Monday, March 19, 2018

"Father Lumpkin" of the Portsmouth Spartans: The Original "Rambling Wreck"


For good old-fashioned blood-and-guts football, Roy “Father” Lumpkin was your man.He was a knee-churning, stiff-arming menace of a running back … He refused
to wear a helmet in the pro league and liked to show off a sizable lump planted on the back of his head when he tackled Bronco Nagurski.”

Back in the day when professional football was a fledgling sport, Portsmouth, Ohio, had a team in the National Football League. By all accounts, the Portsmouth Spartans developed into a great team with the acquisition of many skilled players. Perhaps the favorite of local fans was a standout back from Georgia Tech. With the seemingly benevolent nickname of “Father,” the man might be mistaken as a tender athlete. But, closer to the reality of his brutal play, his last name “Lumpkin” ironically confirms he delivered bruises and bumps like no other.

Roy Lee "Father" Lumpkin (January 27, 1907 – March 31, 1974) was a native of Jefferson, Texas. Lumpkin attended Oak Cliff High School in Dallas. Howard Allen, his high school coach, once said Lumpkin was “the toughest hombre to ever set a cleat on a high school turf.”

An incredible athlete, Lumpkin scored 25 touchdowns for Oak Cliff in 1926 in a seven-game schedule. During a playoff game with Cisco when two opponents were coming at him in an open field, he threw the ball down and stiff-armed both of them. Sportswriter Harold Ratliff, who covered Texas high school football for nearly 50 years, once said Roy was better than such Texas high school greats as Kyle Rote, Glynn Gregory and Steve Worster.

In 1927, Lumpkin enrolled at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, planning to study textile engineering. As a freshman in 1927, he was given the nickname "Father" because of his fatherly manner. He played college football for Georgia Tech and was an All-Southern fullback for the undefeated 1928 Georgia Tech Golden Tornado football team that defeated California in the 1929 Rose Bowl.

One writer called Lumpkin "the most powerful individual factor" on that 1928 Georgia Tech team and noted: "This big, fast and powerful backfield star, who is just as valuable as an offensive interferer as a runner, passer and pass-receiver, is the best protectionist we have seen this year in staving off opponents who attempt to reach the player who is carrying the ball."


Portsmouth Spartans

Lumpkin did not return to Georgia Tech for his junior year in 1929. Instead, he joined the professional football team in Ohio called the “Portsmouth Spartans.” Southern Ohio semi-pro football was dominated by the Ironton Tanks during the 1920's. Portsmouth, while occasionally beating or tieing the Tanks, chafed under their dominance.

In 1928, Portsmouth began seriously importing players who would form the heart of later Spartan teams. After a 5-2-2 record in 1928, the team came into its own in 1929. Soon, five former Tank players, John Wager (C), Tim Hastings (T), Gene Alford (B), Tex Mitchell (E), and future All-Pro Glenn Presnell (B) moved thirty miles downriver to join the Spartans.

To the former Spartan and Tank players Coach “Potsy” Clark added center Clare Randolph, who had played the previous season with the Chicago Cardinals, and five outstanding rookies. The rookies included ends Harry Ebding and Bill McKalip, tackle George Christensen, guard Grover "Ox" Emerson, and All-American back Earl "Dutch" Clark.

An article from the Charleston Daily Mail on January 8, 1931 said ...

“Lumpkin, who stood out as a spectacular backfield player with the National Professional Football league team from Ohio last season and the season before that, has been signed for next season at a salary of $6000. This is equivalent to $500 a month, on a yearly salary basis and $300 per game if the Spartans play another 20-game schedule like they did in 1930. From this salary figure an idea can be formed as to the salaries of such players as "Red" Grange, Dill Classgow, Nagurski, Crist Cagle, Joe Savoldi and few others who are now members of the professional ranks. Lumpkin joined the Spartans after leaving Georgia Tech where he was known as the 'Rambling Wreck from Georgia Tech.'"

