For a dozen players from Lawrence County, they have lived the dream of making The League.
The National Football League, that is.
The tradition can be dated back to 1930 when Glenn Presnell led the semi-pro Ironton Tanks to wins over the NFL’s New York Giants and Chicago Bears in a three-week span.
However, Presnell was from Nebraska where he had been an All-American first team running back in 1927 as he led the nation in rushing his senior season.
He accepted a job offer from Nick “Scubby” McMahon to play for the Tanks in 1928 and was given a job teaching science at Ironton High School and coaching the Russell (Ky.) football team.
When the Tanks folded after the 1930 season due to the Great Depression, Presnell joined the Portsmouth Spartans who became members of the NFL. When the Spartans were sold to a radio station owner in Detroit, he not only played quarterback and safety for the Lions but led the league in scoring as he helped Detroit win its first NFL championship in 1935.
It was Presnell and his wife who selected the famous Honolulu blue and silver team colors still worn by the Lions today.
Presnell — who lived to be 99 years old — coached at Nebraska, Kansas and North Carolina Pre-Flight before coaching at Eastern Kentucky and became the athletic director from 1963-71. When he retired, he returned to Ironton which became his hometown.
It was long after Presnell retired after the 1936 season that the NFL talent from Lawrence County began to develop.
When it comes to Ironton and the Tri-State area, George McAfee could be crowned The Greatest with little argument.
McAfee led Ironton to an unbeaten season in 1935 as the Tigers outscored opponents 264-24 and was named All-Ohio.
McAfee signed with Duke University and the Blue Devils were 24-4-1 during his three seasons since freshmen were not allowed to play varsity until the 1970s.
George was a first team All-American his senior season at Duke. During his junior year, Duke was unbeaten and unscored upon until losing 7-3 to Southern Cal in the Rose Bowl.
He easily won the 100-yard dash in the Southern Conference track meet and hit .353 as a centerfielder for the baseball team during his senior year.
George had four of his prime NFL years erased because of military service during World War II. A 1939 All-American at Duke, he was the second overall pick in the 1940 draft and played the 1940-41 seasons before entering the Navy.
The 6-foot, 165-pounder returned in 1945 and played six more seasons.
George had explosive speed. He was clocked at 9.7 seconds in the 100-yard dash which is between 10.4 and 10.7 seconds in the 100 meters.
George finished his career with 5,313 all-purpose yards with 1,685 yards rushing, 21 touchdowns, 1,359 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns, four kick returns for TDs and 25 interceptions in eight seasons.
He led the league in punt return average in 1948 and still holds the NFL record for career punt return average with 12.78 yards for anyone with a minimum of 75 returns.
Called the best running back Chicago Bears George Halas ever coached, McAfee was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1966.
The younger brother of George, Wes followed his brother from Ironton High School to Duke University.
After he graduated from Duke, the 5-11, 175-pound versatile Wes was drafted in 1941 as a 16th round pick — No. 142 overall — by the Pittsburgh Steelers but played for the Philadelphia Eagles that season.
Wes appeared in eight games, carried nine times for 6 yards, caught three passes for 30 yards and a touchdown, completed a 4-yard pass, kicked two extra points, punted once for 32 yards, returned three punts for 21 yards and ran back two kickoffs for a total of 64 yards.
Wes played just one season in the NFL but hooked up with his brother George in 1950 as they began the McAfee Oil Company, a Shell Oil distributing company, in Durham, N.C. They ran the company for 30 years and then sold it.
Dick “Meat” Boykin
Before anyone ever heard of high school players going straight to the NBA or Maurice Clarett challenging the college rule to leave early for the NFL, Dick “Meat” Boykin showed the talent and strength to bypass the college ranks and go to the NFL.
Boykin has to be listed with players like George McAfee, Woody Hall, Bobby Brice and Jermon Jackson as the best running backs in Ironton history.
During the 1940s when Boykin played at Ironton, black players were not allowed to play in Kentucky since the state was segregated. Boykin did not play at Ashland as a junior but did his senior season when Ashland came to Ironton.
Fred Anson – whose wife is the former Rose Dressel — remembered playing against Boykin. Anson was not very big but he was an outstanding three-sport athlete in football, basketball and track for the Tomcats. He played all three sports for Virginia Military Academy.
Anson said he came up to tackle Boykin but was knocked unconscious. He said all he remembered was regaining consciousness and looking into the blurry lights of Tanks Memorial Stadium.
“I was never hit so hard in my entire life than when I tried to tackle Meat Boykin,” Anson said.
