As the National Football League prepares to celebrate its 100th season this year, the league and so many other folks are beginning to see — in a flip of the old maxim — the trees, not just the forest.
Not only were the Dayton Triangles one of the 13 original teams in the league, but they played in the very first NFL game on an October 3, 1920 at Triangle Park.
They won 14-0 over the Columbus Panhandles, a team, according to a Dayton Daily News report, that included Ohio State players using “assumed” names.
One of the Triangles stars was fullback Lou Partlow, aptly dubbed “The West Carrollton Battering Ram.”
According to Triangles’ historian Steve Presar, Partlow worked at the Appleton Paper Company and during the summers honed his game in wooded areas along the Great Miami River.
Envisioning trees as would-be tacklers, he’d feint and juke and zig-zag through the leafy defense. But every once in a while, whether to work on his blocking or simply toughen himself, he’d lower his shoulder and run full bore into a mighty maple or a sturdy oak.
While that seems to be a recipe for hurt — and years later Presar said Partlow supposedly had difficulty remembering called plays — it resulted in history that day against Columbus.
In the third quarter of a scoreless game, Partlow suddenly scampered 40 yards to get the Triangles deep into Panhandles’ territory. A couple of plays later, he scored the first touchdown in NFL history.
George “Hobby“ Kinderdine then added the extra point, also a first for the NFL, which was known as the American Professional Football Association for two years before it changed its name.
Two years later the NFL’s first real halftime show was held in Dayton and, trust me, it was a wild presentation that eclipses even the most outrageous Super Bowl halftime extravaganzas.
Over the years, 22 Pro Football Hall of Famers played against the Triangles, including greats like Red Grange, George Halas and the legendary Jim Thorpe, who was also the first president of the new league.
From 1939 to 1941, Carl “Scummy” Storck, the roly-poly general manager of the Triangles who’d spent 19 years the secretary of the NFL, became the league president.
He ran the NFL out of his Winters Tower office in downtown Dayton.
And now, next Saturday – in the first of a series of celebratory local events – the city of Dayton and the NFL again will join together in memorable fashion.
Thanks to the behind-the-scenes efforts of a few, often-unsung, keepers of the Triangles’ flame in our community — people like Presar, Mark Fenner, whose great grandfather, Lee, played for the Triangles, Dayton Municipal Court Judge Dan Gehres, Skip Ordeman, head of the Dayton Area Sports History (DASH) group which has a new website (daytonareasportshistory.org), local attorney David Williamson, the chairman of the DASH Triangles’ Centennial Committee and Brady Kress, the president and CEO of Dayton History — the NFL was impressed when it sent a six-person team on a “hush, hush“ trip here last year to get a better grasp of how the Triangles and the city of Dayton could be included in the league’s 100-season celebration plans.
With Williamson at point and assisted especially by Kress and University of Dayton athletics director Neil Sullivan, the tour left the NFL reps “blown away,” Williamson said, by what they found and the possibilities that lie ahead.
Williamson said the NFL group was “thrilled” that the original game site, owned by the city, was “still an athletic playing field and not a strip mall, a parking lot or an apartment complex” as it was in other places.
The group was impressed to see both the Ohio Historical Marker at Triangle Park designating the game site and that one of original Triangles’ locker rooms had been saved and now stood at Carillon Park, where it will become the centerpiece of the Sports History Center that Dayton History eventually will open there.
Mostly, the NFL folks were impressed by the commitment of the people they met here. Williamson said it was just another example of the embrace Dayton has for sports:
“It’s the only place the First Four has ever occurred. No place has hosted more NCAA Tournament games than UD Arena. The Dayton Dragons have the longest professional sellout record of games in the nation.
“Both the Dayton Flyers and Wright State lead their conferences in attendance every season. And I don’t know of any other city that has had three of golf’s major tournaments at three different courses in their town like we’ve had with three PGA Championships.
“We constantly show up with our feet and our wallets. We’re just a passionate sports town. And that’s why people now are excited about the NFL recognition.”
And that will begin next Saturday when the City of Dayton hosts a gala NFL Draft Day Family Football Experience at Triangle Park from 2 to 6 p.m.
