Grange, Harold Edward (“Red”)

views updated

Grange, Harold Edward (“Red”)

(b. 13 June 1903 in Forksville, Pennsylvania; d. 28 January 1991 in Lake Wales, Florida), college and professional football player and broadcaster who came to prominence in the “Golden Age of Sport” in the 1920s and became a football legend.

Grange was one of four children of Lyle Grange, a lumber camp foreman and police officer, and Sadie Sherman, a homemaker who died when Grange was five years old. After his wife’s death Lyle Grange moved with his children from Pennsylvania to Wheaton, Illinois, thirty miles west of Chicago, where he had relatives. After a brief but unsuccessful stint as a house mover, the elder Grange became a police officer in Wheaton.

As a youngster “Red,” so nicknamed for the color of his hair, quickly realized he could run faster than his playmates. When he entered Wheaton High School in 1918, his athletic ability became evident. In addition to scoring seventy-five touchdowns during his career as the school’s football halfback, he was a state track champion in the sprints and broad (later the “long”) jump, captain of the basketball team, and a good enough baseball player to receive an offer to sign a contract with Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics. Grange, arguably the most humble and modest of all celebrities, said many years after his retirement that his speed was “God-given.” “I could always run fast,” he said, “Some guys were meant to get nineties and hundreds in chemistry and Latin. I could run. That’s just the way God distributed things.”

In 1922, at a time when many colleges did not offer athletic scholarships, Grange matriculated at the University of Illinois because as a state school, it was less expensive than private schools such as the University of Chicago and Northwestern University. In addition, this was a time when most high school athletes stayed within their state’s boundaries when choosing a college.

At first Grange did not even plan to play football for the university’s team, the Fighting Illini, but his fraternity brothers in Zeta Psi coaxed him into going out for the freshman team—a varsity career was limited to just three seasons in those days. Grange, who would make jersey number 77 famous in his college and professional careers, was asked about the significance of the legendary double digits. “Nothing special,” said the unassuming Grange, “they gave number seventy-six to the guy ahead of me and number seventy-eight to the guy behind me.” He made an immediate impression when the freshman team scrimmaged with the varsity in the fall of 1922. It became clear that he was the fastest football player at Illinois, freshman or varsity, and his elevation to the varsity the next year was an anticipated event.

Grange’s varsity debut was spectacular—in the 24-7 victory over Nebraska, he gained 208 yards and scored three touchdowns. One of his scores came early in the game on a zigzagging, sixty-six-yard return of a punt. Grange lived up to his outstanding start through the rest of his sophomore season. He would score at least one touchdown in each of the remaining six games (in the 1920s the average football schedule consisted of six or seven games), twelve in all for the season. He would gain a minimum of 140 yards rushing in each game, peaking with 251 against Northwestern in a game in which he scored three touchdowns. That year his offensive production was 1,260 yards. Not only was Grange a thrilling runner, he was an adequate passer and punter, a reliable receiver, a dangerous returner of kicks, and a fine defensive back. He made consensus All-America.

Grange’s junior year in 1924 made him a household name and a legend. He became one of the glamorous athletes who—along with baseball’s Babe Ruth, boxing’s Jack Dempsey, golfs Bobby Jones, tennis’s “Big” Bill Tilden, and swimming’s Johnny Weissmuller—gave the 1920s its reputation as the Golden Age of Sport.

Illinois had already played two games, defeating both Nebraska and Butler, when the team played the Michigan Wolverines at home for the dedication of the state-of-the-art Memorial Stadium on the Champaign-Urbana campus. Michigan was also undefeated, having outscored two opponents for a combined 62-0. At the coin toss before the game, the Michigan captain asked the Illinois captain, “Which one is Grange?” “Seventy-seven,” came the reply. The supremely confident Wolverines sent the opening kickoff right to Grange. Through a broken field, Grange sprinted ninety-five yards for a touchdown. The game was just seconds old and Grange was just getting started. With the game still in the first quarter, Grange added three more touchdowns on long, twisting runs of sixty-seven yards, fifty-six yards, and forty-four yards. Later in the game, he added a fifth score and even threw a touchdown pass. When the day was done, Grange and the Illini had humbled Michigan with a score of 39–14. It was the game that earned his storied nickname, the “Galloping Ghost,” from famed sportswriter Grantland Rice, for his ghostlike elusiveness and speed. (Having earned money and maintained peak physical condition by delivering fifty- and one-hundred-pound blocks of ice while in high school, Grange had previously earned the nickname the “Wheaton Iceman.”)

Later that season Grange turned in an outstanding performance against the University of Chicago, then a Big Ten power. He gained 300 yards and scored three touchdowns, the last on an eighty-yard run to tie the underdog Chicago team with a score of 21–21. Again, he was consensus All-America.