Indiana head coach Bo McMillan had signed Boykin to play for the Hoosiers. However, McMillan was hired as head coach for the Detroit Lions and told Boykin he was wasting his time in college and could play immediately for him in Detroit.
It was an amazing offer and opportunity for Boykin who signed a $4,000 contract, the equivalent of almost $43,000 in 2020.
Unfortunately, Boykin suffered a knee injury halfway through his rookie season that ended his career.
He did come back to Ironton and played for the Ironton Bengals from 1948-49 only cut his hand working for the Andy Washington Glass Company and could no longer grip a football. He then began working at Dayton Malleable.
Fields was one of the best athletes to play in Lawrence County. He was all-county in 1953 and led the Hornets to the first Ohio Valley Conference championship in 1954. He was All-Ohio in 1954 and 1955 along with all-conference. He was named to the North/South All-Star Game in 1955.
The Coal Grove standout was signed by Woody Hayes to play for Ohio State and play he did.
Fields was a three-year starter as he played both quarterback and linebacker. He also handled the punting for the Buckeyes. In fact, he once had a 70-yard punt during a 20-14 win over Michigan in 1958.
In that game, The Buckeyes were down 14-6 when Fields hit Jim Herbstreit — father of former OSU quarterback and ESPN analyst Kirk — with a 25-yard touchdown pass to make it 14-12 with 1:47 left in the first half.
Ohio State took the lead in the game with an 80-yard, 11-play drive with Fields hitting Don Clark with a 25-yard passed to the Michigan 34 that proved to be the key play in the drive.
Dick LeBeau, Bob White and Fields took turns on six rushing plays with White going the final 6 yards for the touchdown.
Fields then faked the extra point and ran for the conversion.
In 1959, Fields ran 69 times for 156 yards while completing 20-of-53 passes for 260 yards and a touchdown as Ohio State beat Michigan again.
After his distinguished career at Ohio State, the 6-foot-1, 222-pound Fields was drafted in the 13th round of the NFL draft by the New York Giants in 1961. He appeared to have made the team only to suffer a knee injury and was cut.
Although he failed to make the cut with the Giants, Fields was signed by the New York Titans — now the Jets — and played in the American Football League in 1961-62. He then signed with the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League in 1963 as a quarterback and linebacker and played in 13 of the team’s 14 games during the 1964 season.
Maybe the most remarkable story belongs to Lander McCoy “Coy” Bacon who was best friends and teammate at Ironton High School with Danny Pride who also made the NFL.
Bacon went to Jackson State with Pride but left school and signed with the Houston Oilers in 1964.
However, the Oilers discovered that Bacon did not graduate from college and made the mistake of releasing him from the team.
Bacon agreed to play for the Charleston (W.Va.) Rockets of the Continental Football League in 1965 where a Dallas Cowboys scout saw him and signed Bacon as an undrafted free agent. He spent the 1967 season on the Cowboys’ taxi squad, aka practice team.
And how good was Bacon? The Los Angeles Rams traded a fifth-round draft pick for the Dallas practice player in 1968 and he became a backup for the famous Fearsome Foursome defensive line that included David “Deacon” Jones, Merlin Olsen, Roger Brown and Lamar Lundy.
Jones and Olsen were later inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Brown was injured in 1969 and Bacon took over the right defensive tackle spot. When Lundy retired in 1970, Bacon moved to right defensive end and the next three seasons began to blossom.
Bacon had 11 sacks in 1971 and was second team All-Pro. He was voted the Rams Defensive Lineman of the Year in both 1971-72 and was second team All-Pro again in 1972.
The Rams needed a quarterback and dealt Bacon to San Diego in 1973 along with running back Bob Thomas for All-Pro quarterback John Hadl. It was during that season Bacon scored his only career touchdown when he returned an interception 80 yards for the score.
San Diego needed a wide receiver and traded Bacon to the Cincinnati Bengals for future Hall of Famer Charlie Joiner in 1976.
Bacon racked up a record 26 sacks that season only to have the NFL reduce the number to 21 and a half. This was prior to the NFL recognizing sacks as an official statistic.
Bacon was named to the Pro Bowl, was a second team All-Pro selection and the team MVP.
The Bengals traded Bacon and defensive back Lemar Parrish to the Washington Redskins in 1978 for a first-round draft pick. Despite nearing the age of 40, Bacon had 15 sacks in 1979 and 11 more the following season.
He finished his career with the Washington Federals of the upstart USFL in 1983. He started 16 of 18 games and had seven sacks and 62 tackles.
