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PRO FOOTBALL ON A SHOESTRING
Harold Peterson
December 16, 1968
Wheeling loves its Ironmen of the Continental League, but love isn't money, so the team must make do with a subterranean office and a field borrowed from local high schools
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December 16, 1968

Pro Football On A Shoestring

Wheeling loves its Ironmen of the Continental League, but love isn't money, so the team must make do with a subterranean office and a field borrowed from local high schools

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Let us pause to consider West Virginia, Appalachia's Vale of Kashmir, where washing machines still grace the porches of the Architecture Anonymous houses and junk jalopies still garnish the gardens. West Virginia is Mona's Lunch, the best restaurant in Greenwood. Mona's Lunch is the front rooms of a tongue-and-groove bungalow. Its decor is flowered wallpaper covered with Saran Wrap and No Swearing signs, its menu is creamed beef on biscuits and its clientele runs to aging permanent-waved ladies in garish pants, singing along and dancing to jukebox country and western.

Let us consider Wheeling, its wealthiest city. Wheeling has so much more to offer than it gets credit for. Where but in Greater Wheeling could you find the World's Tallest Smokestack? ("A Landmark," the Wheeling News-Register correctly describes it under a front-page picture of the region's civic monument, "322 feet taller than the Eiffel Tower.") Where but in Wheeling, and the whole lush Ohio Valley, would you find such a lavish per capita production of steel, chemicals, strip-mined coal, cement dust, smog and slag? Where but in Wheeling would you find the smallest city in the nation to support a professional football team? Where but in Wheeling could you find the Ohio Valley Ironmen of the Continental Football League?

Wheeling, clearly, is just the sort of place to clasp a minor league pro football team called the Ironmen to its rusty tin heart. And Wheeling does love its Ironmen, no mistake about that. The Ironmen have had two leagues dissolve around them and have survived a two-season-long, 18-game losing streak and, one year, rain in five of seven home dates. Yet they live on, the only minor league team in the country to have persevered in the same city under the same ownership for as long as six years.

The Ironmen are representative of the whole Continental League, football on the wrong side of the tracks. To avoid the competition of high school, college and major league football, the season begins in August and ends in November. For the same reason, most games are held Sunday evenings. The Ironmen play at the south end of Wheeling Island, formerly the swellest place in town, now a respectable residential area where beer joints are making incursions. They use a high school stadium, and the terms of their tenancy establish their status. The Ohio Valley Professional Athletic Association, Inc. rents Wheeling Island Stadium for $350 per season, and it is welcome to the premises anytime the high schools aren't either playing or practicing.

Yet the Ironmen represent more than professional penury. In their own way they are the Packers in Green Bay, a breath of the big time in a small city, a wellspring of civic chauvinism. Quarterback Ed Chlebek makes about $74,000 less than Bart Starr, but when he walks down Main Street or Market Street in Wheeling heads turn and hands shoot out. There are friendly shouts. In the space of one block, team Publicity Man Dave Cochran—a young Irishman happy to get back to Wheeling after Air Force hitches in Mountain Home, Idaho and Thule, Greenland—can yell greetings into a men's store where Running Back Clyde Thomas works, point out Halfback John Sykes and his pig-tailed daughters, shake hands with club Vice-President Harry Robbin and bump into Coach Lou Blumling. Expressing skepticism about the Ironmen can get you thrown out of the Embassy Restaurant or punched at Kelly Mike's Sports Center in nearby Martins Ferry. More than a thousand fans attended one preseason training session up at West Liberty (a former NFL camp), and 500 once stood through a cold drenching rain to watch another. More than 950 Ohio Valleyans own one or more shares of Ironmen stock. When it looked as if the Ironmen would fold two years ago, whole families came to the club's basement headquarters in tears, and little kids brought in piggy banks.

"Pride of ownership is what does it," says Mike Valan, an industrial painting contractor who is president of the football club and who doubles as general manager to save it one salary. "There are a lot of people who are proud of living in this valley. We think we've got the nicest place in the world to live. Hell, we don't think it, we know it.

"I think we serve a need. You can get anything you want in Pittsburgh, and it's only 60 miles away. But if the average millworker wants to take his wife and family to Pittsburgh to see a Steeler game, he has to pay for gas, restaurant and maybe even motel. That runs into big money. He can get his thrills here a lot cheaper."

But sense of ownership can sometimes get out of hand. "I get crazy phone calls at all times of night," Valan complains. "And letters. There are always diagrams of plays we ought to use, and I suspect we should've fired at least 15,000 coaches. I was even attacked by a woman once. She came out of the stands, ripped my shirt and clawed me."

The Ironmen, as is true of all Continental League teams, work on a poor man's budget. The league allows a maximum salary of $200 per game per player, the total of the entire team's salaries not to exceed $5,000 per game. Last year Wheeling's budget was $270,000, and the team lost $90,000.

"It's always tight," Valan says. "You have to remember you're minor league and not get caught up in big-city dreams about a third major league and television contracts with a fourth network. This year we tried to be realistic and get along with $175,000, which we cannot. But we do have our first chance to break even this season. When I say break even, I mean lose only a few thousand bucks. That's breaking even."

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