It will include the groundbreaking of a new turf field that the NFL and the FieldTurf company is donating to Dayton as a way of recognizing the city’s contribution to America’s most popular sport.
The new 85,000 square foot field – whose Revolution 360 surface is also used by the Seattle Seahawks and Atlanta Falcons – will be near the site of the original game, which actually was played where the nearby renovated Howell (baseball) Field now stands..
Immediately following that, local representatives — beginning with Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley — will be on a Triangle Park stage to announce five of the six picks the Cincinnati Bengals are making in the sixth round of Saturday’s 2019 NFL Draft..
Whaley’s pick will be televised nationally. The others will be made by youth football groups and Wright Patterson Air Force Base personnel.
Throughout the day there will be family activities and Dayton History will have a Triangles display. Tickets to the event are free and can be picked up at one of three Dayton recreation centers (Greater Dayton, Northwest, Lohrey).
“The event itself is a day in Dayton sports history,” Williamson said.
Once construction of the field is completed, the Bengals will come to Triangle Park and hold a preseason practice. After that, youth league and other community groups will use the field.
And next year – on October 3, 2020, the 100th anniversary of the first game – DASH will host a day of events at the field and Dayton History hopes to have its Sports History display open in the old locker room at Carillon Park, where Kress said, “We hope to tell the NFL story for the next 100 years.”
A start at St. Mary’s
That Sullivan was involved was apropos. The Triangles actually began when several athletes from St. Mary’s College — later known as the University of Dayton — began playing football in 1908,
By 1913, the team was called the St. Mary’s Cadets and in 1916 the name changed to the Dayton Triangles when the three factories owned by Edward Deeds and Charles Kettering – DELCO, Dayton Metal Products and Domestic Engineering Company (DECO) – picked up their sponsorship and helped fill the roster with factory workers.
From 1916 through 1919, the Triangles went 28-3-3 and won an Ohio League Championship.
That gave Storck some bargaining power when he represented Dayton at the Sept. 17, 1920 meeting at Ray Hay’s Hupmobile dealership in Canton where the NFL was formed.
Membership cost $100 although Halas later admitted that the money was never collected from any of the 14 original teams, five of which — the Akron Pros, Canton Bulldogs, Cleveland Tigers, Columbus and Dayton — were based in Ohio.
As for the Panhandles padding the roster with college players using fake names, that was not uncommon, the late Arda Bowser told me in 2005 when I interviewed him at a Florida nursing home. He was 97 then and the oldest living former NFL player.
He had played for the Canton Bulldogs and said college players often used an alias to protect their reputation in the “renegade” pro game.
Bowser, by the way, is credited with inventing the kicking tee. He’d have a guy carry a tub of wet mud along the sideline and when he needed it, he’d run over, scoop some out and then mold a mud tee on the field before his kick.
But it was the drop kick that was popularized by Thorpe, who was the star of the 1912 Olympics and then the powerful Canton Bulldogs.
That first season Dayton was close to pulling a huge upset of Canton until Thorpe drop kicked field goals of 45 and 54 yards in the fourth quarter to forge the 20-20 tie.
Two years later Thorpe was playing for a new team, the Oorang Indians, who were the most novel franchise in NFL history.
Based in tiny La Rue, Ohio, west of Marion, the team featured an all Native American roster which included players with names like Wrinklemeat, Longtime Sleep, Baptist Thunder, Dick Deerslayer and Bear Behind The Woodchuck,
The team was owned by Walter Lingo, who had the largest Airedale kennel business in the world. He used the team to market his dogs and a line of health care products and in his first year as an NFL owner he sold 15,000 dogs.
President Warren G. Harding had an Oorang Airedale, as did heavyweight champ Jack Dempsey, movie star Gary Cooper and baseball legends like Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker
To showcase the dogs, Lingo had his football players trade their jerseys and leather helmets for buckskin and head dresses and put on rollicking halftime show that included dogs chasing bears and treeing coons and the players throwing tomahawks, shooting rifles, doing Indian dances and reenacting scenes from World War I.