Bacon is a member of the Kentucky Pro Football Hall of Fame and the American Football Association Semi-Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Pride played on an Ironton team in 1960 that featured him, Bacon, Jim Wipert and Bill Morgan, the latter two who went to Iowa State to play linebacker.
Pride played at Jackson State in 1961 and then Tennessee State from 1962-65. The 6-foot-3, 225-pound linebacker was a 10th round draft pick — No. 89 overall — by the 1966 San Diego Chargers.
San Diego had expected to lose all four linebackers because they had been injured the previous year. But they all returned healthy and Pride was placed on the practice squad and then waived at the end of the season.
The Chicago Bears signed him and put him on their taxi squad in 1967 and the first part of 1968. He was then activated for the final three games.
With riots in nearby Joliet, Illinois, members of the Bears were part of the National Guard and were called up for service, thus opening up a chance for Pride to play extensively when the Bears scrimmaged the college all-star team. Pride was able to impress the Bears’ coaches so much during his extra playing time that he not only made the roster but earned a starting job.
Starting next to future Hall of Fame linebacker Dick Butkus, Pride played well but his season was short-lived. He heard a pop and felt his ACL tear in the third game of the season at New York. Since medical treatment for knee injuries were very limited at that time, Pride’s NFL career was finished.
He did play for the Indianapolis Capitals in the ACFL in 1970 and the Southern California Sun of the WFL in 1974. He remained in California where he worked for the Parks and Water Department and coached for more than 30 years before returning to Ironton.
In 1980, Ohio State Buckeye senior teammates and friends Ernie Andrea, Tommy Waugh, Bill Jaco and Jim Laughlin came to Ironton with Ken Fritz and played a benefit basketball game.
After the game the group convened at the home of Ironton athletic director Mike Burcham for food, drink and stories.
The 6-foot-6, 256-pound Jaco was from Toledo St. Francis and was asked privately by someone just how tough was Fritz. Yes, Ironton fans loved Fritz and were prejudiced in their opinions so the idea was Jaco would give an unbiased assessment.
“I’m a redshirt senior so I’ve been at Ohio State for five years,” said Jaco. “In my five years, there has never been a meaner, tougher S.O.B. walk the practice field on both sides of the ball. No one messed with Kenny Fritz.”
That was Fritz in a nutshell. Hard-working, super strong, tough, aggressive, nasty, driven. He didn’t want to hit you. He wanted to hurt you.
Those qualities helped Fritz become the Associated Press Class AA Lineman of the Year in 1975 for Ironton. A three-year letterman who played in the 1973 state title game, Fritz also wrestled his way to the state tournament his senior and set new records in the shot put and discus.
At the state wrestling tournament, Ohio State coach Woody Hayes put his chair next to the mat to watch Fritz go against the three-time heavyweight state champion who was headed for Iowa.
Fritz picked his opponent up and slammed him to the mat. An illegal move that cost him a minus-2 points. Fritz lost the match 3-2 and someone made a comment to Hayes about Fritz losing.
“I don’t want him to come here to wrestle. I’m bringing him here to play football and I like what I see,” said Hayes.
Fritz began on defense and Hayes called him “the red tornado.” He was moved to offense where he was a three-year starter at right guard and became the Buckeyes’ first two-time captain. He was all-conference and a two-time first team All-American.
Fritz helped lead the Buckeyes to the Big Ten championship and an 11-0 record in 1979. Ohio State played Southern Cal (10-0-1) in the Rose Bowl and lost 17-16.
The Buckeyes led 16-10 only to have Heisman Trophy winner Charles White lead an 83-yard scoring drive with 1:32 left for the win.
None of that really mattered to the NFL scouts who saw Fritz as a 6-3, 235-pound player with little growth potential. He was too light and he slipped from a projected fourth or fifth round pick to the 10th round.
To make matters worse, he was drafted by the Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers who had their entire offensive line returning. No matter how hard Fritz worked in practice and how much better he played than the veterans, he was destined for a backup role which went against what he was always taught that the best players play.
Fritz elected to leave camp for his wife Terri and new baby boy Kenny back in Columbus. He got a job selling insurance and made that his career.
Bill Poe moved from Ironton St. Joseph to Rock Hill High School where he became an outstanding lineman for the Redmen.
He signed with Morehead State when the Eagles were an NCAA Division I-AA program and was a four-year letterman. He is regarded as one of the finest offensive linemen to play for Morehead State and was an All-American in 1986.
Poe was a Sporting News preseason All-American on two separate occasions and was a two-time All-Ohio Valley Conference selection at MSU. He was inducted into the Morehead State Hall of Fame.
