Where it All Started; What’s now known as the NFL began with a game between the Dayton Triangles and Columbus Panhandles
by Jim DeBrosse
Dayton Daily News
It’s a long way from megabucks player contracts, instant replays and slick TV graphics, but the National Football League kicked off its first game ever right here in our back yard on Oct. 13, 1920, when the Dayton Triangles met the Columbus Panhandles. Each player received about $50 for his day of pain and glory. But then the admission price for the crowd of 4,000 was only $1.75. A marker commemorating the game at Dayton’s Triangle Park will be unveiled at 1 p.m. Saturday at the old stadium site near Ridge Avenue and DeWeese Parkway.
Although the hoopla Saturday won’t match even the pre-game hype of the Super Bowl, it has drawn the blessing of the NFL, which will have a film crew there to record the event for its archives. Refreshments will follow at Carillon Historical Park.
The $1,500 bronze marker, officially sanctioned by the Ohio Historical Society, was paid for through the fund-raising efforts of the Montgomery County Historical Society and the Miami Valley Sports History Association, a die-hard group of about 40 local sports history buffs.
The Triangles are part of Dayton sports history that “people aren’t aware of,” said Steve Presar, a Centerville resident who launched the Triangles revival.
Other local claims to sports fame include the birth of the Soap Box Derby on Dayton’s Burkhardt hill, and the early prominence of the Dayton Marcos baseball team, one of the charter members of the old Negro National League.
Presar happened upon Dayton’s historic role in professional football during a weekend trip to the National Football Hall of Fame in Canton in 1988. He was perusing a chart of the history of the National Football League when he noticed the Dayton Triangles among the 10 original teams. With more digging, he soon discovered that Dayton also was the site of the league’s first game.
Presar picked up the ball and ran with it, setting up his own Web site (www.daytontriangles.com/) devoted to the team’s legacy. Three years ago, he helped form the Miami Valley Sports History Association.
Pro football got its start in this country on August 20, 1920, when the managers of four Ohio professional teams – the Akron Pros, Canton Bulldogs, Cleveland Indians and Dayton Triangles – met in Canton at Ralph Hay’s Hupmobile auto dealership on Tuscarawas Street.
The four teams formed what was then called the American Professional Football Association. The franchise fee was a whopping $25.
By the time the group changed its name to the National Football League two years later, a dozen teams had signed up, including the precursors to the Chicago Bears (Decatur Staleys) and Arizona Cardinals (Racine Cardinals).
It was a different kind of football back then – more grueling and less sophisticated. Players often came to the sidelines spitting teeth to the ground.
You want tough? Triangles halfback Lou Partlow, who scored the first touchdown in NFL play, practiced his blocking by slamming into trees. To stay in shape, Partlow would sprint through the dense woods along the Great Miami River, dodging his rooted opponents along the way.
“Occasionally he would lower a shoulder into one of them to build up strength,” said Mark Fenner, 40, whose great-grandfather, Lee Fenner, played for the Triangles. Fenner is one of the original members of the Miami Valley Sports History Association.
Most players competed on both offense and defense, and many played multiple positions. Field goals and extra points were dropkicked, and kickers had to be able to run and take a hit.
There were no fancy formations. Running backs often plowed through the same side of the line for the entire game.
For an all-around athlete like Jim Thorpe – the hero of the 1912 Olympics – the early National Football League was a chance to excel in all aspects of the game – running, kicking, tackling.
Family descendents of Triangles players say Thorpe’s feats for the Canton Bulldogs and later Ohio’s Oorang Indians were often fodder for their fathers’ and grandfathers’ gridiron tales.
In the 1920 season’s highlight game against the Bulldogs, Thorpe tied the score against the Triangles with two fourth-quarter field goals of 45 and 54 yards.
“My dad always told a story about Thorpe racing a truck one time,” said Tim Roudebush, 75, whose father George played for the Triangles.
“The players were all riding on the back of a truck to the playing field when Thorpe said, ‘I think I can beat this truck.’ So he jumped off and started running. My dad said he must have run a mile or mile-and-a-half, but he beat the truck to the field.”
Roudebush said the other players in the league were in awe of Thorpe’s abilities. “He was such a natural athlete he just couldn’t be stopped. My dad had seen Thorpe drop-kick a ball 70 yards.”
Dave Maurer, a former football coach at Wittenberg University, said his stepfather, Dr. David Reese, would show up for Maurer’s post-game parties “and mesmerize everybody with stories about the Dayton Triangles. “
Reese, who later became the first commissioner of the Mid-American Conference, had played center for the Triangles.
“I asked him if it was tough tackling Jim Thorpe. He said he never tackled Thorpe,” Maurer said. His stepfather smiled and told Maurer that “Thorpe had never run his way.”
Contact Jim DeBrosse at 937-225-2437.
The Dayton Triangles, one of the four original teams of the National Football League, played in Dayton from 1916 to 1929. Here are some interesting facts about the early gridiron game and its players.
Lou Partlow, the Triangles running back known for his unusual training method of running around and into trees, was dubbed “the West Carrollton battering ram.”
Players back then were smaller, averaging less than 200 pounds, and less protected. Helmets were little more than leather shells. Shoulder pads had no braces. Face masks and mouth guards? Forget it.
The Triangles got their name from the three factories founded by the team’s sponsors, local business giants Edward Deeds and Charles Kettering.
Triangle Park, on land donated by Deeds and Kettering, got its name either from the three factories or from the park’s triangular shape.
The Dayton Triangles were the only undefeated professional football team in the country in 1918.
Copyright 2005 Dayton Newspapers, Inc.
Dayton Daily News (Ohio) April 25, 2005 Monday, BYLINE: By Jim DeBrosse, jdebrosse at DaytonDailyNews.com
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Copyright © 2005