Rockford, Ironton face same challenges

Published 10:11 am Tuesday, March 23, 2010

In December I had the opportunity to visit the city of Ironton, Ohio. The first thing that struck me was Ironton had obviously seen better days.

This industrial city, much like Rockford, Ill., looked decimated.

The second thing that absolutely stunned me occurred when I spotted this very old and majestic football grandstand, complete with box seats.

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It turned out to be the 1926 NFL Ironton Tanks stadium but now served as the Ironton High School football stadium. I marveled at how it differed from the new NFL stadium in Dallas.

Ironton is not a wealthy community, but there are wealthy people living on the river bluffs overlooking Ironton and Ashland (Kentucky) along the Ohio River.

The people are proud Americans, both down-to-earth and friendly.

As one could guess, there are large abandoned steel mills along the river, the very steel mills that gave Ironton its name.

I came home full of mixed emotions. I first did research on the Ironton Tanks stadium, and then I wrote to the NFL to say I thought it should do a halftime show in what has to be the oldest original-condition NFL stadium in the nation. I learned the NFL once had a big championship playoff game there between the Chicago Bears and New York Giants.

I discovered how football was first played in this nation during the founding years of the NFL. Of course, I had to research the names and cities of the other early NFL teams.

After conducting this study, I then researched Ironton itself. I learned that there was a time in history when all of the best steel came out of Ironton.

It was shipped overseas for foreign countries to build their ships, bridges and buildings.

I thought how sad it was that the NFL has seemingly forgotten about this national historical treasure of a football stadium just as Washington, D.C., has forgotten about cities and towns like Ironton and Rockford. The Ironton steel industry largely collapsed around 1996 after several failed bailouts.

Having thought about that, I thought about how little the first NFL players were paid to play football and had more in common with the people watching them from the grandstand.

Football players had other jobs to put food on their family’s tables. Football was a leisure pastime for weekend entertainment in a time before television and computers, but it was soon broadcast live on the radio.

Some would say Ironton fell on hard times because it could not compete in a global economy.

Others would argue the Chinese undercut the steel market with low-cost steel, such that the United States could no longer compete on an unlevel playing field.

Regardless who is right and who is wrong in the assessment of this epic failure, I must say I am uncomfortable living in a nation that lacks the ability to hammer plowshares into swords.

It leaves us defenseless. History is about to repeat itself as General Motors is to discontinue its Hummer line of vehicles.

The eco-friendly people will say, “Good riddance,” but they are missing the point. The Hummer was never intended as a family vehicle. It was intended as a military vehicle to replace the jeep.

So what is our military to do for transportation next? Will Mishawaka, Ind., become the next Ironton, Ohio, or Rockford, Ill., of our nation?

It is time we take a look at our past and how we, as a nation, became so great. It is time for us to honestly assess ourselves and realize we are now not as great. It is time to look at our vulnerabilities and where our politicians are failing us.

Our nation became great by the brains and on the backs of working men and women such as in Ironton, Rockford and Mishawaka.

Our nation did not become great by the brains and backs of millionaire sports figures engaging in a leisure activity. Few people outside the United States watch our version of football just as we do not care much for watching theirs, soccer.

All work and no play may make Jack a dull boy, but all play with no production will leave Jack a boy in another great depression.

Mark Schwendau is a college instructor and contributing writer to the Rockford Register Star, where this article was first published and has been reprinted with permission. Schwendau can be contacted at