Poe was all-conference, all-district and All-Ohio for Rock Hill and the team’s Most Valuable Player his senior season. He also lettered in basketball and track.
He played three games with the Cincinnati Bengals in 1987 as a replacement player during the NFL strike. He then played in the Arena Football League for several seasons.
The 6-1, 175-pounder signed with Ohio University where he shuffled back-and-forth between defensive back and wide receiver. He even won the Mid-American Conference indoor high jump championship as a sophomore with a leap of 7-feet.
Taylor spent his final season at NAIA Georgetown College before signing a free agent contract with the Green Bay Packers.
As a safety at Ohio, Taylor stared three games in 2001 and had 66 tackles. He started four games as a split end his freshman season and caught eight passes for 90 yards.
With Georgetown, he played on both sides of the ball but mostly as a wingback on offense as he rushed 41 times for 258 yards and two touchdowns while catching 13 passes for 100 yards and a score.
He also returned five kickoffs for 118 yards while making six tackles on defense.
The Packers signed Taylor as a safety and cornerback. Taylor — who was now 6-1, 220 — had 4.33-second speed in the 40-yard dash.
After one week of training camp, Taylor was released by the Packers and were looking to place him placed on an NFL Europe roster to help develop his skills.
However, Taylor signed with the New York Jets who were impressed with his speed and athleticism at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis and wanted him as a cornerback, but he suffered a knee injury and was released.
Taylor was a first team wide receiver for Ironton in 1998 after being special mention in 1997.
The 5-11, 200-pound Ironton defensive back and running back signed with Michigan State and was a four-year starter. Although he played strong safety, Harmon led the Spartans in tackles one season and was fourth in another. He recorded double digit tackles in a game 10 times in his career.
Harmon was a two-time All-Big Ten honorable mention selection.
He signed with the Chicago Bears as a free agent in 2004 and remained with the team until the final cut.
Harmon then played two seasons with Colorado and two seasons with Dallas in the top Arena Football League and then spent one season each with the Berlin Thunder and Frankfurt Galaxy of the NFL Europe.
Harmon was a second team All-Ohio defensive back in 1997 and 1998 and then first team in 1999 when Ironton finished as Division 4 state runners-up.
Harmon was a three-sport standout, lettering in football, basketball and track.
He was the Southeast District Defensive Player of the Year as a junior and the Offensive Player of the Year as a senior.
The 5-11-, 255-pound Whaley passed on offers from some other schools and got a walk-on invitation from Ohio State and battled for a starting job his sophomore season at center despite being a non-scholarship player.
He earned a scholarship his junior year and as a senior shifted to fullback where he shared the starting job with Dionte Johnson. The Buckeyes won the Big Ten and Whaley played in the BCS National Championship game against Florida.
After he excelled at the Ohio State pro day, Whaley signed a two-year contract with a bonus immediately after the April NFL draft as a free agent fullback and went through a two-a-day workout during a two-day minicamp. He also went through the OTAs and then returned for the Bengals’ training camp on July 27.
With four fullbacks on the roster including returning veterans Jeremi Johnson and Daniel Coats, Whaley worked his way up from fourth on the depth chart to third. He lasted 10 days before being released due to a numbers game.
The Bengals planned to keep three fullbacks and first-round pick Keith Rivers was signed forcing the Bengals to make the tough decision.
Whaley was a three-year starter for Ironton and was named first team All-Ohio in 2002. Ironton was 29-6 during the three seasons including three playoff berths and the Associated Press poll championship his 2001 junior season.
The story has been started but the script is still waiting for an ending. And as far as Austen Pleasants is concerned, he hopes it is a long, long story.
The former Ohio University and Coal Grove Hornets’ offensive tackle realized his NFL dream when the 6-foot-7, 320-pounder signed a free agent contract with the Jacksonville Jaguars following the 2020 NFL draft.
Now, Pleasants is working out in preparation for training camp and the opportunity to land a spot on an NFL roster.
As a freshman in 2016, Pleasants made his collegiate debut in a 37-21 win over Gardner-Webb on Sept. 24.
At Coal Grove, Pleasants was a four-year started in football and he also lettered four times in both track and basketball.
At Ohio, Pleasants was a member of the National Honor Society and majored in physical activity and sport coaching.
He was a three-time first team All-OVC selection and was a Southeast Ohio All-District first team selection as a junior and senior, earning All-Ohio honors each season. He was a key player in three Ohio Valley Conference championships and the 2012 postseason playoff appearance.