Presnell: "He wasn't anywhere near five yards back . . . and they wouldn't call it."
Nearly seventy-one years later, you can still hear the tension in 97-year-old Glenn Presnell's voice as one of the NFL's oldest living players recalls the controversial 3rd down play that helped determine the team that would lay claim to the 1932 NFL title.
The play was a touchdown pass from Chicago Bear fullback Bronko Nagurski to teammate Red Grange that covered only two yards. However, those two yards gave the Chicago Bears all the points they needed in their 9-0 playoff victory over Presnell and his Portsmouth (Ohio) Spartans on December 18, 1932.
It was the biggest play in one of the most unusual, and influential games, in NFL history. Because of the controversial Nagurski to Grange TD pass, Bear owner George Halas championed a rule change the following season that allowed the forward pass to be thrown from anywhere behind the line of scrimmage. Previously, the rule stated that a ball carrier had to be five yards behind the line before attempting a pass, as Presnell recalled: "In those days the rules were that you had to be five yards back to pass. He (Nagurski) took the ball and started into the line. Of course, we thought he was going to plunge with it. Then he jumped up and threw what we called a flea flicker over the line to Grange. He wasn't anywhere near five yards back . . . and they wouldn't call it."
The pass gave the George Halas' Bears the league title for the 1932 campaign, and the Spartans another heartbreak versus the Monsters of the Midway. It was Portsmouth's third game against the Bears that season, and the rubber match was the first victory for either side. The first two games had resulted in stalemates of 13-13 and 7-7 respectively. That playoff was the first of six straight losses Presnell and his Spartan teammates would suffer at the hands of the Bears. The Spartans would change cities and team mascots before they would earn their next victory over the Bears on Thanksgiving Day, 1935.
However, the significance of that 1932 contest cannot be understated. That game was the genesis of the NFL's evolution into the high octane aerial show we see today. Along with the change in the passing rules, the game caused the enactment of other rules changes that helped the pro game forge an identity separate from the then more popular college game. In doing so, the NFL began its long climb to the top of American spectator sport. The ironic thing was that the season ending Portsmouth / Chicago matchup was a game that came about almost by accident.
Since the NFL's inception in 1920, the league title had always gone to the team with the best regular season winning percentage. In the event of a tie in the final standings, league owners would decide the champion by popular vote. That format remained until 1932, when League Commissioner Joe Carr decided to schedule a Spartan / Bear playoff after both teams finished with identical .857 winning percentages. What began as a makeshift playoff became an NFL staple the next season when the league split into two divisions, giving the still fledgling NFL a baseball style pennant format where division winners would square off in a winner take all contest to determine a league champion. That format remained in place until 1966, when the NFL squared off with the rival AFL in a game that was later to be known as the Super Bowl.
It should be made clear that the 1932 playoff was not considered an official championship game. Instead, it was simply an extra game added to the league schedule to break the Chicago / Portsmouth tie. Because of the playoff loss, the Spartans finished the year with a 6-2-4 record, which dropped their winning percentage to .750. Amazingly, this plunged Portsmouth to third in the final standings. That was because the Green Bay Packers, whose final record of 10-3-1 gave them a percentage of .769, were able to leapfrog the Spartans into second place behind the champion Bears (7-1-6 and .875). It should also be noted that, at the time, tie games were not figured into a teams overall winning percentage. Which is why the Bears could still win the title, despite having almost as many ties as victories in their final record.
To their dismay, the Spartans would have to enter that first playoff against the mighty Bears without their biggest star, Earl "Dutch" Clark. In an indication of how unimportant the NFL was in the scheme of things circa 1932, Clark had to head home to begin his duties as basketball coach at his alma matter, Colorado College. Clark, who in 1963 would become a charter member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, was a triple-threat dynamo for Portsmouth, and his absence was a blow to the Spartans. However, while many teams would find it impossible to go into a championship game without their best player, the Portsmouth Spartans were not just any team. At the insistence of Portsmouth head coach George "Potsy" Clark (no relation to Dutch), Dutch Clark and Glenn Presnell had shared the Spartan tailback, play-calling, and kicking duties for the previous two seasons. While it was Dutch who garnered most of the headlines, Glenn Presnell certainly wasn't chopped liver. Glenn and Dutch had both been voted NFL All-Pro at the end of the 1931 season. In 1932 Clark was again All-Pro, while Presnell garnered an Honorable Mention.
