November 21, 1925—Harold “Red” Grange
ended his college career in typical fashion, leading the University of Illinois to a 14-9 win over Ohio State. But the running back whose blazing speed earned him the nickname “The Galloping Ghost” was about to shake off traditional notions of celebrity and compensation for collegiate stars by signing on for a pro-football barnstorming tour within a week of his final triumph.
I’ve long wanted to write a post about Grange, partly because he remains something of a mythic figure, but also because, unlike so many other superstars in the so-called “Golden Age of Sports”—the Roaring Twenties—his star has dimmed somewhat in the popular imagination. I don’t think it should.
Someone on the scene in this era, who observed all these figures at their apogee, fully agreed with me on Grange’s importance to his time—and, implicitly, ours.
“This man Red Grange of Illinois is three or four men rolled into one for football purposes," wrote Damon Runyon, a sportswriter who would soon become famous for capturing a substratum of Manhattan in the short stories that would inspire the musical Guys and Dolls. "He is Jack Dempsey, Babe Ruth, Al Jolson, Paavo Nurmi and Man o' War. Put together, they spell Grange."
Grange wore the number 77 in his three-year college playing career, but it might just as well have stood for the miles per hour he generated as he blasted past opponents.
His achievements, though cumulatively magnificent, were spread out over those three years.
But, though leading his team to a national championship and being named All-American three times, what really stood out for those who witnessed his on-field mastery was the way he could dominate single games:
* In 1923, in his very first game, Grange scored three touchdowns, including a 66-yard punt return, against Nebraska.
* In 1924, against a Michigan defense that had only yielded four touchdowns across two seasons, he scored that many on runs of 95, 67, 56 and 44 yards within 12 minutes in the first quarter alone.
* In October 1925, on a muddy and miserable field in Philadelphia, he scored three TDs in a 24-2 upset of Penn.
That kind of charisma drew crowds, and that was what Chicago Bears owner-coach George Halas
and the National Football League (NFL) badly needed at the time. The NFL did not start its great ascent as America’s favorite spectator sport until the 1960s, but without Grange’s acceptance of a playing offer from Halas, the organization might not have been around at all.
Grange’s on-field specialty was the broken-field run, a combination of feints and lightning bursts that left those around him gasping and bewildered. He was about to employ the same tactic against the collegiate powers-that-be.
The notion of student-athletes is as hard to maintain today among nationally ranked college powers as the possibility of a just, nonviolent, classless society in the waning years of the U.S.S.R. Grange was one of the first to expose the myth.
In the 1920s, college officials, believe it or not, thought they could determine not merely a player’s choices while he was with a school, but even after his playing days were over. Rumors were already flying, on the eve of the Ohio State game, that Grange was about to turn pro.
Only weeks before, the running back had assured the administration at the University of Illinois that he had done nothing to jeopardize his collegiate eligibility. But now that he had played his last game, all bets were off.
The university had forgotten about one elemental fact: Grange would be looking at more money than either he or his family had ever dreamed of. Grange’s father was not a millionaire who could send his son to college with no problem, only the chief of police at Wheaton. Red himself had had to help pay his way by working as a helper on an ice truck during the summer—a stint that won him his first nickname, “The Wheaton Ice Man.”
Three men changed Grange’s life and brought to the fore the inherent contradictions of the student-athlete ideal. In addition to Halas and partner Dutch Sternaman, there was C.C. (the initials stood for “Cash and Carry,” the joke went) Pyle
, a theater manager from Grange’s native Champaign, Ill., who signed the star as his first client.
The deal that Pyle negotiated guaranteed Grange $3,000 per game along with a percentage of the gate. The former theater manager, a colorful type given to smooth talk and fancy clothes, also helped his client cash in by having him associated with movies, sweaters, shoes and even cigarettes (Grange, a non-smoker, got around a situation that could have marred his clean image by saying a particular cigarette brand was the type that he would smoke if he had been a smoker.)
The crowds did come out for Grange, as the trio had hoped. (In a case of—almost literally—crying all the way to the bank, Halas was said to have wept with joy as he counted receipts for the Bears game on Thanksgiving.) But the intense, 17-city barnstorming tour resulted in an injury to Grange—the first portent of a far more serious one that would keep him entirely sidelined during the 1928 season.
Grange’s quarrel with Halas over tour profits led the star to form a rival pro football league with Pyle for awhile, but by the end of the 1920s the Bears coach invited the former collegiate sensation back onto the team. By this time, injuries had robbed him of the speed that had made him a legend, but he continued to contribute, this time defensively—as New York Giants fans learned to their regret in 1933, when his tackle in the closing minutes of the NFL Championship Game prevented a touchdown and saved a victory for the Bears.