Grange, Harold "Red"

views updated May 09 2018

Harold "Red" Grange


American football player

Harold "Red" Grange's legacy has truly stood the test of time. More than three quarters of a century after his famous four touchdowns in twelve minutes against the University of Michigan in 1925, he is remembered as one of the greatest college football players in the history of the sport. He is remembered equally for his contributions to professional football, not just for his skills on the field, but for his single-handed ability to bring previously unparalleled popularity and respect to the game. After Grange signed on with the Chicago Bears one day after his last college game, crowds at National Football League (NFL) games swelled. Grange became one of the first professional athletes to enter into endorsement deals and even starred in motion pictures, setting the stage for the cult of personality that surrounds sports stars today. For his contributions to the game, Grange was named as a charter member to both the college and professional football halls of fame.

All-Around Athlete

Grange spent his youth in Wheaton, Illinois, just outside Chicago. His mother died when he was five, and he was raised by his father, Lyle, a foreman for a lumber company who later switched professions and eventually became Wheaton's chief of police. Grange demonstrated a natural athletic ability, and at Wheaton High School he earned 16 varsity letters, in football, baseball, basketball and track. In addition to making his mark on the grid-ironhe scored seventy-five touchdowns and 532

points during his high-school careerhe was a four-time sprint champion.

Grange built up strength and endurance during his summer job working for an icehouse, where he delivered blocks of ice door-to-door for $37.50 a week. Despite other job offers, Grange returned to this job even during his college years. Photographs of Grange at work published nationally earned him the nickname "The Wheaton Iceman."

Coaxed to the Gridiron

When Grange entered the University of Illinois in 1922, he considered participating in basketball and track, rather than football. When, on the first day of practice for the freshman team, he saw that more than 200 young men were competing for spots, he became even more reluctant to try out. His fraternity brothers convinced him to stick with the game, however, and he made the seventh team. His teammates caught a glimpse of the talent entered into their midst when Grange scored two touchdowns during a scrimmage with the varsity team, one of them a sixty-yard punt return.

By the following year Grange had made such an impression that he started at halfback for the varsity squad. He kicked off the opening game against Nebraska on October 6, 1923, by returning a punt for a touchdown from the Illinois 34-yard-line and went on to score three touchdowns and gain 208 yards in thirty-nine minutes of play. Even in this pre-television age, Grange gained national attention for his performance and went on to lead the Western Conference (now the Big Ten) in scoring and was named an All-American. His auburn hair earned him the nickname "Red."

Fateful Michigan Game

On October 18, 1924, Illinois faced the powerhouse University of Michigan Wolverines in a game that followed a dedication ceremony for Illinois' new Memorial Stadium. The Wolverines had not suffered a defeat in two years. Michigan athletic director and former coach Fielding Yost assured the press before the game that his team could handle Grange. "Mr. Grange will be carefully watched every time he takes the ball," Yost stated. "There will be eleven clean, hard Michigan tacklers headed for him."

Whether headed for Grange or not, the Michigan tacklers could not catch him. Grange scored four touch-downsa 95-yard kickoff return and runs of sixty-seven, fifty-six and forty-five yards from scrimmageall within the first twelve minutes of the game. Exhausted, he then sat out until the third quarter, during which he scored on a twelve-yard run. Grange followed his five touchdowns with a 23-yard touchdown pass. Illinois beat the Wolverines 39-14 and Grange's name was entered into the annals of football history where it remains to this day. The game also earned him the nickname "The Galloping Ghost of the Gridiron," bestowed upon him by sportswriter Grantland Rice.


1903Born June 13 in Forkville, Pennsylvania
1908Family moves to Wheaton, Illinois
1922Graduates Wheaton High School with 16 varsity letters
1922Enters University of Illinois and makes seventh team in football
1923Starts at halfback with varsity team and makes headlines after scoring three touchdowns in win over Nebraska
1924Makes football history on October 18 when he scores four touchdowns in first twelve minutes of game against University of Michigan
1925Moved to quarterback
1925Scores three touchdowns against University of Pennsylvania, "champions of the East," and becomes a national star
1925Featured on the October 5 cover of Time
1925Turns pro one day after last college game
1925Debuts with Chicago bears on Thanksgiving Day
1926Enters into American League venture with C.C. Pyle and moves to New York Yankees
1929Returns to Chicago Bears
1934Retires from professional football
1941Marries Margaret Hazelberg on October 13
1951Named charter member of College Football Hall of Fame
1963Named charter member of Professional Football Hall of Fame
1991Dies on January 28 at age 87

A subsequent game against the University of Chicago, a team considered one of the nation's best, had the University of Illinois Illini down 21-0. Grange brought the team from behind by scoring three touchdowns in the game, which ended in a tie. He played for the entire sixty minutes, rushing for 300 yards and passing for 177. Grange was then injured during a game against Minnesota, which Illinois lost. He missed the season's final game, a victory over Ohio State, but was again named an All-American.