While Grange’s fame spread nationally, his greatness was not accepted by all. Football in the eastern states was elitist, and Grange had never performed against an eastern team nor played in the East. Two weeks before the end of his intercollegiate career, on 31 October 1925, Illinois played the University of Pennsylvania Quakers in Philadelphia. With three touchdowns and 363 yards, Grange led his team to a 24–2 victory over the Quakers. It was one of only two losses that year for the strong Pennsylvania team. For the third time, each of his varsity seasons, Grange was a consensus All-America choice.

Rumors swirled around campus during the last few weeks of his senior season. Would Grange turn pro? The National Football League (NFL) was a struggling five-year-old operation at the time and was lightly regarded; it consisted mostly of Midwestern “town teams” playing before crowds numbered in the hundreds. College coaches discouraged players from “playing for pay.” But immediately after his last game, a 14-9 victory over Ohio State, Grange—through his representative, Charles C. (“Cash & Carry”) Pyle, a local theater manager—signed a contract with the NFL’s Chicago Bears. It was headline and news-reel news. The deal, worth $100,000 (twice what Babe Ruth made at the time), called for Grange and the Bears to play a series of exhibition games after the Bears regular NFL season ended. Grange, who left Illinois without a degree, later summed up the public’s reaction to his turning pro: “I probably would have been more highly thought of if I had joined the [Al] Capone gang,” Chicago’s notorious Prohibition-era mob.

Nevertheless, Grange, at six feet and 180 pounds, was a drawing card as a professional. In his first game, on Thanksgiving Day 1925, Grange drew a crowd of 40,000 to Wrigley Field despite blustery weather as the Bears played a scoreless tie against the Chicago Cardinals. The next important stop was New York City’s Polo Grounds. So great was the demand for tickets to the Bears-Giants game that fans stormed the gates when all tickets were sold out. Seventy-five thousand spectators (the largest crowd to see a pro football game up to that time) went to see the game—many without the benefit of tickets. That game, which the Bears won 19–7, is credited with saving the first- year Giants franchise and establishing the NFL. Throughout late 1925 and early 1926, the Bears and Grange toured the South and finished the season on the West Coast. In sixty-six days they played nineteen games. Grange, Pyle, and Bears player-coach-owner George Halas each made a reported $100,000.

Ever the promoter, Pyle wanted his own franchise in the NFL for the 1926 season, but it was not granted. Pyle and Grange then formed the rival American Football League. Grange was the star attraction of the New York Yankees, who played in Yankee Stadium. Although Grange played quite well, the new league lasted just one year before going broke. But in 1927 Grange and Pyle were allowed to take their Yankees franchise back to the NFL.

That season Grange suffered a knee injury that robbed him of some of his speed and much of his elusiveness. After the injury, Grange said, “I was just another halfback.” He sat out the 1928 season and then rejoined the Bears, with whom he played from 1929 through 1934. Although he was no longer the Galloping Ghost, he was still an offensive threat and regarded as the NFL’s premier defensive back.

After his playing career ended, Grange coached for a few years and then built a successful insurance brokerage in Chicago. He also began working in sports broadcasting and was the first successful athlete-turned-announcer.

On 13 October 1941, Grange married Margaret (“Muggs”) Hazelberg, one of the first commercial airline flight attendants; they had no children. Grange and his wife moved to Miami in 1954 and to a new community, Indian Lake Estates, in central Florida in the late 1950s. Grange was a frequent interview subject until his death from complications of pneumonia at the age of eighty-seven. His remains were cremated.

Grange was one of the most humble celebrities of the twentieth century. He once said his biggest football thrill occurred when Earl Britton, his noted blocking back, beat Iowa with a late-game, fifty-five-yard field goal. “I held the ball,” said the self-effacing football immortal. Grange is credited with popularizing college football during the post-World War I era, and with almost single-handedly gaining acceptance for the fledgling National Football League. He was one of the first and few to be inducted in both the College Football Hall of Fame (1951) and the Professional Football Hall of Fame (1963)—a charter inductee of both organizations.

Grange wrote an “as-told-to” autobiography with Ira Morton titled The Galloping Ghost: The Autobiography of Red Grange (rev. ed., 1981). See also the biographies Red Grange: Football’s Greatest Halfback (1952), by Gene Schoor, and Grange of Illinois (1956), by James A. Peterson. John M. Carroll, Red Grange and the Rise of Modern Football (1999), uses Grange’s career to make larger points. See also William F. Heffelfinger, as told to John D. McCallum, This Was Football (1954), and Allison Danzig, Oh, How They Played the Game: The Early Days of Football and the Heroes Who Made it Great (1971), both histories of football. An obituary is in the New York Times (19 Jan. 1991).

Jim Campbell