If you visit the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, you might have the good fortune to meet Mike McConnell, a volunteer who has worked there since 2007.
McConnell grew up in the small southern Ohio town of Portsmouth, which, from 1930-1933, had an NFL franchise called the Portsmouth Spartans. He has lived in North Canton for many years and has an impressive collection of memorabilia from his hometown team. He is a walking encyclopedia of the team’s history.
McConnell graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1966. He was the vice president of a printing company in the Canton area when he retired in 2007. He now volunteers at the Hall a couple of days a week.
Some of the items in his collection include a team stock certificate, similar to the ones the Green Bay Packers still issue today as a publicly owned franchise, and Diamond Matchbooks featuring Portsmouth players. There are also signed pictures, programs, ticket stubs and newspaper articles.
The Spartans competed against some NFL teams that are still around today including the Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers and Philadelphia Eagles.
In 1932, the Spartans made league history when they faced off against the Bears in the first ever NFL Championship game. Prior to 1932, the team with the best record was simply awarded the NFL title based on its record. But that year, the Spartans and the Bears finished tied statistically in first place. It was decided that they would meet in a championship game in Chicago. A snow storm caused the game to be moved indoors from Wrigley Field to the Chicago Stadium, where the Chicago Blackhawks played hockey. The Bears won the game 9-0.
NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Dutch Clark played for the Spartans from 1931-1933, but he did not play in the championship game. He had already left for his off-season job as the head basketball coach at Colorado College when the decision was made to put together a championship game.
McConnell’s collection is so extensive that he was able to provide the Hall of Fame with something they did not have, the only known “action shot” taken during the 1932 championship game.
The Spartans were purchased by George A. Richardson and moved to Detroit in 1934 where they were renamed the Detroit Lions. In just their second year in Detroit, the Lions won the 1935 NFL title with a 26-7 win over the New York Giants. The game was played in Detroit and many former Spartans players were on the Lions roster when they won the title.
McConnell began collecting Spartans memorabilia in the mid-1980s. The first piece he ever bought was a 1932 team picture.
“One of my favorite pieces is a postcard that my dad got,” recalled McConnell. “He played football and basketball for Portsmouth High School and each year the school had a banquet with the Spartans. The postcard was his father’s invitation to the banquet.”
Two items McConnell would love to acquire for his collection are a ticket and a program from the 1932 NFL championship game. However, he knows that, realistically, that probably will not happen. “I have seen the programs come up for sale occasionally,” he said, “but I have never seen a ticket from the game up for sale.”
Knowing the Spartans history and their connection to the Detroit Lions you might think that McConnell is also a Lions fan, but that is not the case. He says that his lifelong Ohio roots have made him a fan of the Cleveland Browns as well as the Cincinnati Bengals. He has attended home games of both teams.
Over the years, McConnell became friends with a former Spartans player who also went on to play for the Lions in Detroit, Glenn Presnell. Presnell spent his retirement years living in the Portsmouth area and McConnell has many autographed pictures of him in his collection. Presnell passed away in 2004 at the age of 99.
McConnell’s other passion is collecting memorabilia from the Major League Baseball Cincinnati Reds. There was also an NFL team called the Cincinnati Reds in 1933 and 1934 and McConnell has some items from that team as well.
According to the web site www.football-almanac.com, the Spartans were actually formed in 1929 and played as an Independent pro football team for one season before joining the NFL in 1930. From 1931-1933, they were coached by Potsy Clark, who would go on to coach the Lions through 1936.
If you go to Portsmouth today, McConnell says there is very little left to indicate that an NFL team once called the town home. The stadium that they played in is still there as well as a historical marker at the site that was dedicated by the state of Ohio on October 5, 2003. There is also a mural featuring the Spartans painted on a section of the flood walls that surround the town and keeps it safe from the Ohio River.
“It’s a shame and it’s sad that very few people down there know the history of the Spartans,” said McConnell.
So, if you find yourself at the Hall of Fame in Canton and you want to know more about the team from Portsmouth, just ask for Mike. He will be more than happy to tell you all about the team, with all the pride that comes from knowing that they played in his own hometown!