As his accomplishments on the field mounted, Grange rose to national stardom. Many factors contributed to his extreme popularity, including an increased interest in athletics developed during World War I, when members of the military often engaged in league sports themselves; a growing interest in leisure-time activities and the growth of the middle class, with their disposable incomes, following the war; and the increased use of newspaper wire services, which enabled local events to be publicized nationally.

Goes Out in Style

Recovered from his injury, Grange was named captain of the Illini for his senior year in 1925. The team got off to a shaky start, losing three of its first four games. Coach Bob Zuppke moved Grange to quarterback and the Illini won their final four games of the season. Grange's most talked-about performance occurred against the unbeaten University of Pennsylvania, regarded by many as "the champions of the East." In fifty-seven minutes of play, Grange scored three touchdowns and set up a fourth, rushed for 363 yards and passed for thirteen, all in ankle-deep mud, as Illinois beat Pennsylvania 24-2. Grange then led Illinois to a 14-9 victory over Ohio State in the last game of the season. He finished his twenty-game career at Illinois with thirty-one touchdowns, sixteen of those from at least twenty yards and nine from more than fifty. He ran 388 times in all, for 2,071 yards, caught fourteen passes for 253 yards and completed forty of eighty-two passes for 575 yards.

The Pennsylvania game, especially, sealed Grange's star status, as many influential East Coast sportswriters took notice of his unparalleled performance. Sports writer Damon Runyon wrote of him, "This man Red Grange of Illinois is three or four men rolled into one for football purposes. He is Jack Dempsey, Babe Ruth , Al Jolson, Paavo Nurmi and Man o' War . Put together, they spell Grange." On October 5, 1925, the three-time All-American (he received the honor again for his senior season) was featured on the cover of Time.

Turns Heads by Turning Pro

Grange shocked many supporters and fans, including Zuppke, when, following the conclusion of the Ohio State game, he announced he would be leaving the University of Illinois and turning pro. The next day he signed a contract with the National Football League's Chicago Bears. While such announcements are commonplace in sports today, in Grange's day they were anything but and his decision generated widespread controversy. The following year, in response to the negative publicity accompanying Grange's move, NFL officials passed a rule prohibiting the signing of a college player until after he had graduated. "In 1925 Grange's decision touched off a national debate," wrote Benjamin Rader in American Sports. "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 himself put it more succinctly. "I'd have been more popular with the colleges if I had joined Capone's mob in Chicago rather than the Bears," he said.

Awards and Accomplishments

1923-25All-American Team
1924First Chicago Tribune Silver Football Award for Big Ten MVP
1925Number 77 Illinois jersey retired
1931-32All-Pro Team
1951Charter member, College Football Hall of Fame
1963Charter member, Professional Football Hall of Fame

Related Biography: Sports Agent Charles C. Pyle

While Red Grange's announcement that he would turn pro surprised many in the sports world, the move was actually some time in the making. The man behind Grange's deal with the fledgling National Football League's Chicago Bears was Charles C. "Cash and Carry" Pyle, a Champaign, Illinois theater owner and promoter. While Grange did not break any collegiate rules, Pyle began negotiating with the Chicago Bears while Grange continued to make headlines at the University of Illinois. By the day of his fateful announcement, the deal was ready to be inked.

Grange's entry into the NFL moved Pyle into the big time, too. Pyle was instrumental in scheduling the Bears' numerous exhibition games and, as Grange's agent, he secured his client several endorsement deals and even two movie roles. After Grange's debut season in the NFL, Pyle and his client defected, forming their own, short-lived American Football League.

While working with Grange, Pyle also brought other unsigned athletes into the professional ranks, including tennis star Suzanne Lenglen. Pyle also launched a 3,485-mile race across the United States which came to be called the Bunion Derby. Peopled by both professionals such as English hundred-miler Arthur Newton and Estonian marathoner Juri Lossman, and eccentrics like a Hindu philosopher who chanted as he jogged and an Italian runner who raced singing arias, the 1928 event ended up a virtual bust, despite Grange's promotional assistance. The second, and last, race in 1929, left Pyle temporarily bankrupt.

When Grange's contract with Pyle expired in 1928 the football star elected not to renew. The split appeared to be amicable, with Grange later remarking that Pyle was "the greatest sports impressario the world has ever known." Grange went on to promote Chicago's Century of Progress Fair and start a radio transcription company. Pyle died in Los Angeles in 1939 at the age of 56. His exploits were documented in a play, C.C. Pyle and the Bunion Derby, written by Tony Award-winner Michael Cristofer and directed by Paul Newman.

Grange was one of the first professional athletes playing a team sport to have an agent. Charles C. "Cash

and Carry" Pyle, a Champaign, Illinois, theater owner and promoter, negotiated Grange's deal with the Bears, which landed him $100,000 and a percentage of the revenue from the gate.

Whirlwind Schedule

Capitalizing on Grange's popularity, the Bears, with the assistance of Pyle, quickly devised a whirlwind hybrid schedule of exhibition and regular season games, during which they played nineteen games in sixty-seven days. The first ten games took place over just eighteen days in the East and Midwest. After a two week break, they played nine more games in the South and on the West Coast.

