Bears' Red Grange saved the NFL 90 years ago

Michael K. Bohn is an author in Alexandria, Va., and this article is adapted from his book, "Heroes & Ballyhoo: How the Golden Age of the 1920s Transformed American Sports."

A boisterous crowd of students at the University of Pennsylvania gathered in front of the campus Athletic Council on Wednesday morning, Oct. 28, 1925. Thousands of them were clamoring for tickets to the upcoming football game on Saturday with the visiting University of Illinois. The allotment of 6,000 seats reserved for the student body was quickly exhausted.

Friends and families pestering the Penn players with ticket requests became so disruptive that coach Lou Young arranged for the team to leave campus the next day. They retreated to a hotel 50 miles east in Atlantic City, N.J., until Saturday morning.

The ballyhoo surrounding the Penn-Illinois game arose from the anticipation of seeing Harold "Red" Grange, the Fighting Illini's star halfback/quarterback, play on the Franklin Field gridiron. After making All-America teams his sophomore and junior seasons, Grange's fame had spread across the country.

Time Magazine had added to the interest by placing Grange on its cover earlier that month, and inside, heaped purple ink upon him: "Eel-hipped runagade, no man could hold him; he writhed through seas of grasping moleskin-flints with a twiddle of his buttocks and a flirt of his shinbone. His kneebolt pumped like an engine piston; his straight arm fell like a Big-Wood tree."

The center of college football in the 1920s was in the northeast, especially the Ivy League. But teams from the "west," such as Notre Dame, began to introduce new stars to the East Coast press. The famous 1924 Notre Dame-Army game of "Four Horsemen" fame was a milestone in the transformation of college football into a national sport. The 1925 Penn-Illinois game would add to that phenomenon, and it offered the first chance for cynical Eastern reporters to see if Red could match his hype.

Writer Paul Gallico later captured the sportswriters' skepticism of Grange's achievements out west: "If ever a stage was set for a highly touted, two-time All-American and possibly overrated football hero to fall on his face, it was that October afternoon in Franklin Field."

After a night of rain and snow, the field looked like a muddy sea to the 65,000 spectators. Undeterred, Grange blew away the heavily favored, unbeaten Quakers. He scored three touchdowns and gained 363 yards rushing and returning kicks, and completed one pass. Illinois won 24-2 and stunned the eastern critics.

Sportswriters outdid themselves in lavishing acclaim on the Illinois star. "This Red Grange performance, under the conditions, must remain as one of the most remarkable of all achievements written in football's book," the esteemed Grantland Rice wrote. Falling back on his many animal metaphors, Rice called Grange "a greyhound where the ground was dry, and eel where water blocked his way."

Damon Runyon gave his take: "This man 'Red' Grange of Illinois is three or four men and a horse rolled into one for football purposes. "He is Jack Dempsey, Babe Ruth, Al Jolson, Paavo Nurmi, and Man o' War. Put them all together, they spell Grange." (Nurmi was a Finnish track star and Man o'War was the 1920 thoroughbred horse of the year; the inclusion of singer and actor Jolson is puzzling.)

The Penn game was a key precursor to Grange's heroic campaign 90 years ago this month to help secure the future of the fledgling NFL

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MAKING OF A LEGEND

Harold Grange grew up in Wheaton, Ill., a town west of Chicago, and was an extraordinary athlete at the local high school. In football, over his junior and senior years, the red-headed Grange scored 59 touchdowns and kicked 73 extra points. In one game as a junior in 1920, he rushed for 504 yards on 21 carries.

To help with family finances, Grange worked each summer hauling ice for the L. C. Thomson Company, a job that required carrying a 75-pound ice block up to third-floor walk-ups. The pay was good at $37.50 a week, and the exercise helped the young athlete, who was then 5-foot-11 and 165 pounds. "My legs were always in shape when the football season started," he recalled years later.

Red won three state track titles over two years in the 220- and 100-yard dashes and the long jump. At the 1922 state meet at the Illinois track in Champaign, Ill., Illini football coach Bob Zuppke approached the youngster. Grange biographer Gary Poole reported the conversation.

"Where are you going to college?" Zuppke asked.

"I don't know," mumbled the tongue-tied, modest teenager.

"I hope here," Zuppke said with his arm around Grange's shoulders. "If you come down here to school, I believe you'll stand a good chance of making our football team."