Throughout their careers as teammates under Potsy Clark, both would routinely rotate from their tailback position by quarters while piloting the Spartan's devastating single wing offense. In the era of 23 man rosters and single platoon football, the Clark / Presnell combination was a luxury that few other teams possessed. However, for this game, it would be Presnell's job alone, and he was more than capable of meeting the challenge.
The 1932 playoff game had originally been scheduled to be played at Chicago's Wrigley Field, which was the Bears regular Chicago home until they moved to Solider Field in 1971. However, the Windy City had been in the midst of a terrible snowstorm that showed no signs of letting up.
Halas knew that it would be asking a lot for even the toughest Bear fans to shell out their depression era wages to sit in a snowbank a week before Christmas to watch his Bruins. So Papa Bear decided to move the game indoors into Chicago Stadium, where his men had staged a charity exhibition two years earlier with their then cross-town rival Cardinals. Special concessions had to be made for the game because of the venue. Chicago Stadium's cement floor usually accommodated the NHL's Blackhawks, boxing matches, and other arena sized events. At game time the floor was still covered with dirt and, in all likelihood, other more pungent elements from special event that had occupied the same space the previous week, as Presnell recalled with a chuckle: "There had been a circus in there the week before . . . and . . . of course . . . it didn't smell very good."
In addition, the playing field was only 80 yards long and 35 yards wide, which was much smaller than the customary 100 X 50 yard gridiron. To compensate for the shorter field, the teams agreed to impose a twenty-yard penalty whenever the offenses crossed midfield, and to move the goal posts from the end lines to the goal lines. Likewise, for the narrower field, special "inbounds lines," later to be known as hashmarks, were introduced to allow plays to begin at least ten yards from the sidelines. This was because the rules of the era dictated that the ball must remain for the next snap at the spot where the previous play had ended. Therefore, if a play ended at or near the sideline, that was where the next play had to begin. Which, in the case of the game's venue, would have been tough considering the presence of hockey boards along the boundary lines.
The haphazard adaptations for the Chicago Stadium contest became standard when the NFL and its owners adopted them permanently the following offseason. They did so in an attempt to increase scoring, and reduce the number of tie games. The owners hoped that this, in turn, would increase action at the ticket counters. Along with the aforementioned change in the passing rules, the installation of permanent hashmarks allowed teams more scoring chances because they eliminated the need for them to waste a play simply to move the ball back toward the middle of the field. The third change involved the goal posts being moved up to the goal lines from the end lines. This made field goal attempts ten yards shorter, and ten yards easier. The posts would remain there until 1974, when the rate of field goal attempts per game reached an all time peak, and the accuracy of the soccer style kickers made the move all the more necessary. In hindsight, the game that almost wasn't became a monumental one instead.
With the exception of the Green Bay Packer anomaly, the 1932 playoff also marked the last time a small town team had an influence on the NFL championship. Glenn Presnell and his fellow Spartans would give the citizens of Portsmouth, Ohio one more winning season (6-5-0) in 1933 before the economics of the Depression would push the NFL to find the Portsmouth franchise a big city home. With Dutch Clark on a one year hiatus from the NFL because of his Colorado College duties, Glenn Presnell would have a career year in 1933. In his Portsmouth swan song, Presnell tied for the league lead in scoring, finished 2nd in passing yards, 4th in rushing yards, and was named All-Pro for the second time in three years.
The NFL would soon find a big city home for the Spartans, but this particular city wasn't a sure bet. The city of choice was roughly two hundred miles to the north of Portsmouth, and had failed to support four previous NFL franchises. Nevertheless, the NFL decided to take another gamble there when a group of 24 businessmen, led by George A. "Dick" Richards, radio magnate and owner of pioneer radio station WJR, put together the $15,000 franchise fee and $7,952.08 in back expenses to bring the Spartans to the Motor City.
With the help of a devastating defense, and the reunited tailback duo of Dutch Clark and Glenn Presnell, it wouldn't take long for head coach Potsy Clark's newly renamed Detroit Lions to win the respect and hearts of their new neighbors in the Motor City.