The Oorang Indians first game was in Dayton and a sold-out crowd of 5,000 – admission was $1.75 –saw some of that colorful halftime entertainment, which also included the injured Thorpe – who didn’t play in the Indians’ 36-0 loss – put on a kicking exhibition.
Although Dayton had a 4-3-1 record in that 1922 season and was 13-9-4 in its first three years, it would flounder badly after that.
Other teams recruited top talent from the college ranks but Dayton continued to rely on local ballplayers and over the next seven seasons won just five of 51 games.
As the losses mounted, the attendance plummeted and eventually Dayton turned into a barnstorming team that would get a $2,500 appearance fee to play in places like the Polo Grounds, Wrigley Field and Comiskey Park.
The team travelled in a Pullman railroad car and Fenner was told his great-grandfather was most adept at procuring a case of bootleg booze for the team when it made its stops during those days of Prohibition.
One of the final stars of the Triangles was Walter “Sneeze” Achiu, who had been a three-sport standout at the University of Dayton.
Born in Honolulu to an Hawaiian mother and a Chinese father, he became “the face of the Triangles” said Presar, noting they often were billed as a “Team of Immigrants.”
When the team moved to Brooklyn – and then through a series of twists, turns and mergers that blurred lineage lines as they migrated to Baltimore, Dallas, back to Baltimore and finally ended up the Indianapolis Colts – Achiu went into pro wrestling and had close to 1,100 matches.
He was inducted in the UD Hall of Fame in 1974.
Presar’s fascination with the Triangles began by accident during a visit to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton in the late 1980s, he said. He was looking at a chart on the origins of teams and saw a small mention of Dayton.
He had never heard of the Triangles and decided to research them once he got home.
He spent a lot of time at the library pouring through microfiche of old newspapers and eventually he also had a few interviews with John “Mack” Hummon, the Wittenberg star who later spent 40 years as a fabled Oakwood High coach and administrator.
In the late 1920s, Hummon played for the Triangles and it’s his No. 18 jersey that’s displayed at the Pro Football Hall of Fame .
Like Presar – who for years has had a Dayton Triangles website – Judge Gehres stumbled upon the team by accident and soon was enthralled. In honor of the Triangles’ first game, he and his court bailiff, Chuck Taylor, put on a fund-raising flag football game in 2001 featuring teams from Dayton and Columbus.
In 2012, Gehres got the city to agree to give the remaining Triangles’ dressing room — the other was destroyed by vandals and fire — to Dayton History. That required an expensive move to Carillon Park and repairs to the roof and it was Kress who raised the funds and has envisioned the future historical display it will anchor.
“It’s not a Hall of Fame – not a place where you’d go to learn about who Bellbrook’s top athlete was in 1958 – but there may be kiosks to help people gain access to certain sports,” Kress said. “Certainly we care about a lot of those things and love them because we’re from the Miami Valley, too.
“But would it interest somebody from Saint Louis or Pittsburgh or Los Angeles if they visited? We want our focus to be as a regional facility that tells the world our unique stories, stories that put Dayton on the map.”
When it comes to unique sports offerings in Dayton the list includes the Soap Box Derby, which began here. The city also produced MacGregor golf clubs, Huffy bikes for the Olympics and the Stoddard-Dayton, the first car to win at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The city also was home to baseball’s Dayton Marcos, one of the charter members of the Negro National League.
“The fact that the first NFL game, the first touchdown and all that happened in Dayton is significant.” Kress said. “No one else in the world can claim the Dayton Triangles.
“Over 225,000 people visit us every year and every time we do a tour, whether it’s with elected officials from around the country or tourists from all over the world, we always pass the Triangles’ locker room and say, ‘Hey, did you know?’
“And they’re always amazed. They’re excited about that.”
Hearing something like that makes Presar smile:
“I thought when I did my original research it’d be for me and maybe a half dozen people. And low and behold, now we have people selling Triangles’ T-shirts and baseball caps and helmets. It’s turned into quite an amazing thing.”
A few years ago Fenner summed it up best for me:
“When I go to work on Monday mornings and hear everybody talking about what their favorite NFL team did on Sunday, I just smile.
“I know it all started here.”
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