On a late June afternoon, a slight breeze blew as rolling clouds framed the Kentucky hills on the other side of the Ohio, just a stone’s throw away. A new semi-pro football team called the Portsmouth Stealth gathered in a parking lot outside Portsmouth, Ohio’s Spartan Municipal Stadium, home to an NFL team called the Spartans (and later, the Detroit Lions) from 1930 to 1933. Olympian Jim Thorpe, Hall of Famer Earl “Dutch” Clark, and single-wing tailback Glenn Presnell all played there. The 8,000 seat concrete stadium is one of the oldest NFL structures in the country where football is still played.

“That stadium is football,” Stealth fullback Matt Owens said. “Being an ex-NFL stadium, there’s a certain ambiance, a certain uplifting feeling — you feel the presence of the people who played here and that rich history that’s almost forgotten.”

The concrete is cracking and the bleachers are worse for wear. In some ways, the stadium’s decline has mirrored the economic and social struggles of this Rust Belt town with a dwindling population. In recent years, especially, opioid addiction has ravaged parts of the community.

But now, locals are working to renovate the structure and repurpose the stadium, trying to give it — and the town — renewed energy.

Owens, a Marine veteran raising three children, displays a wisdom beyond his 29 years of age. He said there’s a not a lot for young people to do in Portsmouth so he’s hoping the Stealth can offer young people a positive, healthy distraction. The team wants to use proceeds from ticket sales to support youth sports in the area.

The Stealth is currently in its first season in the semi-pro Blue Collar Football League, but Owens is already inspired by the camaraderie this team has fostered. He said he joined, in part, because he missed playing, but more importantly because he was looking for a community. “We’re not a football team; we’re a family. If you’re in, you’re my brother, and we’re going to take care of you.”

Portsmouth and its storied football history are intertwined, and the team wants to take advantage of that. Rooting for the team, and the stadium, gives people energy to fight against the typical narrative of a dying industrial town. “We fight hard,” Owens said. “We might be down, but we’ll come back.”

Old story, new story

Portsmouth lies at a crossroads for trains, rivers, and highways. In its heyday, it was a manufacturing behemoth, making everything from bricks to steel and shoes to golf clubs. For decades, Shelby Shoe and Empire-Detroit Steel each employed thousands.

Portsmouth Stealth quarterback Duke Edwards drops back to pass during a practice at Municipal Stadium. (Photo: Jack Shuler)

When the Spartans played in the 1930s, Portsmouth was home to about 42,000 people. Over the course of four seasons, the team played the likes of the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears. They were trailblazers: In September 1930, the Spartans played one of the earliest night games in the NFL. In 1931, the team finished second to the Green Bay Packers. Green Bay opted out of playing a regular season finale game because if the Spartans had won, they would have been declared league champs.

So the next year, when the Spartans took on the Packers at Municipal Stadium, Spartans coach George “Potsy” Clark wanted to prove they were the better team and made no substitutions during the game — eleven men played both sides of the ball. The Spartans won, 19 to 0, in a game that has since been known as the “Iron Man” game.

The Portsmouth Spartans have been the stuff of legend around this region, winning an impressive 28 games, losing 16, and tying seven. They packed the stadium with adoring fans — an estimated 15,000 watched the Iron Man game.

But in 1934, due in part to the Great Depression, the Spartans were sold off and became the Detroit Lions. The stadium became home to local high school football teams. The city owned the stadium — but with less money in its coffers for upkeep — it deteriorated over the years. In the early 2000s, there were rumors it might be torn down so that the city wouldn’t have to pay for costly repairs.

The Spartans football team is depicted on the Portsmouth flood wall. The murals were originally painted by Robert Dafford. (Photo: Jack Shuler)

By that point, the declining town had more serious concerns than its beloved football stadium. Beginning in the late 1990s, prescription drug abuse gripped the city as doctors dispensed prescriptions for opiates at local cash-only pain clinics, which are often called pill mills. By 2010, 9.7 million doses of opiates were dispensed in Portsmouth’s Scioto County — 23 doses for every man, woman and child in the county. In 2011, the DEA, along with local and state law enforcement, raided the pill mills.

However, the opioid problem never went away. Since the pill mills were shut down, intravenous drug use has soared: Heroin and synthetic opioids like fentanyl and carfentanyl were introduced and have since wreaked havoc, as they have around the country. Scioto County has high rates of Hepatitis C, the highest rate of newborns suffering from neonatal abstinence syndrome, and it ranks sixth for rate of fatal overdoses per 100,000 people. Last year, 31 people died from overdoses.

Still, the community keeps coming up with solutions. In early June, just days after Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine announced the state would be suing five makers of opioid painkillers for their role in the epidemic, Scioto County Commissioners announced their own lawsuit. Rather than hold the producers accountable, the county has decided to investigate and hold accountable drug distributors. Portsmouth City Council has also announced it will file a similar lawsuit.

Though that’s a step in the right direction, Sean Dunne, a sociology professor at Portsmouth’s Shawnee State University, said it will take more than lawsuits to repair the decades of damage from addiction. He said he believes the community will also have to push against what he calls a “narrative of decline.”

Dunne thinks renovating Spartan Municipal Stadium might be a way to begin that work. He submitted a proposal to help fund renovations to Municipal Stadium to a corporate giving program run by State Farm Insurance called “Neighborhood Assist.”

The proposal competed in a public vote last November with 200 others nationwide and placed second. Dunne and the Spartan Municipal Stadium Renovation Project were awarded $25,000. They rallied a group of volunteers to fix the sprinkler system, install security cameras, and remove graffiti. The group, including boosters from Notre Dame High School, whose football team still plays there, hope to eventually restore the concrete, the bleachers, the track, and the plumbing. But Dunne estimates that will take up to a million dollars.

People tell him that the stadium represents Portsmouth’s great past, Dunne said, but he also thinks it represents the town’s potential in the future. “Communities are made up of social institutions and social interactions, but also stories,” he said. “And if you allow stories to turn on you, if you look at groups that will adopt toxic narratives about themselves—they take it on an agree with it. When we won the grant, that was a great victory.”

He knows it’s going to take more than a football stadium to transform the town, but it’s a start.

A scrappy team and its potential

Just before practice at the stadium that hot June day, it began to rain. Owens and the others headed out to the field anyway. A group of seven or eight players started running their routes, and quarterback Duke Edwards threw on target, even with a sopping wet pigskin.

Last year, Dusty Mogan, Jojo Parker, and Emily Owens started the Stealth team to help get young people off the streets. Mogan is a single mom raising three kids who says she’s also “mom” to the more than 40 young men on the team. She said she hopes the younger players will try to play in college so they can be assured an education.

As she pointed out at Edwards, she said, “He needs to get out of here. I have about five players that have the talent to play in college.” She adds that the Stealth’s placekicker is in the process of trying to walk-on at Marshall University, which sits across the Ohio River in nearby Huntington, West Virginia.

A photo of Portsmouth residents before the March Against Heroin. (Photo: Kortney Calver)

The team is scrappy, but Owens said they’re hard hitters and this team gives them something to work for. “There’s a lot of drugs in the area, a lot of crime,” Owens said. “Not a lot of jobs. Not a lot of options for getting out.”

Basel Cooper, a 21-year-old offensive and defensive lineman, is another type of young person the team is trying to recruit. Cooper played football from middle school through high school, but after graduation he was working a dead-end job, he said. “There was no meaning to anything I did outside of work.”

Then, someone from the Stealth asked him to join the team. Now, he has something to look forward to. “I come out to practice and work hard. I go home, and I feel accomplished,” he said.

While watching the team practice, Mogan lowered her voice almost to a whisper, speaking slowly. “Portsmouth’s been beaten down,” she said. “Sports are not the only way out, but for a lot of kids it is.” She considers this team as her small intervention in the community.

The stadium is breathing new life into Portsmouth in other ways, as well. Last March, recovery activists Kortney Calver, Sarah Gee, and Michael Pack, hosted Ohio’s National March Against Heroin there.

Gee said she wanted to have the event at the stadium because of its historical significance. All the good things about the stadium, and Portsmouth, have “been forgotten about” she said.

For the march, more than 2,000 people attended to hear from musicians and celebrities who are in recovery or have been affected by drugs, like professional skateboarder Brandon Novak and Rodney Lavoie, Jr., from CBS’s “Survivor,” who lost his sister to drug addiction. Organizers gave out scholarships for rehab and raised money to buy doses of the expensive opioid blocker Naloxone for the local health department, which is given to people who overdose.

Attendees marched from Municipal Stadium all through Portsmouth chanting, “We’re here to let you know, heroin has got to go!” and carrying posters that read “Recovery works!” and “Real life angels carry Naloxone.” Marchers paused along the way to talk to folks sitting on their porches, handed out information to strangers, and walked together in support of each other.

The opioid epidemic is growing more serious by the day, but Gee is still hopeful. “Portsmouth is in a better place than it was a decade ago because people are talking about the problem and coming together to address it,” she said. “We’re not just going to sit back and let addiction take over our city.”

Jack Shuler (@jackshuler) is the author of three books including The Thirteenth Turn (Public Affairs, 2014). His writing has appeared in Salon, The Christian Science Monitor, The Atlantic, and elsewhere. He teaches at Denison University in Ohio and recently launched betweencoasts.org, an online magazine covering stories from Rust Belt and rural America.