Motor City Memories
NFLís oldest former player Presnell recalls early days in Detroit
Monday, July 7, 2003
By Jerry Green
Gannett News Service
DETROIT -- Seventy seasons ago, the footballs were bloated pigskins, the players wore flat, leather helmets if they protected their heads at all and professional football was a curiosity sport.
In 1934, Glenn Presnell, formerly of Nebraska, the Ironton Tanks and the Portsmouth (Ohio) Spartans, was one of the Detroit Lionsí top stars. He arrived that autumn with the transferred Portsmouth franchise in the fourth attempt to make the NFL successful in Detroit.
When he signed his contract that season, Presnell was shown a colorful array of potential uniforms. Pick out any one you like, said owner George Richards, boss of radio station WJR, who had gambled on bringing the franchise here from Ohio.
"He showed us several jerseys on a table," recalled Presnell. "My wife and I picked the Honolulu blue and silver."
There was pride in Presnellís voice over the telephone from his home in Ironton.
"Thatís been the colors ever since," he said.
True enough. Glenn Presnell is 97 years old with a birthday to be celebrated later this month. The NFL lists him as its eldest former player. He is sharp. His memory is strong. His voice is crisp. He remains a man of hope.
Presnell is a member of an elite group that is part of the countdown process to become the seniors nominee for 2004 election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
A committee of five sports journalists, including this writer, is to meet next month at the Hall in Canton, Ohio, to pick the nominee from among the old-time players who were somehow overlooked in the voting of earlier years.
So often, the pioneer players of the pro sport have been neglected.
"Iíve been mentioned several times," Presnell said.
So have many of the better stars.
He recalls the arrival of the Lions in Detroit that Depression autumn of 1934. The city was going baseball crazy. The Tigers were about to clinch their first American League pennant in 25 years and go into the World Series.
The new Lions were welcomed with the same sort of apathy that had driven the Detroit Heralds, Panthers and Wolverines into failure since the establishment of the NFL 14 years earlier.
That first season, with Presnell largely responsible in his blue and sliver uniform, the Lions quickly developed roots. They won their first 10 games, the first seven by shutout scores. His most profound memory seven decades later?
"I kicked a 54-yard field goal that beat Green Bay, 3-0," Presnell said.
At the time it was the longest field goal ever in an NFL game. It remained the longest field goal in Lions franchise history, matched twice in the 1980s by Eddie Murray. Then Jason Hanson broke the club record with a 57-yarder in 1995.
Presnell made his long-distance field goal in the Lions third game as the Detroit franchise. It was Oct. 7 at Green Bay.
"We had one play left late in the first half," Presnell said. "We decided we might as well try it, it was as good as a punt."
So Presnell kicked from the Lions 46, 4 yards behind midfield, at the goal posts then positioned on the goal line.
"It sailed downfield and went through," he said.
There were no assistant coaches sitting upstairs to recommend the field goal in lieu of a punt.
"We had only one coach," Presnell said.
The one coach was George Potsy Clark, who came with the franchise and the best players from Portsmouth.
The Lions 3-0 victory over Green Bay and Presnellís kick were largely ignored by Detroit media. That Sunday, the Tigers beat the St. Louis Cardinals, 3-1, in Game 5 of the World Series. Tommy Bridges outdueled Dizzy Dean, and the Tigers took a 3-2 lead in the series, which they would lose in seven games two days later at Navin Field.
Meanwhile, the Lions continued onward, unbeaten through 10 games, unscored upon through seven. Interest started picking up. The Lions home games were played at University of Detroit Stadium. The first game as the Detroit Lions, they drew 12,000 fans to witness a 10-0 victory over the New York Giants. By Thanksgiving, they drew 26,000 in a historic 19-16 loss to the Chicago Bears, the first pro game broadcast from coast-to-coast by radio.
The Lions finished 10-3 that initial season, second to the Bears in the NFLís Western Division.
"Winning a championship was very important," Presnell said about his top highlight of his career with the Lions. The Lions did that their second season in Detroit. They beat the Giants, 26-7, in the NFL championship game, played at U-D before 15,000 fans on Dec. 15, 1935.
It was Detroitís second major professional championship in two months. A few months later, the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup. A young boxer, Joe Louis, was fighting his way toward becoming the heavyweight champion of the world.
Detroit would boast that it was the City of Champions and was recognized as such across America. Presnell was part of it, on Potsy Clarkís team along with Hall of Famer Dutch Clark, Ernie Caddel and Bill Shepherd.
"We practiced at the Cranbrook School for Boys," Presnell said. "We all lived together in the Webster Hall Hotel."
Presnell was a true triple-threat and more. He ran, passed and kicked, and played middle safety on defense.
"Weíd get on a Greyhound bus and take off," Presnell said. "We went to Boston and stayed. Then we went to New York and stayed three or four weeks, playing the Giants, the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Staten Island team. We worked out in Central Park."
In 1932, the Spartans, with Dutch Clark and Presnell, tied the Bears for the NFL title. They played off for the championship in the famed indoor game at Chicago Stadium, frozen out by Chicagoís stormy, zero-degree weather. On a 60-yard field, the Bears won, 9-0. But a bitter rivalry that still exists had begun.
In 1933, Presnell tied the Giants Ken Strong for the NFL scoring championship at 64 points. The team in Portsmouth could no longer survive when the NFL sought to rid itself of the small towns and locate in major cities.
Richards, the radio mogul, purchased the franchise, moved it to Detroit, changed the name to the Lions, retaining the jungle theme started by the Tigers. Then Richards tried to convince Presnell to move to Detroit with the team.
"Iíd already accepted the coaching job at West Virginia," Presnell said.
But Richards persuaded Presnell to continue as a player, using the selection of the Lions colors as an inducement. Presnell played three seasons in Detroit. Then he went off to his coaching career, at Eastern Kentucky and Nebraska.
Nowadays, heís back in Ironton, living with his wife, Mary.
"We live out on the edge of town," Presnell said. "I have the garden. Thatís the extent of it. I read a lot."