Glory Days of Wheeling Ironmen Revisited

Area residents relived the glory days of the Wheeling Ironmen with some former players and sports fans at the Ohio County Public Library on Nov. 9.

Doug Huff, a retired sports editor for The Intelligencer, and Ann Thomas of Wheeling presented a Lunch With Books program on the professional team that played in the United and Continental football leagues from 1962 through 1969. They were joined by former Ironmen Perry Jeter of Steubenville, Bob Butts of Wheeling and the Rev. Willie Stinson of Wheeling.

“It’s been great,” Jeter said of the playing days and the later team reunions. “I’m really happy to be involved in the activity we’ve had.”

Butts, a Benwood native who went on to have a 45-year career in education and became a school superintendent, commented, “It was a great experience for all of us … The people treated us well, and it opened up a lot of doors for us.”

Stinson, a Steubenville native who played with the Boston Patriots and in Canada, said, “I was fortunate to end up playing football here in Wheeling … It was one great experience … It was such a great thing, such camaraderie. The support in the Ohio Valley surpasses anything wherever I’ve ever been.”

Thomas, whose late husband, Clyde, was a star running back for the team, opened the program by reading a letter sent to team members before the first training camp held in August 1962 at the old Boy Scout camp on Big Wheeling Creek Road.

Huff noted that Wheeling has a long history of having professional sports teams. In addition to the Ironmen, those organizations have included the Stogies baseball team that played from 1925-34; the Blues basketball team, 1947-52; the Greyhounds football team and the current Nailers hockey team.

He showed a copy of a document that an area fan received when he paid $13.50 (plus 35 cents for handling) for reserved seats for all home games of the Ironmen’s season.

“The Ironmen back then were kind of akin to the Green Bay Packers. They sold stock,” Huff said. He showed an article reporting that the youngest stockholder was team owner Mike Valan’s 7-month-old son and the oldest stockholder was Edward Seabright, 91, of Wheeling.

The Ironmen won the United Football League championship in 1962 and 1963 and led the league in attendance, Huff related. The team joined the Continental Football League in 1965.

The team got national attention after an article was published chronicling “pro football on a shoestring,” he said. Huff attributed the team’s demise to the league expanding too far and making operating expenses prohibitive.

The Continental Football League was one step down from the National Football League, Huff said.

In fact, two former Ironmen, defensive back Bob Brown and lineman Andy Rice, played in the NFL’s first Super Bowl, competing for the Green Bay Packers and the Kansas City Chiefs, respectively, he added. Television actor John Amos also is an Ironmen alumnus.

A good number of local residents played for the Ironmen. “These are people who loved to play football,” Huff remarked. Some out-of-town players stayed in the Ohio Valley, rearing families and pursuing careers in coaching and other fields.

After joining The Intelligencer’s sports staff in 1967, Huff traveled with the Ironmen during the 1968 and 1969 seasons to destinations such as Charleston; Orlando, Fla.; Norfolk, Va., and Birmingham, Ala.

The team traveled by bus or on airplanes of questionable quality (“flying boxcars”). Thomas recalled an occasion when she was called to Pittsburgh to pick up her husband and some teammates because, after a scary flight to Buffalo, the players refused a flight home and rode a public bus from Buffalo to Pittsburgh.

When the Ironmen played at the stadium on Wheeling Island, it was “a social meeting place in the Ohio Valley” on game nights, Huff recalled. “It was a different time, but a fun time,” he commented. “It brought people together from Wheeling and around the Ohio Valley.”

At that time, Thomas said, “the Steelers were in the basement,” and at halftime or at the conclusion of Sunday afternoon games, Pittsburgh fans would travel to Wheeling to watch the Ironmen play on Sunday night.

“We were all a big family … We’d all sit together,” Thomas said, adding that she and two other team wives were pregnant with sons in 1965. Those three babies later became football teammates at Linsly School. “Our children are still friends,” she said.