Red Grange (1903-1991) made football history as one of the most remarkable amateur and professional gridiron athletes of all. He was called "The Galloping Ghost," and it was his presence that brought pro football from the sandlots to the big time.
Harold Edward "Red" Grange was born on June 13, 1903 in Forksville, a village of about 200 people in an area of Pennsylvania lumber camps. He was the third child of Sadie and Lyle Grange, a lumber camp foreman. Grange was only five years old when his mother died. A few months later the family moved to Wheaton, Illinois, the home of his father's family. Grange's father opened a moving business. For a number of years, the Grange family lived with relatives until they could finally afford a home of their own. The main recreation of Grange and his friends was playing football in vacant lots around town, and basketball in converted barns. Although his doctor warned that he had a heart murmur, sports became the major part of young Grange's life.
Grange was a star player during his high school days at Wheaton Community High School, where he became known as the "Wheaton Ice Man." By then his father had become the local policeman, and the family was well settled. In his final high school game for the DuPage County championship against Downers Grove, Grange scored forty-five points. It is a single player record that still stands in high school championship games.
In Grange's senior year of high school, his team finally lost a game 39-0 to the powerful Scott High School in Toledo, Ohio. Part of the reason may have been that Grange was knocked unconscious during the game, and he remained so for the next two days. He had difficulty speaking for a time after that injury. This was the only time that Grange was ever seriously injured in a high school football game, despite the many hard tackles he received during those years.
Grange attended college at the University of Illinois, but decided not to play football. A four-letter sports star in high school, he considered either baseball or basketball to be his best way to earn a varsity letter in college. In 1922, when the call went out for freshmen football candidates to report to the field for practice, Grange didn't even answer. He admitted to friends that the other players were simply too big. Grange was not a large man by football standards. He weighed around 180 pounds during his career, and stood about five feet, ten inches tall. It was his Zeta Psi fraternity brothers who convinced him to try out for the team. He was placed on the first team after his coach saw him play.
Illinois was undefeated in its 1923 season, with Grange leading the team. Before the end of the year, he was named an All American and he was known across America. Grange is credited with the wave of interest Americans began to show in football. Until that time, the game had been generally ignored by all but students. Baseball was the national sport, and all other games were only important on the campuses where they were played. But when Grange began to play football, millions of Americans started following Illinois or their own area college teams. With his almost impossible runs on the field, Grange inspired people to take an interest in his game.
In 1922, the Illinois football program had been a disaster. The following year, with Grange on the team, it was undefeated. The team was named co-champion of the Big Ten. Grange continued this dominance of football through his entire college career.
The University of Michigan was the tough opponent for the University of Illinois in October 1924. The Michigan Wolverines were going for the National Championship. Illinois players knew they had a difficult job ahead of them if they expected to win. The team was playing their first game in the brand new University of Illinois Memorial Stadium. It was dedication day for the largest campus stadium in college sports, so local fans wanted a victory desperately. Illinois had lost its last game, and Michigan was undefeated, very skilled, and a big favorite to win.
When Michigan kicked off to start the game, Grange magically zigged and zagged and dodged, carrying the ball all the way back for a touchdown. The crowd in the huge stadium roared their approval. On the very next offensive play, Grange ran for a 67-yard touchdown. On his next carry, he ran 56 yards for yet another touchdown. He scored the three touchdowns in less than seven minutes against the powerful Michigan defense. Before the game was over, Grange ran back another kickoff for yet another touch down. He scored five touchdowns in all. Illinois won the game by a lopsided score of 39 to 14.
Grange was destined to become football's number one celebrity and to blaze his way into football history. Writing about the game that October day, famed sportswriter Grantland Rice called Grange a "whirling dervish runner," and named him "The Galloping Ghost." It was a nickname that remained with Grange for the rest of his life, and was eventually emblazoned in the Professional Football Hall of Fame.
Jerry Liska, an Associated Press reporter, wrote in his book Sports Immortals, "The autumn wind still whistles shrilly through cavernous Memorial Stadium at the University of Illinois, as if in perpetual tribute to college football's legendary Galloping Ghost."
Professional football was a generally unpleasant sandlot game with few fans in 1925. The teams were part of what was called the National Football League, but the league was only four years old and barely drawing any fans to watch their games. Pro football was a game of ex-high school and college players, and a few walk-ons, men who either loved the game with a passion or who could do little else with their lives.
Grange signed a contract with the Chicago Bears the day after his last college game. The team was under the direction of player/manager George Halas, who knew a gold mine when he saw it. To the great disbelief of almost everyone in football, he agreed to pay Grange the staggering sum of one hundred thousand dollars a year and a share of the gate receipts. At this time, most professional football players were being paid 25 to 100 dollars a game, and the top stars were getting about five thousand dollars.
Halas quickly set up a tour, in order for the Bears to take advantage of Grange's name recognition. The tour made transformed professional football into a major sport. Everywhere the team played, they drew huge crowds. Grange drew an astounding sixty five thousand people to the Polo Grounds in New York with his amazing broken-field running. Later that same year, the Bears played to a record seventy five thousand people in the Los Angeles Coliseum. People came to see Grange, and he never disappointed them. He was best at running the ball, but he was also great at passing, kicking, and on defense.
Liska, in an Associated Press story, called Grange "a picture of grace, balance and speed, the epitome of gridiron greatness, a Golden Twenties" athletic peer of Babe Ruth's, Jack Dempsey's, Bobby Jones's and Bill Tildon's. Grange, whose magic name turned pro football from an ugly duckling to a present-day gilded and plush bird of paradise, will be remembered as long as football is played in America."
He played with the Chicago Bears most of his career, but also spent a brief time with the New York Yankees football team, after helping to form the American Football League. He was in the spotlight wherever he played, even as his career was winding down. One of the last times he carried the ball for the Chicago Bears, he reversed and headed for the weak side of the line. A New York Giant lineman yelled loudly back at his linebackers, "Look out! There goes the old man!"
He was right, for 32 year old Grange swivel-hipped around every younger player in the Giants backfield and ran 63 yards, all the way to the twenty-yard line before a faster runner finally stopped him. By then it was apparent, however, that age and recent injuries were taking their toll. Grange had missed the entire 1927 season due to an injury.
When Grange retired from professional football in 1934, he became a well-known radio and television sports-caster, generally for the Chicago Bears. Grange also earned a good income from vaudeville and movie appearances. He was enshrined as a charter member in the Professional Football Hall of Fame in 1963. Grange spent his retirement years with his wife in Lake Wales, Florida. He died on January 28, 1991 in Lake Wales, at the age of 87. Most considered him to be not only one of the greatest players in history, but the man who established professional football as a fan attraction.
Grantland Rice wrote a flowery poem of tribute to Grange: "A streak of fire, a breath of flame, a gray ghost thrown into the game. Eluding all who reach and clutch; That rival hands may never touch; A rubber bounding, blasting soul, whose destination is the goal. Red Grange of Illinois!"
Grange changed the face of American sports, especially the game of football. He carried the ball 4,013 times as a high school, college, and professional football player, gaining 33,820 yards or over nineteen miles. This is an amazing 8.4 yards per carry. He scored a total of 2,365 points in 247 games.
About Harold "Red" Grange, http://www.wheaton.edu/learnres/arcsc/collects/sc20/bio.htm
Encarta Encyclopedia, http://www.encarta.com/find/Concise.asp?z=1&pg=2&ti=05948000&o=1
Professional Football Hall of Fame, http://www.profootballhof.com/enshrinees/grange.html