Archdeacon: Centennial celebration of Dayton Triangles takes many forms



Several years after Lee Fenner – the longtime end with the Dayton Triangles – had retired from pro football and was living on Westview Avenue, he still was drawing an adoring crowd.

Mark Fenner, Lee’s great grandson, related the story he got from an older family member, one of Lee’s grandsons:

"He told me, 'When I was a kid, I’d gather my friends on a Saturday afternoon or a Sunday. The old man would be in the house watching TV with his feet up and I’d get 3 cents from each of them to peek in and have a look at him.

"'And if they paid me a dime, I’d walk them in and let ‘em shake his hand!’

“Those old-time Triangles players were revered in the ’30 and ’40s and ’50s.”

All these years later – even if you can’t go up on the porch for a quick look-see – there’s still a reverence for Dayton Triangles players.

That especially will be the case this Saturday, which is the 100th anniversary of the first-ever NFL game. It was played right here in Dayton at Triangle Park.

October 3,1920 was a warm, sunny day when the Triangles met the Columbus Panhandles in front of 5,000 spectators who paid $1.75 for tickets.

Even though a Dayton Daily News report from the game said the Panhandles had stocked their roster with Ohio State players using assumed names, the Triangles prevailed, 14-0.

Lou Partlow – the “West Carrollton Battering Ram,” a guy who trained in the summers running through wooded area along the Great Miami River, juking around trees but sometimes lowering his shoulder and running into them to prepare for defenders he’d face in the fall – scored the first touchdown on a 10-yard run he’d set up with an earlier 40-yard jaunt.

It was the first touchdown ever scored in the NFL. And the first point after was booted by George “Hobby” Kinderdine.

“I know the Bengals just played the Browns, but this was the first Battle of Ohio,” said Dave Williamson, the local attorney who is the chairman of the Dayton Area Sports History’s (DASH) Triangle Centennial Committee.

DASH, in conjunction with the City of Dayton, the NFL and the Carillon Park-based Dayton History had planned a gala celebration this Saturday, but that was scuttled by the COVID-19 pandemic and the state regulations that limit public events and crowds.

And yet DASH didn’t simply punt. Neither did other folks around here.

The Triangles are being celebrated in a variety of ways this week:

*Tuesday morning, at a press conference in front of the Triangles' original dressing room which now stands at Carillon Park, Dayton-based filmmaker and documentarian Allen Farst – once a football player himself at Vandalia Butler High School – is announcing he’s beginning work on a movie based on the Triangles first game.

He’s already been doing research and is launching a fundraising effort that will draw on local corporate sponsors and a grassroots effort of everyday people using the Kickstarter program. Information on that can be found at the website he’s set up:

*Friday Williamson said DASH, the city of Dayton and Dayton History are asking everyone to help celebrate the centennial by wearing their favorite NFL team’s gear to work. And if they need Triangles shirts and caps, they are available at the Carillon gift shop.

*Saturday afternoon, there will be a small ceremonial acknowledgement of the historic day at Triangle Park, though it’s not open to the public because of the COVID stipulations. It will be streamed though.

As of now the plan is for the mayors of both Dayton and Columbus to be there, as well as a football player from each city who made it to the NFL. It’s hoped Keith Byars will represent Dayton and Archie Griffin will do the same for Columbus.

Brady Kress, the CEO of Dayton History and one of the principals turning the old Triangles' dressing quarters into the centerpiece of a Sports History exhibit at the Park, may emcee the ceremony.

A year from now – October 3, 2021, Williamson said he hopes his DASH group – previously led by Skip Ordeman, who just passed away, and which is still assisted by Municipal Court Judge Dan Gehres, who helped save the dressing room and move it to Carillon -- can fully celebrate the football history made here in Dayton.

In the meantime, several other efforts related to the Triangles continue to go on.

A few months ago the new, NFL-funded artificial turf football field was completed at the site of the old Park Side Homes just off Keowee Street.

The league spent some $500,000 there to honor the city’s historic contributions to the game and to nurture the football growth of future generations. The field will host a variety of competitions, especially youth football games.

There are also the ongoing efforts by Kevin O’Donnel of Miamisburg and Doug Spatz of Springboro to get their great uncle, Norb Sacksteder – the Dayton Triangles starting halfback who was dubbed “Hell on Cleats” – enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

He as one of the great stars of the early days of the game, on a par with more celebrated Jim Thorpe and Fritz Pollard. Sacksteder’s spinning, juking improvised style of play – reminiscent of Barry Sanders – helped change pro football from a rugby scrum to an open-field competition.

O’Donell and Spatz have been lobbying the nine voters of the Senior Committee to consider him.

And if those electors – or anyone else – is unsure who the Triangles were and what they meant to this community, they can listen to the multiple-episode podcast done by Bruce Smith, a Cincinnati-based musician and composer who grew up near Triangle Park and graduated from Northridge High.

There are also the continued efforts by Mark Fenner, who works at MillerCoors and is one of the most ardent keepers of the Triangles' flame. His passion is certainly linked to his bloodlines, but he also was initially inspired by the efforts of another Triangles' historian, Steve Presar.

