The beauty of the place is that time has passed it by. Martins Ferry, Ohio, and its sister villages on the banks of the broad and murky Ohio River have the look and feel of 19th-century mill towns, which is exactly what they were. The houses are built of wood, with peaked roofs and grand porches, and the best ones look as if they will stand forever. The others are tumbledown and grimy and so fragile in their decay that it seems a brisk wind might turn them to rubble. But they, too, have somehow withstood the ravages of the decades. A clapboard sign outside one of these teetering structures informs visitors that here stands: MULBERRY INN, BUILT 1868.
Actually, most of Martins Ferry looks as if it were built in 1868, except, of course, for the old Walnut Grove Cemetery at the foot of Fourth Street, where 18th-century gravestones mark the remains of the earliest settlers. Martins Ferry, on the eastern border of Ohio, claims to be the Buckeye State's oldest settlement. This was where surveyor Absalom Martin first marked off the boundaries of a town he called Jefferson. But Absalom left the new town soon after, and it remained for his son, Ebenezer, who transported sheep, hogs and cattle across the river on his ferry, to give it a lasting name, sans apostrophe.
The town is built in layers on steep hills that rise from the riverbank flat-lands where once-mighty steel mills throbbed and clanged night and day. This has long been steel mill and coal mine country. These are tough towns along the Ohio, places where immigrants worked long hours at backbreaking and lung-choking jobs above and beneath the ground. Most of the mines are closed now, the mills mostly shut down, and the towns are suffering from their inactivity. According to the Ohio Bureau of Employment Services, the unemployment rate in Belmont County, which includes, among other towns, Martins Ferry, Bellaire, Bridgeport and Lansing, is at about 11%, as compared with 6.3% for the state and 5.4% for the nation. And the population is declining. Martins Ferry, which held fast at nearly 15,000 for the better part of three decades, is to less than 9,000 now, and it is estimated that the county has lost 7,000 people since the 1980 census counted 82,000. "There is nothing for a young person to do here anymore," say the older folks.
In fact, there never was much for a young person to do in the Upper Ohio Valley—"the Valley" to those who live there—except dig coal or work in the mills. And yet this unforgiving land has raised an astonishing number of top athletes, a number out of all proportion to its population. Old-time Pro Football Hall of Famer Clarke Hinkle was a Valley boy. So were Bob Gain and Calvin Jones, Outland Trophy winners as the nation's best college linemen in 1950 and 1955. Chuck Howley, the Dallas linebacker who is the only member of a losing team to have ever won the Super Bowl MVP award, was another one. Bill Jobko ( Ohio State) and Bob Jeter ( Iowa), both of whom played in the Rose Bowl and later starred in the NFL, were Valley boys. Gene Freese, a big league infielder for many years, was one. And so was Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz.
But there are six Valley boys who stand above the rest, giants in their sports. Two of them are already Hall of Famers; a third has only to wait his requisite five years for induction; and a fourth, grievously overlooked in the past, may yet get his just due. Another would surely have made the Hall of Fame of his sport were it not for one terrible mistake in his life. The sixth, until early this month, was still playing. There are two brother combinations in this distinguished group, and all six grew up within seven miles of one another. Four, in fact, were born in Martins Ferry, and though three different high schools are involved, the schools are only minutes apart by car. Two were teammates and best friends. They all came from immigrant mining families, and they were raised, by today's standards, in primitive circumstances. There were no fast cars in this crowd. No televisions. No rock concerts. Nor, for many years, indoor plumbing. And yet there is not one of them who would trade away the gift of his childhood. They are the pride of the Valley. And they, better than any, reveal the source of its indomitable spirit.
Lou Groza had one of the most remarkable careers in the history of professional football. A three-sport star and an honors student at Martins Ferry High, class of '42, he was recruited by Paul Brown to play football at Ohio State. He played exactly three games for the Buckeye freshman team and then his Army reserve unit was called to active duty. He spent most of the next three years serving with a medical unit in the South Pacific and played no service football. But when Brown became the coach of the new Cleveland Browns of the All-America Conference, he remembered Groza and mailed him a contract. Groza received it on Okinawa, and though he had every intention of returning to Ohio State, the money—$7,500 for the '46 season—and the lure of playing for Brown proved persuasive. Groza was not yet 21, but he signed. He was discharged from the Army in February '46 and reported to the Browns' camp at Bowling Green, Ohio, in July, wearing Army fatigues and carrying all his earthly possessions in a duffel bag.
With no college varsity experience, Groza was obliged to compete with seasoned college, service and professional linemen. But he made the team as a reserve tackle and as a placekicker who could boom kickoffs out of the end zone and hit field goals from as far away as 50 yards. In 1948 he became the starting offensive left tackle for the Browns, and he played there for 12 years before a back injury forced him into temporary retirement in 1960. He returned to the team the following season, strictly as a kicker, and played another seven years before retiring for good in 1968 at age 44. When he quit, Groza was the leading scorer in professional football history, with 1,608 points, and he still ranks third, behind only George Blanda and Jan Stenerud. His extraordinary prowess as a kicker has pretty much obscured the fact that for many years he was one of the finest offensive tackles in the league, All-NFL six times and the league's Player of the Year in 1954. In '74 he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And while he was playing, he fulfilled a pledge to his Hungarian-born parents and earned a degree from Ohio State, in '49. He is 64 now, and he has his own business, Insurance Counsellors, Inc., in Cleveland. He and his wife of 38 years, Jackie Lou, herself a Martins Ferry girl, have four grown children and seven grandchildren.
The Grozas live in a fine brick house in suburban Berea. Lou is massive now, dieting steadfastly to keep his weight to something under 300 pounds. He has a big, slightly nasal voice and a bluff, friendly manner. He and his younger brother, Alex, survive their parents and two older brothers.
"We grew up across the street from the steel mill in Martins Ferry," Lou says. "We lived above my dad's tavern, and we all took turns working there. I was big for my age, so I always played with the older kids. We played tackle, without pads, on a place along the river called Mill Field. They dumped ash from the blast furnaces right next to it, at the cinder dump, so it was always dusty there. There was no grass, and when the river would rise the field would first get muddy, then dry and cracked. We'd be filthy after a game, then we'd dive into the river to wash off, and go home. My brother Frank kicked in high school, and he taught me the mechanics of it when I was just a little kid. Pretty soon I was able to kick it over the telephone wires. In high school, I could kick it over a wall about 50 feet beyond the goalposts at one end and over a fence and onto the railroad tracks at the other. I wanted to play fullback at first, until I realized the guy with the ball always attracted a crowd, so I switched to left tackle, and that's where I played my whole career.
"They called Alex and me Dot and Dash, because my dad was known as Big Spot. He was about 6'4" and maybe 325. People were always talking about going down to Big Spot's—although our tavern was called Groza's. My dad played baseball when he worked in the mines, and though he never said anything to us about it, he was supposed to have been a big hitter. Both of my older brothers were high school athletes, and in our family it was just expected that you would play. Each brother, as he came along, was expected to follow the last. When I look back I think how fortunate we were to have had athletics. Alex and I were even more fortunate to get into the big time. You wonder sometimes how these things happen, because for us, nothing was planned.