Fans proved Pyle and the Bears management good businessmen. While only 7,500 attended the last Bears game before the team acquired Grange, a standing-room-only crowd of 36,000 showed up at Cubs Park (now Wrigley Field) on Thanksgiving Day 1925 to see the Galloping Ghost debut against the Chicago Cardinals. The game itself was nothing to write home about; it ended in a 0-0 tie.

Still, Grange continued to draw record crowds. More than 65,000 came out to see him in both New York and Los Angeles. Pyle used his client's overwhelming popularity to score him several lucrative endorsement deals. In the off-season, Pyle committed Grange to numerous exhibition games and landed him two movie roles as well, in One Minute to Play and The Racing Romeo. (Grange later went on to star in his own movie serial, The Galloping Ghost. )

With an extra $125,000 in endorsements and acting fees on top of his money from the Bears, Grange returned to Wheaton a bona fide celebrity, with all the trappings. By this time, he was driving a $5,500 Lincoln and wearing a $500 raccoon coat. But Grange did not only bring material wealth home with him to Wheaton. He also arrived with numerous bruises and the exhaustion that accompanies such a rigorous schedule.

A League of Their Own

When Bears owner and coach George Halas rejected a bid by Grange and Pyle to buy into his team, the pair formed their own league. Grange played for the New York Yankees but found he could not carry a league on his own. The American Football League folded after one year, and Grange and his Yankees joined the NFL.

The following year, Grange seriously injured his right knee in the third game of the season when he collided with former Bears teammate George Trafton while reaching for a pass. Since Trafton was known for rough play, some speculated he may have intended to injure Grange. Grange attempted to quell such rumors before they started, however, stating in the locker room that the game "was one of the cleanest football games I ever played in." The injury kept him out of the lineup for the rest of the 1927 season, save for an ill-fated comeback attempt, and all of the 1928 season as well.

Glory Days Come to an End

In 1929 Grange returned to the Bears, but he was no longer in his prime. His injured knee hampered his running and cutting ability so severely that he considered retirement, but Halas convinced him to carry on. Grange's own financial concernshe lost a significant amount of money when he invested in the AFLmay have motivated him as well. Grange supplemented his income with numerous public appearances and performances on the vaudeville circuit.

Grange stayed with the Bears for another five seasons, although he was eventually moved to the defensive line. He served the team well as a defensive back, however. In the first-ever NFL championship game, he made a touchdown-saving tackle late in the fourth quarter, securing the Bears' 23-21 victory over the New York Giants. Later, Grange was reduced to a utility player.

Active Retirement

After he retired from play in 1935, Grange stayed on with the Bears as an assistant coach and he also became a successful sports commentator. Again, he served as a pioneer in a relatively new venture. In the 1930s, most sports fans relied on the daily newspapers for their pre- and post-game coverage. Grange apparently won some converts. In 1937, his show's sponsors received forty-two million requests for the 'Red Grange Score Sheet,' which accompanied the show. Grange also became one of the first television sports announcers, launching that career in 1947.

While Grange received bags full of fan mail from female admirers throughout his career and had been linked to a number of Hollywood stars, his romantic life was largely subject to speculation until 1941 when he married Margaret Hazelberg in Crown Point, Indiana. The pair met on a flight to Omaha, where Margaret was working as a stewardess. The following year, Grange opened his own insurance practice, which he maintained until he and Margaret retired to Lake Wales, Florida. Grange died of complications from Parkinson's Disease in Lake Wales on January 28, 1991 at the age of 87.

Continues to be Recognized

Grange is still widely recognized for his contributions to both college and professional football, continually showing up on "greatest athletes" lists. In 1951 he was named a charter member of the College Football Hall of Fame and in 1963 he received the same honor for the Professional Football Hall of Fame. College Football News named him the best player of all time, and in its century-end retrospective, ESPN named him the 28th best athlete of the 20th century.

For all his accomplishmentsthe astounding college career, the legendary Michigan game, the popularity and respect he brought to professional footballGrange remained profoundly modest. "If you have the football and 11 guys are after you, if you're smart, you'll run," he once remarked. "They built my accomplishment way out of proportion," he also said. "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."

Grange's old coach, Bob Zuppke, who made no secret of his opposition to Grange's decision to turn pro, begged to differ, however. "They can argue all they like about the greatest football player who ever lived," he remarked after Grange left Illinois. "But I was satisfied I had him when I had Red Grange."

Career Statistics

CHI: Chicago Bears; NYY: New York Yankees.


(As told to Ira Morton) The Red Grange Story: An Autobiography, University of Illinois Press, 1993.



Carroll, John M. Red Grange and the Rise of Modern Football. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999.

"Harold 'Red' Grange." American Decades CD-ROM, Detroit: Gale Group, 1998.


Schwartz, Larry. "Galloping Ghost Scared Opponents." College Football News

Sketch by Kristin Palm