Fenner continues to collect stories and artifacts and recently was able to buy a scrapbook on eBay that had belonged to the late Dr. Dave Reese, the dentist who had been a football legend at Massillon High, Denison University and then the Triangles before becoming a big-time college football official and the first commissioner of the Mid-American Conference.

The biggest buzz right now though is over Farst’s announcement of his movie plans.

He’s just coming off a celebrated project where he travelled around the U.S. and Europe interviewing everyone from the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton to Sheryl Crow and Billy Bob Thornton for a documentary on legendary keyboard player, Chuck Leavell, who’s been with the Stones since 1982 and, before that, famed musicians like Dr. John and the Allman Brothers.

“Chuck Leavell: The Tree Man” won the People’s Choice Award at the Sedona Film Festival in late February. Farst had planned to follow the Stones' tour through the spring and summer showing the film, but COVID put the kibosh on that as well.

Looking for a new project, he finally focused in the Triangles, a subject he had flirted with for years.

Through his Centerville-based Niche Productions he’s been involved on other sports efforts before, but this venture is different, he said:

“This is bigger than football.”

Time is right

Farst thinks this is perfect timing for a movie like this:

"The past couple of years have been a train wreck here: A guy shoots up people downtown. The tornado. And even though the movie ‘American Factory’ won awards, in my view it painted some people here like a bunch of dips----.

"Right now we need something positive to show all the good things that come out of this town.

“We should have had that when the Dayton Flyers won the national championship, but then came COVID at the worst time.”

He believes a movie on the Triangles could capture people’s imaginations:

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

“And then here we are, one of the original 13 teams in the NFL and putting on the very first game.”

He noted how Dayton was home to inventors and visionaries and leaders in so many fields and “we were an innovator in sports, as well.”

A lot of people didn’t realize that. Fenner didn’t understand the full scope of the Triangles' football effort at first. Part of the problem was there had been a rift in his family and his grandfather, Lee Jr. quit speaking to his great grandad, Lee Sr., the Triangles star.

“I thought early on the Triangles hadn’t been any good and couldn’t draw crowd.” Some of that is true, but they were a formidable team from their actual formation in 1916. They were an offshoot of the St. Mary’s Cadets and in 1918, as the Spanish Flu was laying siege to the nation, they went 8-0 and won the Ohio League.

Once they joined the NFL predecessor – the American Professional Football Association, which then changed its name in 1922 – they had a roster that was a mix of former college players and local talent, including several guys from the factories that bankrolled the team.

“I soon learned there was a lot more to them than I knew,” said Fenner. “They played against at least 22 individuals who are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, guys like Jim Thorpe and George Halas and Red Grange. Over the years they played the Chicago Bears and the Green Bay Packers and had games at Wrigley Field and Comiskey Park and the Polo Grounds.”

After three decent years, the Triangles began to lose players to richer teams. In the last seven years of their existence they won just five of 51 games and attendance did lag. That turned them into a barnstorming team that travelled by a Pullman railroad car.

Eventually the team was sold to notorious bootlegger Bill Dwyre in 1930 and he moved them to Brooklyn where they were renamed the Dodgers.

Over the years the team was pretty much forgotten here until Presar took an interest and wrote about them and then Skip Ordeman and DASH embraced them.

In 2001, Judge Gehres and his bailiff Chuck Taylor put on a charity flag football game between teams from Dayton and Columbus wearing Triangles' and Panhandles' jerseys. Gehres also helped get the Ohio Historical Marker put up near the site of the football field a Triangle Park.

Finally after vandals, fire and neglect claimed one of the original dressing rooms, Gehres got the City of Dayton to move the remaining locker room to Carillon Park and Kress raised the money to facilitate the move and put on a new..

‘I wanted to know who these people were’

The 60-year-old Smith hadn’t known about the Triangles when he was a kid and his dad took him to Howell Field at Triangle Park to watch baseball games.

Later, when he made the discovery, he said he became fascinated: “I wanted to know who these people were. What motivated them? What the times were like?”

He immersed himself in research with plans to write a book, When the NFL began its centennial celebration in 2019 – the 100th NFL season, not 100 years from the first game in Dayton – he knew he had to get his project out quicker than he planned.

The book turned into a series of podcasts that cover the topic more thoroughly than anything prior.

It can be found at:

Farst has been in contact with Smith and also met with O’Donnel, Spatz and Fenner, who searches YouTube and eBay every few weeks for anything related to the Triangles.

That’s how he discovered the Reese scrapbook, which he bought for $76.

“Stuff like that doesn’t become available very often, so the anticipation started to grow as I waited for it to arrive,” he said. "You don’t know what you’re getting. It’s like a treasure hunt. It could be the Holy Grail or it could be a bust.

“And after I had it awhile my wife asked if it had been worth it. I said, ‘Oh yes!’”

While he had come across stories about the record 12 letters Reese had earned playing four sports at Denison, the major college games he’d officiated and his pioneering days with the MAC, he said it was a small story about Reese’s early days as a star of the Massillon Tigers that made the whole venture worthwhile

It told about a neighborhood boy who had idolized Reese, just as those East Dayton kids were mesmerized by Lee Fenner.

The young Massillon kid followed everything Reese did, especially his days playing for the Dayton Triangles.

One day that boy wanted to be a football standout just like his hero was.

And he became that and so much more.

The boy’s name?

Paul Brown.

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