Coach Clark established his authority early. On the first day of practice he threw Father Lumpkin off the field for "too much horseplay." The spectators and the team were shocked by Clark's action, but it worked. The next day Lumpkin apologized to Clark, and Clark, with discipline established, named Lumpkin captain of the team. Glenn Presnell remembers Clark as an excellent coach. "Potsy trained us like a college team: hard physical practice, attention to detail, and discipline," says Presnell. 


* Note – The Spartans were an improbable story. After all, Portsmouth, population 42,560, was barely bigger than Green Bay, the only small-market team that made it through the Depression. But the Spartans were terrors in the early '30s, finishing second in '31 and '32.

Early highlights for the Spartans also include the "iron man" game against Green Bay in 1932. In that game, Spartan Coach Clark refused to make even a single substitution against the defending NFL champion Packers. Portsmouth won 19–0 and used only 11 players all game.

Blizzard conditions in Chicago meant the 1932 title game was moved from Wrigley Field's outdoor field to the indoor field at Chicago Stadium, which allowed for only an 80-yard field. The game was won 9–0 by the Bears, on a touchdown pass from Bronko Nagurski to Red Grange. The resulting interest led to the establishment of Eastern and Western conferences and a regular championship game beginning in 1933.

Then the economy caught up with the the Portsmouth Spartans, with the failures of the steel mills and shoe factories that had kept their fans gainfully employed, and they had to relocate to the greener grass of Detroit in 1934.

Five years later, after the Spartans had left for Detroit, a story ran in the Portsmouth Times. "FOOTBALL FANS PLAN TO ENTER TEAM IN LOOP," the headline read. "Former Spartan Star Proposed As Coach For New Gridiron Organization." The paper said, "Local promoters were in the process of acquiring another NFL franchise for Portsmouth, one that would begin play that season. Three former Spartans were being considered for the coaching job: Presnell, Lumpkin and center Clare Randolph, who appeared to be the frontrunner. This never came to be. Professional football was gone forever in Portsmouth, Ohio.

 Father Lumpkin

Father Lumpkin was an immediate hit in Portsmouth, and he became one of the brightest stars of the 1929 team that compiled a 12-2-1 record. The two losses were to the 1929 N.F.L. champions, the Green Bay Packers, 14-0, and to the Ironton Tanks, 3-0, but the Spartans later crushed the Tanks, 38-0. Part of Lumpkin's appeal was his hard-nosed play on the field, an image he maintained by refusing to wear a helmet when he played.

Lumpkin played five seasons for Portsmouth from 1929 to 1933 and was selected as a second-team All-Pro in 1930 and a first-team All-Pro in 1932. He earned a reputation as an excellent blocker, leading the way for the Spartans' other backs, Dutch Clark (inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame), Glenn Presnell, and Ace Gutowsky. Lumpkin remained with the Spartans as they joined the National Football League (NFL) in 1930 and through their move to Detroit as the Detroit Lions in 1934.

Glenn Presnell, a fellow Spartan who set the league single-season scoring record in 1933 while leading the league in total offense (and later Detroit Lion star) described Lumpkin …

“He was one of the toughest human beings I ever saw. I remember seeing him wrestle during the off-season. He was just a very athletic individual. He was a great blocker, and he would say if he didn't take out two men on each play, then he wasn't doing his job. He meant putting them on the ground, not just bump them and go ahead."

The Ironton Rivalry

"Attending Ironton-Portsmouth games is like sitting on a seething volcano. Tension in
the crowd is painfully taut. Intercity rivalry races at fever heat. That's why the first-down marker was manned by one delegate from Ironton and one from Portsmouth, just to
make sure there was no hanky-panky.)

The Portsmouth Times

As Dr. Harry March, one of NFL's founding fathers, said, "Proximity seems necessary for real enmity in football," and Portsmouth and Ironton had both in abundance. A mere 27 miles separate the towns in the southeast corner of state, where Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia converge. When the teams met, the Model T's and Model A's were bumper to bumper on the Gallia Pike. Portsmouth dressed in vivid purple (headgear included), Ironton in scarlet. So, yes, a Spartans-Tanks game – any Spartans-Tanks game – was a colorful must-see.

