Like many athletes of the era, Harold (Red) Grange began his life with meager beginnings. In 1903 he was one of five children born in the small town of Forksville, Pennsylvania where his father supported the family by working in local lumber camps.
According to Benjamin Rader in American Sports, Grange's mother died when he was five years old and his father moved the family to Wheaton, Illinois, a town on the outskirts of Chicago. Shortly after they got there, the elder Grange decided he couldn't raise his three daughters without a mother and sent them back to Pennsylvania to live with his wife's relatives.
When he got older and began playing football Grange would lug ice in Wheaton during the summer months as a way to stay in shape. In a Pictorial History of American Sports, John Durant and Otto Bettmann identified Grange as the games' most publicized and glamorous figure.
He played halfback for Illinois, coached by Bob Zuppke, and was named All-America in 1923, 1924 and 1925. He had nicknames like the Flying Terror and the Galloping Ghost and although he was a good punter, passer and effective blocker his claim to fame was his broken-field running.
One of Grange's most memorable performances was in 1924 at a dedication ceremony for the University of Michigan's Memorial Stadium. Rader wrote, "Before the game, Fielding H. Yost, the veteran mentor of many powerful Michigan elevens, assured everyone that the Illinois redhead could be stopped. With 67,000 fans present at the opening of Illinois' new stadium, Grange responded by scoring four touchdowns in the first twelve minutes of the game."
Describing the same game, Marc Pachter in Champions of American Sports wrote, "Red Grange, a sophomore at the University of Illinois ran the opening kick-off back ninety-five yards for a touchdown and followed up, during the next ten minutes with three more. Grange added one more touchdown in the second half and passed for yet another. Michigan unvanquished during the preceding three seasons, went down, 39-14."
Red Grange went on to play against Penn, Chicago, and Ohio State and after his last game in 1925, he had established such a reputation according to Durant and Bettmann, that his jersey bearing the famous number 77 was forever retired.
A Chicago Tribune article describing a game Grange played against the University of Pennsylvania team was quoted in Pachter's book. ' "There goes the Redhead!" was the incessant chant. When, near the end of the second quarter, Grange was called out for a breathing spell, the Tribune reported: "With one spontaneous, beautifully sportsmanlike motion 63,000 human beings rose to their feet in tribute to the lad walking slowly through the seas of mire."'
In Time-Life Books A Century of Sports, writer Damon Runyon was quoted as saying, "on the field, he is equal of three men and a horse."
Rader wrote, 'While few Americans were able to see Grange perform in the flesh, millions saw him in the newsreels of thousands of theatres. The image of Grange, speeded up on the flickering screen, was almost eerie, as it darted, slashed, cut away from would-be tacklers, and crossed the goal line one, two, three, or even five times within a few brief seconds. Little wonder that Grantland Rice hailed Grange as the "Galloping Ghost of the Gridiron."'
Grange was one of the first athletes to cash in on his athletic success. At that time in history, football was seen as a rough but clean sport for college boys and playing for pay was viewed negatively. According to Pachter, Grange the hero did the unthinkable when the day after playing his last college game he signed a contract, negotiated by his manager, Charles C. Pyle, guaranteeing him at least $100,000 to play with George Hala's and Dutch Sternaman's Chicago Bears.
Rader wrote, "In 1925 Grange's decision touched off a national debate. By abandoning his studies for a blatantly commercial career, he openly flaunted the myth of the college athlete as a gentleman-amateur who played merely for the fun of the game and the glory of his school. Grange's Illinois coach, Zup Zuppke, joined a host of academics in condemning Grange. Not only was professional football held in low moral esteem, but to them it was unethical for Grange to capitalize upon a reputation that he had acquired in college for direct, personal gain."
According to Durant and Bettmann, once he went pro and went on the road with the Chicago Bears he played before packed stadiums wherever he went. In New York in December, 1925, he drew a record 72,000 people to a pro game pulling professional football out of the doldrums and establishing it as a sport.
In Time-Life Books A Century of Sports, it was reported that once he had signed on with the Halas's Bears, Grange went on a "nationwide barnstorming tour with a killer schedule-eight games in 12 days, followed by a month long odyssey into the Deep South and West Coast. As in college, Grange drew mobs of fans wherever he played, single-handedly giving the NFL legitimacy."
Under the management of "Cash and Carry" Pyle, according to Pachter, Grange "endorsed Red Grange dolls, a sweater, a cap just like the one he wore, a ginger ale, a candy bar, and even a meat loaf…He starred in the successful One Minute to Play in 1926, and in 1929 played himself in a talkie, The Galloping Ghost.
Rader wrote that Grange publicly acknowledged that he was in it for the money. "I'm out to get the money, and I don't care who knows it." Furthermore, "my advice to everybody is to get to the gate while the getting's good." In the first year of their partnership Pyle and Grange split about $250,000 as their share of gate receipts and assorted income from endorsements and promotions.
According to Pachter Grange and Pyle started their own league in 1927 but it only lasted a year. Grange had slowed down in 1927 due to a knee injury. Grange returned to the Bears in 1929 and continued to play until 1935. He stayed on afterwards for several seasons as an assistant coach. In the 1940s and 1950s, Red Grange also became a successful radio and television sportscaster.
A Century of Sports
Editors of Time-Life Books, 2000
Time Life Inc.
Benjamin G. Rader, 1983
Champions of American Sport
Edited by Marc Pachter with Amy Henderson, Jeannette Hussey, and Margaret C. S. Christman, 1981
The National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution Harry N. Abrams., Inc. New York
Pictorial History of American Sports
John Durant and Otto Bettmannn 1952, 1965
A.S. Barnes and Company
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