Green Bay. With an NFL team as the draw, I think Portsmouth would have been a hustling, bustling town, really developed."

Duduit, like the mayor, played high school football games in Spartan Municipal Stadium. "It's still as it was," he said. "Big, old-style locker rooms. We'd be getting dressed for our games in the same room where NFL players used to get dressed for their games."

Detroit Steel, when it shut down its Scioto County factory in 1980, dealt a devastating economic blow to Portsmouth. The steel plant once employed as many as 5,000 workers. "The town has been economically down since then," Duduit said. "My wife's father was 40 when Detroit Steel closed and he lost his job. He worked at the open hearth in the steel mill. It was that kind of a blue-collar, manufacturing town. "

There is a 20-foot-high floodwall that runs for thousands of feet along Front Street where the Ohio River meets Portsmouth; the floodwall features a mural that depicts the history of the town, and of course the Spartans are represented by their own section of the wall. But on Super Bowl Sunday, the attention of the people of Portsmouth, as with much of the nation, will be focused on the Packers and the Steelers playing for the NFL championship in Texas, not on the fading memories of Portsmouth's team.

"It would have meant an awful lot to this town if the team had stayed," said Josh Richardson, managing editor of the Daily Times. "If Portsmouth had a team playing every Sunday, with Portsmouth team merchandise selling all over the world ... it's hard to even imagine the difference that might have made."

As it is, new generations of Portsmouth residents are further and further removed from knowing anything about the time when the National Football League was a part of the town's fabric. Del Duduit may cherish the experience of having played high school games in what was once an NFL stadium. But when he mentioned the Spartans to his own boys, he said, the reference drew a blank:

"My sons didn't know who they were."

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.