There was such an attachment between the cities and their teams -- even stronger, perhaps, than in pro football today. Most players rented spare rooms from fans and regularly sat down to dinner with them. They were treated like members of the family (and as a result, never wanted to let that family down on the field).

The Portsmouth-Ironton rivalry had been taken to another level in 1929, when the Spartans were still an independent team. Dick Young of the Portsmouth Times called the Oct. 13 bloodletting "the roughest football game ever played, and the officials seemed to turn a cold shoulder to open attempts at hostility... Ironton devised every means known to football to injure Portsmouth [players] and remove the stars from the game. Leg-twisting, slugging and kneeing were the main Tank objective."

At the end of the game, which Ironton won 3-0, irate Portsmouth rooters jumped the officials. The umpire and head linesman got punched in the jaw, and the crew needed a police escort to get off the field. An editorial later that week in the Ironton News bemoaned the brutality on both sides.

"The one play when three Portsmouth players picked up [Pat] Knieff and carried him back 10 yards and threw him on the ground on his head, after carrying him with his feet in the air, was the worst play we ever saw any team get away with," the newspaper said. "This kind of play is sure to kill pro football."

The paper also was concerned about fan-on-fan violence: "If Ironton rooters are to be beat up when they go to Portsmouth, and Ashland (Ky.) rooters treated the same way when they come to Ironton, pro football is dying a fast death. It won't be safe for rooters to follow the teams, and without attendance, football is over in the Ohio Valley."

During the offseason, the antagonism between the teams spilled over into the boxing ring when Spartans quarterback Roy "Father" Lumpkin and Tanks end Dick Powell, fledgling heavyweights, duked it out for four rounds before a capacity crowd at the Elks Hall in Ironton. The end came when Powell landed "a series of right and lefts to the head and a terrific right uppercut to the chin" that left Lumpkin "in a heap near his own corner," the Portsmouth paper said. "He took the count of 10, completely on his back, and had to be carried to his chair."

(Soon afterward, Lumpkin turned to wrestling, where results could be prearranged.)

The day Lumpkin fought Powell, Lumpkin's wife filed for divorce, claiming she hadn't seen much of him since, well, the first month of their marriage. The fans so adored him that they gave him write-in votes for city council and state senator.

"He was a lot of fun," Presnell said. "Loved to play cards" -- among other activities. "They got pretty rowdy," he went on. "Did a lot of carousing around. There were a lot of bootleggers in those days."

Detroit Lions

On September 23, 1934, Lumpkin scored the first touchdown in the Detroit Lions' first game (It still stands as the first in Lion's history.), intercepting a pass and returning it 45 yards for a touchdown in a 9-0 victory over the New York Giants before a crowd of 12,000 persons at the University of Detroit Stadium.

In May 1935, the Lions sold Lumpkin to the Brooklyn Dodgers. According to Dutch Clark, the Lions dropped Lumpkin because he refused to give up professional wrestling. He played for Brooklyn from 1935 to 1937. Lumpkin concluded his football career with the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1935 to 1937.


* Note – When Art Modell, NFL team owner, was a youngster, he developed a passion for football, rooting for the Brookly Dodgers. Attending the Thankgiving Day game between the Giants and Dodgers became a annual ritual for him. He and a cousin would walk to Ebbits Field and pay 25 cents for seats behind the Dodgers' bench. Modell was enthralled by Roy “Father” Lumpkin. "He played without a helmet and he was my first real hero," the Browns' owner often said. "I enjoyed all the sports, but as a fan, I had a passion for football." Modell and his pals would field their own teams in the streets and synchronize pass plays using manhole covers and sewer grates as markers.

Like their baseball namesake, the Dodgers brought distinction and pride to Modell's working-class borough. Walking down neighborhood streets on game days, Modell would hear the voices of radio broadcasters Red Barber and Vin Scully coming from each row-house stoop.


After spending 1938 as a professional wrestler, Lumpkin signed in 1939 as the head coach of the Louisville Tanks of the American Professional Football League.After retiring from football, Lumpkin and his wife lived in Dallas, Texas. In his later years, Lumpkin sold bowling supplies. Lumpkin died in 1974 at age 67 in Dallas.


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