Before Grange's first varsity practice as a sophomore at Illinois, Grange drew jersey number 77, one that would forever identify him. Grange's explanation of the number assignment has been widely quoted: "The guy in front of me got 76, and the guy in back got 78." Football teams then assigned numbers randomly rather than by position, but having numbers at all was a product of the Golden Age of American sports, 1919-1930.

Grange first gained national attention during his junior year in 1924 with an Illinois rout at home of powerful Michigan, 39-14. He scored four touchdowns in the first 12 minutes on a 95-yard kickoff return and runs of 67, 56, and 44 yards. Overall, Red accounted for six touchdowns and 402 yards of total offense: 212 rushing, 64 passing, and 126 on kickoff returns.

However, Rice soon jumped on the Grange ballyhoo bandwagon and penned this tribute to "the Galloping Ghost," as Grange had become known:

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

Red Grange of Illinois.

Before the start of Grange's senior season, a businessman and huckster named C.C. Pyle approached Grange in one of Pyle's movie theaters in Champaign.

"How would you like to make a hundred thousand dollars, or maybe a million?" Pyle asked. Grange wrote in his 1953 autobiography that he was so stunned that he was speechless, but nodded yes. Pyle offered no details and asked Red to keep quiet about their conversation.

Within weeks, Pyle met with the co-owners of the Chicago Bears, one of the founding teams of the NFL. Speaking with George Halas and Ed "Dutch" Sternaman, Pyle offered Grange's professional services immediately following Illinois's last game that fall. In return for half of the Bears' gate receipts, Pyle proposed that Grange would play in the last games of Chicago's season, plus exhibition games during the winter. Halas, who also coached and played right end, and Sternaman, a halfback, haggled long into the night with Pyle about the terms before agreeing to the deal.

Pyle and Grange spoke again several weeks later. Red accepted the promoter's offer of 60 percent of their shared half of the Bears' gate receipts. According to Grange, Pyle insisted on forgoing any written contract or paying Grange anything before the season ended. "We don't want to do anything," he told Red, "to jeopardize your standing as a college player."

Illinois won only one of the team's first four games in the fall of 1925. Grange, now 6-foot and 180 pounds, did not live up to his yardage production levels of the previous year. Reporters generally blamed a bad team for his reduced rushing and passing yardage.

By Nov. 11, New York and Chicago papers reported the NFL's New York Giants had offered Grange $40,000 to play three games after Illinois' season ended. More rumors circulated as the Illini beat Chicago on Nov. 7. In the run-up to Grange's last game at Ohio State, the nation's sports editors focused on the Grange story.

Eighty-five thousand spectators filled the recently enlarged Ohio Stadium on Nov. 21. The Grange hullabaloo overwhelmed an unremarkable game, which Illinois won, 14-9. To the rest of a fascinated nation, the game merely served as a preliminary event.

Grange announced in the locker room after the game that he intended to leave college and sign with the Bears. Zuppke tried to change his mind and, and, according to Grange, said, "Football isn't a game to play for money."

"You get paid for coaching, Zup," Red responded. "Why should it be wrong for me to get paid for playing?"

Red slipped out of the hotel in a black wig and took the train to Chicago, where he checked into a hotel under a false name. The next day, he met with Halas, Sternaman, and Pyle. Grange signed a two-year contract with Pyle rather than directly with the Bears. Pyle told Red he could make $100,000 with the Bears and quickly hyped the press about that sum.

What Pyle didn't know at the time was that Grange was destined to help save the NFL from an early demise.

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PRO FOOTBALL SENSATION

Grange joined the Bears for their season's last six games, with the first five days after the Illinois-Ohio State game. Fifty thousand fans tried to get into Cubs Park (later renamed Wrigley Field), but only 36,500 succeeded. The Bears played the crosstown-rival Cardinals, and the teams tied, 0-0, and Red suffered through an uninspiring debut. Three days later, also in Cubs Park, 28,000 watched Red account for 140 yards of total offense in a snowstorm against the Columbus Tigers.

In each game, Red played only 30 minutes, the minimum playing time his contract required. Each game's attendance dwarfed the crowds of 5,000 that the Bears normally drew. Grange later admitted he experienced early problems in adapting to the Bears' plays and formations. Red also wrote of the intentional roughness by the older mugs, those making $100 a game while the "kid" apparently raked in thousands.

