Beginning his pro football career playing for the semi pro Ironton Tanks, while still teaching science at a local high school, in 1930 Nebraska born Glenn Presnell led the Tanks to victories over the New York Giants and the Chicago Bears, even though Ironton technically wasn’t even a part of the then fledgling National Football League.
According to Wikipedia, during their 1930 game, the Tanks trailed the Giants 12-6 with three seconds left. Although he most often played half back, Presnell tossed a touchdown pass and then kicked the extra point to give Ironton a 13-12 victory. Against the Bears, Presnell scored two touchdowns, including an 88-yard end zone dash.
Of course, locally Presnell is best known as one of the stars of the Portsmouth Spartans, one of the NFL’s earliest teams whom Presnell joined when the Tanks folded after the 1930 season.
In 1933 while playing for the Spartans, Presnell led the NFL in total offense with just shy of 1,300 yards. He also broke the single-season NFL scoring record with 64 points. At quarterback for the 1933 season, Presnell completed 50 of 125 passes for 774 yards, adding 522 rushing yards (leading the NFL with six rushing touchdowns) on 118 carries. He also kicked five field goals and 13 extra points.
After the Spartans were sold and became the Detroit Lions, Presnell was part of a core group of former Spartan players who led the Lions to their first NFL championship in 1935. The year previously, Presnell set an NFL record with a 54 yard field goal, a feat not surpassed until 1953.
“I believe he certainly has the qualifications to be in the (NFL) Hall of Fame,” said Saleem Choudhry, Hall of Fame vice president for exhibits and museum services. More importantly, in this context, Choudhry is in charge of putting together a blue-ribbon panel that will pick an oversized class of Hall of Famer’s to mark the NFL’s hundredth anniversary in 2020. That class of 2020 is to include 10 senior players, that is players who retired more than 25 years ago. Choudhry noted Presnell already is nominated to be enshrined as one of the 10 senior players.
Choudhry said he expects an initial list of senior candidates to appear sometime next month. Panelists will reduce the list over time with finalists announced in the fall. All of which means now is almost certainly local hero Presnell’s best ever chance for enshrinement in the NFL Hall of Fame, a fact not lost on several local supporters and fans pushing as hard as practical to gain Presnell a bust up the road in Akron.
A graduate of Portsmouth High School, Mike McConnell now lives outside of Akron and serves as a volunteer at the NFL Hall of Fame. He stated he has been talking to everyone and anyone connected to the hall who will listen to him, preaching the virtues of enshrining Presnell.
“I think people want to listen,” McConnell said. “There’s been nobody who’s said, ‘No.’”
McConnell said he even was able to grab the ear of Hall of Fame President and CEO Dave Baker.
As of Thursday, Randy Nickels who is the retired head of Portsmouth’s Sciotoville water treatment plant. He’s been preaching the gospel of Presnell far and wide and said Thursday he hit the “mother load” of Presnell memorabilia.
“It’s like it was meant to be,” Nickels said regarding the timing of his find.
Nickels said he knew he had the materials, handed over to him some time ago by Ava Chaboudy, the wife of local doctor Louis Chaboudy. Now deceased, the couple generally receive credit for coming up with the idea for Portsmouth’s flood wall murals, including the artwork memorializing the Portsmouth Spartan Ironman game in which Presnell certainly took part.
The stash of Presnell memorabilia was in a desk Nickels was cleaning out during his last day of work Thursday after over three decades with the city. The items include yellowing Portsmouth Daily Times editions memorializing Presnell or actually including coverage of the games he played in. A three-page letter written by Presnell accepting a speaking engagement includes a long list of the player’s accomplishments dating back to his time at the University of Nebraska, where he played his college ball and became an All-American. Nickels seemed especially excited over a small clipping from an unknown newspaper quoting NFL legend Bronko Nagurski citing Presnell as one of the greatest players in the game.
