Grange voted 28th-greatest athlete of century

Galloping Ghost scared opponents
By Larry Schwartz
Special to

In sport's Golden Age, he was football's golden boy. Red Grange was the name, though he was commonly known as The Galloping Ghost. While it's a shame they don't make nicknames like that any more, it's even more disappointing they don't make many players like the three-time All-American halfback.

 Red Grange
Red Grange was so great and popular in college that immediately after signing him as a professional, the Chicago Bears put together a grueling 19-game, 67-day barnstorming tour to make money.
"This man Red Grange of Illinois is three or four men rolled into one for football purposes," wrote Damon Runyon. "He is Jack Dempsey, Babe Ruth, Al Jolson, Paavo Nurmi and Man o' War. Put together, they spell Grange."

If you made a football movie and the star scored four touchdowns, covering an incredible 262 yards, in just 12 minutes, would anyone think it was anything but fiction? But that's what Grange accomplished against one of the best defenses in the country. That 1924 game against Michigan so inspired Grantland Rice to give Grange his nickname and write:

A streak of fire, a breath of flame
Eluding all who reach and clutch;
A gray ghost thrown into the game
That rival hands may never touch;
A rubber bounding, blasting soul
Whose destination is the goal.

Then less than a week after the remarkable No. 77 completed his college eligibility in 1925, he was breathing life into the struggling professional game. While it was a national television contract four decades later that eventually made the NFL truly major league, it was Grange who first gave the pro game legitimacy. His exhausting coast-to-coast 67-day barnstorming tour with the Chicago Bears filled stadiums and newspaper space.

Not big at 5-foot-11 and 175 pounds, his philosophy was simple: "If you have the football and 11 guys are after you, if you're smart, you'll run." And while he could run like the wind, he also could shimmy his hips like an exotic dancer, becoming as elusive as an invisible man.

"I will never have another Grange, but neither will anyone else," said Bob Zuppke, his coach at Illinois. "They can argue all they like about the greatest football player who ever lived, but I was satisfied I had him when I had Red Grange."

The storybook life of Harold (later to be called Red) Grange began on June 13, 1903 in Forksville, Pa. After his mother died when he was 5, his father Lyle, a foreman for a lumber company, moved the family to Wheaton, Ill., where four brothers had settled.

While Lyle switched professions and worked his way up to chief of police at Wheaton, his son starred in athletics. At Wheaton High School, he earned 16 letters in football, baseball, basketball and track (a four-time sprint champion).

Working summers as a helper on an ice truck enhanced his physical development. Eventually, he would be given the nickname, "The Wheaton Iceman." Despite scoring 75 touchdowns and 532 points in high school, Grange considered skipping football at Illinois and competing in basketball and track. But some fraternity brothers got Grange to change his mind with the use of a large wooden paddle.

In his first game, Grange scored three touchdowns, including a 66-yard punt return, against Nebraska in 1923. In seven games as a sophomore he ran for 723 yards (5.6 average) and scored 12 touchdowns in leading unbeaten Illinois to the consensus national championship.

Not until the Michigan game on Oct. 18, 1924, did Grange reach legendary status. He returned the opening kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown. Then he scored on runs of 67, 56 and 44 yards. All this in the first 12 minutes. The four touchdowns were as many as Michigan had allowed in the two previous seasons.

Tired, he took a rest. But he came back to run 11 yards for a fifth touchdown and passed 20 yards for a sixth score as Illinois won 39-14 to end Michigan's 20-game unbeaten streak. He totaled an amazing 402 yards -- 212 rushing, 64 passing and 126 on kickoff returns.

As a senior, in a 24-2 upset of Penn in Philadelphia, Grange rushed for a career-high 237 yards, including touchdown runs of 56 and 13 yards, through ankle-deep mud. With rumors of Grange turning pro swirling, he helped Illinois win its season-finale, 14-9 over Ohio State. In his 20-game career, he ran 388 times for 2,071 yards (5.3 average), caught 14 passes for 253 yards and completed 40 of 82 passes for 575 yards. Of his 31 touchdowns, 16 were from at least 20 yards, with nine from more than 50.

The day after the Ohio State game, Grange announced he was turning pro. C.C. Pyle, a Champaign, Ill., theater owner and promoter, negotiated an elaborate deal with Bears owner and coach George Halas in which Grange was guaranteed a reported $3,000 per game and a varying percentage of the gate.

Grange's jump to play for pay brought credibility to the pro game and shocked the collegiate world.

"I'd have been more popular with the colleges if I had joined Capone's mob in Chicago rather than the Bears," Grange said.

The Bears concocted a hybrid schedule -- part regular season, part exhibitions -- in which they played 19 games in 67 days. The first part of the frantic tour was 10 games in 18 days in the East and Midwest. After a two-week break, they played nine games in the South and West Coast. While 7,500 attended the Bears' last non-Grange game, a standing-room only crowd of 36,000 jammed into Cubs Park (now known as Wrigley Field) on a snowy Thanksgiving to see Grange's pro debut. It was reported that Halas cried while counting the receipts. Grange didn't do much in a 0-0 tie with the Chicago Cardinals.

While some games drew fewer than five figures, others attracted amazing crowds, such as the more than 65,000 that attended in New York and Los Angeles. Grange played in 17 games (injury kept him out of the other two), and when the tour ended on Jan. 31, 1926, he went home to Wheaten weary but wealthy, driving a new $5,500 Lincoln and wearing a $500 raccoon coat. Pyle also made his client richer by getting him several lucrative endorsement deals.

When a bid by Grange and Pyle to buy a piece of the Bears was rejected by Halas, the two formed their own league, the American Football League, in 1926, with Grange playing for the New York Yankees. The league folded after a year. The Yankees, though, joined the NFL, but in the third game of the 1927 season, Grange suffered such a severe knee injury that he never was the same dashing runner he had been.

After missing the 1928 season, he returned with the Bears in 1929 and played six more years, becoming more valuable as a defensive back than as a running back in this era of one-platoon football. In the NFL's first championship game in 1933, his touchdown-saving tackle late in the fourth quarter preserved the Bears' 23-21 victory over the New York Giants.

In the 1920s, Grange made two films and a movie serial, called "The Galloping Ghost." After his retirement, he made money in the insurance business. Later, he became an analyst on Bears games for 14 years until 1963 and on network television college games. A charter member of both the College Football Hall of Fame and Pro Football Hall of Fame, he died at age 87 of pneumonia on Jan. 28, 1991 in Lakes Wales, Fla.

About his success as a football player, Grange had said, "They built my accomplishments way out of proportion. I never got the idea that I was a tremendous big shot. I could carry a football well, but there are a lot of doctors and teachers and engineers who could do their thing better than I."