Professional football hasn't been played here in 80 years. Universal Stadium was renamed Spartan Municipal Stadium more than four decades ago. Still, Portsmouth was once and NFL city and any fan who's ever watched a playoff game or a game under the lights owes it a debt.
The Portsmouth Spartans were formed in 1929 by lumping together a bunch of pro and semi-pro players from Ohio, Kentucky and Virginia and seeing if it worked. The team performed well enough that Portsmouth residents decided to build Universal Stadium around them. That caught the attention of the NFL, which invited the team into the league in 1930.
At the time, Portsmouth was bigger than the Packers' home Green Bay, Wis., and made a nice addition to the Midwest-focused NFL. What the spartans lacked in talent -- they went 5-6-3 their first year in the league -- they made up for in character. Their nighttime game against the Brooklyn Dodgers that year was the first ever played in the NFL. In 1932, coach Potsy Clark refused to substitute any of his players in a game against Green Bay and won the iron man game 19-0 with the same 11 players lining up on both offense and defense.
At the end of that season, the Spartans were tied for first place with the Chicago Bears and played one game to decide the season. A blizzard in Chicago forced the teams to move from Wrigley Field to the indoor Chicago Stadium. On an 80-yard field, the future Hall of Famers Bronko Nagurski and Red Grange hooked up for a touchdown pass that gave the Bears the league title. The spectacle drew so much attention that, the following year, the league set up conferences and ended each season with a playoff.
While the game fueled the Bears' legacy, it was the beginning of the end for the Spartans. The Great Depression pummeled Portsmouth and the Spartans' revenue plummeted. In 1934, a Detroit radio executive bought the Spartans and moved them to Detroit, where they became the Detroit Lions. Some of the greatest rivalries in the NFL were saved, but Portsmouth would never be a pro sports town again.
Since the Spartans' heyday in the 1930s, Portsmouth's population dropped from nearly 42,600 to little more than 20,000. By comparison, Green Bay's population swelled from 37,400 to 104,000 during that same span. As Portsmouth struggles, the memory of those glory days grows more distant.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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