In St. Louis on Dec. 2, the Bears played a pickup team in Sportsman's Park in front of a small, snow-covered crowd. Red scored four touchdowns in the 39-6 Bears win. Three days later, the Bears played an NFL team in Philadelphia called the Frankford Yellow Jackets in the Philadelphia Athletics' Shibe Park. A capacity crowd of 40,000 rain-drenched fans watched Grange score two touchdowns and the Bears win 14-0. The Chicago team quickly boarded the train for a game the next day, Sunday, Dec. 6, against the New York Giants in the Polo Grounds.

In what was by far professional football's largest crowd to that point, 73,651 people jammed the stadium. Paperboys paid 50 cents for bleacher seats, and society swells filled the boxes. "All of them," wrote Allison Danzig of the New York Times, "were victims in common of that fetish for hero worship. They were attracted to Red Grange because he is the living symbol of the power and the glory that all aspire to and dream of and which only the chosen few attain."

The Bears won 19-7, and in his usual 30 minutes, Red rushed for 53 yards, passed for 32, caught a pass for 23, and ran an interception back for a touchdown. When he sat out the third quarter, the fans chanted, "We want Grange!"

Despite the disappointed spectators, the game receipts saved the first-year Giants from failure. Giants owner Tim Mara, a New York bookie, felt his worries were over.

Pyle and Grange stayed in New York the next day, while the Bears left for an exhibition in Washington scheduled for Tuesday, Dec. 8. Pyle invited all comers to Red's Astor Hotel room to bid on Grange's name. Pyle ensured the press got every detail to boost the ballyhoo. Pyle secured endorsement fees that included $5,000 for a malted milk, $12,000 for Red Grange sweaters, $10,000 for a Red Grange doll, and $5,000 each for shoes and ginger ale.

While Grange and the Bears were in Washington to play another pickup team, Illinois senator William McKinley arranged for Halas and Grange to meet President Calvin Coolidge, who lacked any interest in sports. McKinley introduced the two players, and Grange biographer John Carroll described the exchange. "Mr. President, this is Mr. Grange and Mr. Halas. They're with the Chicago Bears."

"Glad to meet you fellows," the notoriously taciturn Coolidge responded. "I always did like animal acts."

On Dec. 9, the Bears lost to the NFL Providence Steam Rollers in Boston. Red played again the following day in an exhibition game in Pittsburgh and ruptured a blood vessel in his arm. By that night, his arm had swollen to twice its normal size. The Bears canceled a game in Cleveland and wearily went through the motions without Red against the NFL Detroit Panthers on Dec. 12, losing 21-0.

The next day, Chicago hosted the Giants at Cubs Park for the last game of both the NFL season and the 18-day Red Grange Football Parade and Circus. Despite the news Red would watch from the bench, 15,000 showed up to watch the leaden-legged Bears lose 9-0.

The Bears rested for a week and added a few more players to their 18-man roster. The team left Dec. 21 for Miami, the first stop on a nine-game, 3,000-mile barnstorming trip by train through the South and West. They played against semipro or pickup teams from Miami to Seattle, and returned to Chicago on Feb. 5.

An estimated 325,000 people watched the Bears play after Grange joined the team. Some observers contend Grange's NFL debut and the exhibition games saved the league from early failure. A more measured assessment suggests Grange's highly publicized shift from college to the pros gave the NFL enough forward momentum to gradually improve its product.

Grange retired after the 1934 season. Halas always maintained Grange's inaugural splash equaled that of the sport's initial national television coverage. Red led the way for pro football's success, but others _ Jim Thorpe, Bronko Nagurski, Ernie Nevers, "Johnny Blood" McNally, and Sammy Baugh, to mention a few _ helped for sure.

In commemorating football's centennial in 1969, the Football Writers Association of America chose the members of the all-time All-America team. Red was their only unanimous choice. In 1963, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Grange entered the league when it was a two-bit game, but just four years after he retired, Arthur Daley of the New York Times declared the NFL a mature sport: "Professional football, once a shabby outcast among sports, has become a dignified and honored member of the American athletic family."

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AFTERWORD

Red coached as an assistant to Halas for four years and called Bears games for 14 years on radio and television. Also, he teamed with Lindsey Nelson to telecast college football games for years. Grange met and married Margaret Hazelberg in 1941, and the next year started a successful Chicago insurance business. He died in 1991.