McConnell said currently Earl “Dutch” Clark is the only Spartan in the Hall of Fame. Like Presnell, Clark was one of the 11 Ironmen who took part in the famed victory over the Green Bay Packers. The following is an excerpt from an article on the Ironman game, authored by Derrick C. Parker and Shawnee State University Professor Andrew Feight, and appearing on the website Scioto Historical:
“At the start of the game, when the men lined up to run out on the field, (Head Coach) Potsy Clark announced to the team, “I am going to start eleven men and the only way you’re going to come off that field is if we have to carry you off.” Clark’s Immortal Eleven included: (1) Bill McKalip, (2) Ray Davis, (3) Maury Bodenger, (4) Clare Randolph, (5) Ox Emerson, (6) George Christensen, (7) Harry Ebdling, (8) Earl ‘Dutch’ Clark, (9) Father Lumpkin, (10) Glenn Presnell, and (11) Ace Gutowsky.
“When the final whistle blew and the game was entered into the books, the Box Score recorded eight substitutions for Green Bay, none for Portsmouth. It was a smashing victory, 19-to-0, made all the more incredible by the fact that all eleven Spartan starters had played every down, offense and defense, for the full 60-minute game.”
McConnell said while mostly known for his offense, Presnell believed he made his greatest contributions on defense and, of course, it was common in the early days of pro football for players to line up on both sides of the ball. Further, substitutions were severely limited. However, McConnell noted the NFL did not keep very many defensive stats in its early years.
In his early football years, Presnell played half back for the Nebraska Cornhuskers, 1925 to 1927. In 1925, Presnell is credited with leading Nebraska to a 14-0 victory over an Illini team that included the “Galloping Ghost” Red Grange. After graduating from Nebraska, Presnell landed in Ironton, where he was a player/coach. Following his move to the Spartans, he traveled with the team to Detroit and then-new team owner George A. Richards allowed him to pick the colors for the Lion’s uniforms.
After retiring from the NFL in 1936 at the age of 31, Presnell spent three years in the Navy and spent some time coaching the Nebraska Cornhuskers before returning to this area and ending up as a coach and athletic director at what became Eastern Kentucky University. Before his passing in Ironton at age 99 in September 2004, Presnell was the oldest living NFL football player. The Hall of Fame’s Choudhry said he had the honor of calling Presnell to inform him he was the sports oldest living player.
“I’m not sure whether or not he took that as good news,” Choudhry said laughing. He couldn’t remember what year Presnell officially became the NFL’s oldest surviving player. Shelby also talked about Presnell being extremely gracious and friendly during their two or three conversations.
McConnell and Nickels seem to be waving the Presnell banner the highest, but they are not alone. Joining them among others is Portsmouth City Councilman (and SSU professor by day) Sean Dunne and possibly local lawyer and Friends of Portsmouth promoter Jeremy Burnside. In the past, Dunne has spent plenty of time promoting the restoration of Spartan Stadium.
What can locals looking to promote Presnell’s enshrinement in the Hall of Fame do to help make things happen? While it might seem somewhat counter-intuitive, in a voicemail message left the Times, Pete Fierle, the Hall’s chief of staff and vice president of communications, warned against calling the Hall to promote Presnell.
“Past history shows lobbying efforts are counterproductive,” Fierle said.
For his part, Choudhry agreed. He said Presnell has been duly nominated, adding the selection committee essentially will take it from there.
“I can assure you it’s a rigorous process,” Choudhry said, adding it’s a process past selection committees always have taken seriously. Choudhry does not serve on the selection committee himself but is overseeing the selection process. He did not want to speculate regarding Presnell’s chances of making the Hall of Fame.
“I’ve made guesses in the past and they’ve never been right,” Choudhry said.
For their part, McConnell said he will continue to personally speak with persons at the Hall spelling out Presnell’s credentials. Nickels added he hopes to forward to Choudhry or someone else copies of the materials he recently found on Presnell.
Reach Tom Corrigan at (740) 370-0715. © 2019 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved.