Tom Archdeacon: Dayton's football history being preserved on film

·10 min read

Aug. 7—If this were the summer of 1920, Lou Partlow — known as "The Battering Ram of West Carrollton" — would be spending some of his training sessions running full tilt through the wooded areas along the Great Miami River just outside of his town.

He would juke and spin and dodge, turning the rooted maples, oaks and elms into flat-footed defenders.

But then, on occasion, he'd lower a shoulder and slam into a sturdy trunk to prepare himself for the jolts he'd feel from the tacklers he would not elude in the NFL's first-ever game between his Dayton Triangles and the Columbus Panhandles played at Triangle Park on October 3, 1920.

As it turned out, Partlow's primitive preparations were perfect.

In the third quarter of a scoreless game, he broke a 40-yard run to the Panhandles' 10-yard line. After a teammate's carry then moved the ball three yards ahead, Partlow took a handoff and bolted seven yards for what is considered the NFL's first touchdown.

With nearly 5,000 people crowded around the field that historic day, Dayton would go on to win, 14-0.

There have been times this summer when local filmmaker Allen Farst has felt a little like Partlow on those unforgiving training runs as he's worked on the documentary he's making — "Triangle Park" — about that first NFL game, the players on the Triangles team and the city of Dayton back then.

While he's been finishing up interviews with descendants of the 23 Triangle players and has been prepping for the game reenactments he plans to film here next month, he's also been trying to navigate the challenging path to secure enough financial backing to make the film the full-blown affair he wants it to be.

There have been times he's run squarely into tree trunks of tightfistedness. But like the Battering Ram, Farst — once a football player himself at Vandalia Butler High — knows how to keep his feet churning and eventually has moved ahead to those willing to open their checkbooks.

His effort has picked up financial support from the likes of Heidelberg Distributing, Baird financial wealth management, Waev Inc. Gem Vehicles and CENTURY 21 The Gene Group. He hopes to land more backers.

He said he's driven by the richness of the story and the way that many of the descendants treasure their connection to the historic team.

"When I got around some of the families and saw the misty eyes, the tears and the excitement to share their story, I knew we had something," Farst said

He's also been surprised by some people's willingness to help with the project, whether it's been giving him access to the few mementos still around from that game 102 years ago — a guy from New York drove in with the original whistle referee C.J. McCoy blew at kickoff — or helping him find unique ways to draw up interest and financial support.

The patron saint of that latter category would be Jack Giambrone, the Sinclair Community College physical education professor, former athletics director and a college and pro football coach, who has one of the largest and most significant Vince Lombardi collections in the world.

He has over 700 items and 300 photos linked to the legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers. He has turned part of his Beavercreek home into a Lombardi museum and some of his pieces are on loan to the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the Packers Hall of Fame.

Giambrone travels around the Midwest giving presentations as a Lombardi Legends ambassador and has used his collection to help Farst raise funds for the upcoming documentary.

"We need something positive to show all the good that comes out of this town." Farst once told me. "We should have had that (a couple of years ago) when the Dayton Flyers won the national championship, but then came COVID at the worst time."

He believes a documentary on the Triangles could capture people's imaginations in the same way movies like Field of Dreams and Hoosiers did.

"If you look at the story lines of the 1920s, there are so many things that will give this a richness," he said.

"Prohibition had started. Women were getting their first chance to vote. Dayton was finally recovering from the 1913 Flood and the industrial boom was taking place.

"We are, one of the original 14 teams in the NFL and we put on the very first game."

In noting how Dayton was home to inventors, visionaries and leaders in so many fields. he added: "We were an innovator in sports, as well."

'What's gonna fill your love tank?'

When you walk in the door of Farst's Niche Productions in Centerville, you are surrounded by reminders of his work.

There are photos he took of David Letterman in a fireproof racing suit for a 2016 article in Maxim about the television host's involvement in the IndyCar Series team he owns with Bobby Rahal and Mike Lanigan.

There's a poster from the NFL Drone Film Festival in Manhattan Farst spoke at a few years back and a poster from one of the Rolling Stones' 2003 concerts at Twickenham Stadium in London.

Farst recently made an award-winning documentary on Stones' legendary keyboardist Chuck Leavell. The film — "Chuck Leavell: The Tree Man" — debuted at the Sedona Film Festival in 2020 and won the People's Choice Award.

"When I got done with that — I'd been filming three years on the road — I had to figure out what the next project would be," Farst said. "I'd been staying at 5-star hotels and hanging out with the Stones and people like Eric Clapton and David Gilmour (Pink Floyd guitarist) and Billy Bob Thornton.

"Where do you go after that?

"What's gonna fill your love tank?"

He found the perfect antithesis.

"I wanted to stay at home for a while and shine a light on something here," he said

One idea that stood out was the Dayton Triangles.

Farst grew up here. His late father had been a Hall of Fame quarterback at Butler High south of Mansfield and later owned Ken's Pharmacy in Vandalia.

The counter of that old drug store now stands in the front room at Niche and the other day it held some newly-minted Dayton Triangles T-shirts that will be part of the merchandise available from the documentary. Behind the counter was a leather football helmet that resembled those worn by the Triangles.

For the reenactments, Farst said he'll have use of the helmets, pads and uniforms worn in the 2008 George Clooney comedy "Leatherheads" about a fictional team from the 1920s.

But the best things he's gotten for this film are the research and preservation of the Triangles' story done by a handful of dedicated people here over the past couple of decades.

Mark Fenner, whose great grandfather, Lee, was an end on the Triangles for the club's entire 14 years of existence, has been the primary historian, as was Steve Presar before him. And, in Cincinnati, Bruce Smith, a Northridge grad, has had a podcast dedicated to the Triangles.

And, in 2012, Dayton municipal court judge Dan Gehres orchestrated moving the remaining Triangles' dressing room — the other was destroyed by vandals — from Triangle Park to Carillon Historical Park where it has been restored and will become a focal point of a new sports exhibit.

The Triangles started in 1916 as an offshoot of the St. Mary's Cadets (soon known as the University of Dayton) and four years later became one the founding franchises of the American Professional Football Association, which changed its name to the National Football League (NFL) in 2022.

As you delve into that history, you discover the deep local connections to pro football.

According to Fenner, the Triangles — who were made up of former college players, some local talent and several players from the three factories owned by Charles Kettering and Edward Deeds who bankrolled the team — played against at least 22 people who are now in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, including legends like Jim Thorpe, George Halas and Red Grange.

The team played the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears and had games at Wrigley Field, Comiskey Park and the Polo Grounds.

After three decent years, the Triangles lost players to higher paying teams and consequently lost lots of game and fans. For their last seven years, they became a barnstorming team that traveled the country in a Pullman railroad car.

Finally in 1930 — after winning just two games in five years — they were sold to the notorious Irish mobster and bootlegger "Big Bill" Dwyre for $2,500. He moved them to New York, where they became the NFL's Brooklyn Dodgers and played at Ebbets Field.

Through numerous transformations they eventually became the Baltimore Colts and finally the Indianapolis Colts.

Even though the team was gone, the NFL's presence remained in Dayton.

Carl "Scummy" Storck, who'd played at St. Mary's and managed the Triangles while working at Delco, served as the secretary/treasurer of the NFL for 18 years.

From 1939 to 1941 he was the NFL president and ran the league from his Winters Tower office in downtown Dayton.

'If these walls could talk'

When Farst's plans for a documentary were announced at Carillon Park press conference in the fall of 2020, the old dressing room served as a backdrop.

Fenner, who was one of the speakers, recounted a story from the day those quarters were moved across town on the back of a big truck.

After everyone else had left, he said he and the late Skip Ordeman, the founder of the Dayton Area Sport History group which made conserving Triangles history a primary concern, were standing next to the rescued building, which was still on the truck in the parking lot.

Fenner quipped: "If these walls could talk!"

And Ordeman replied: "One day they will!"

That exchange struck a chord with Farst and now the descendants are making those walls talk.

"Each family has had a little nugget," Farst said. "Sometimes it's not from the game, but has something to do with the player himself."

Doug Spatz of Springboro and Kevin O'Donell of Miamisburg have told Farst about their great uncle, Norb Sacksteder — known as "Hell on Cleats" — who was the Triangles' star halfback and two years later helped the Canton Bulldogs become the NFL champions.

Reminiscent of the whirling dervish style of Barry Sanders, Sacksteder was one of the game's early stars alongside Thorpe and Fritz Pollard. Although he scored more touchdowns than each, they're both in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton and he is not.

Four years ago, Spatz and O'Donnel began a concerted effort to get the Hall of Fame's Senior Committee to consider their great uncle.

The family of Triangles' lineman and kicker George "Hobby" Kinderdine — who booted the first PAT in the NFL — have several "artifacts" Farst said and have been a great resource.

"All the guys on the 1920 team got necklaces with their name engraved on the back of them," Farst said. "Few people today even knew they existed, but through all of this, two of them have been located."

The best adornments for this film, though, are the stories and that brings us back to Partlow.

His family told Farst how the 20-year-old was walking along the overflowing river during the 1913 flood when he spotted a black family with little children floundering in the water.

He dove in and saved them.

Now Farst is doing some savior work himself.

"It's been over 100 years since that first game and a lot of the stories, the memories, have been lost," he said. "Some of the people I've been talking to are 85, 90 and older. They are telling me about their father or an uncle or some relative who played, but one day these people will be gone and so much of the history could be lost, too.

"Somebody needs to preserve that story and that's what I'm trying to do.

"I'm really honored to be doing it."

It sounds like the love tank has been refilled.