Red Grange Puts the NFL on the Map

In 1925, College football still reigned supreme. The NFL was desperately yearning for something to come along to put it on the map. Two men had the answer.

George Halas and Dutch Sternaman would turn to a ghost to shock the nation into believing in the NFL as a legitimate venue. In this episode, I’m going to tell you about the incredible career and life of The Galloping Ghost and how he was able to legitimize the NFL.


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Red Grange Early Life

We step off our DeLorean this episode in Forksville, Pennsylvania. Our hero was born on June 13, 1903. His full name was Harold Edward Grange, but he would become more famously known as Red Grange.

He would also be given a nickname that is one of the more descriptive nicknames in the history of the NFL, The Galloping Ghost. His father’s name was Lyle, and he originally was a foreman at a lumber company in Forksville.

At the age of 5, Red’s mother passed away, so in his grief Lyle moved his family to Wheaton, IL. Lyle would work his way up the ladder to police chief in the small town.
While at Wheaton High School, Harold Grange was a star athlete earning 16 stars. The stars were earned in football, baseball, basketball, and track. He was a 4-time sprint champion, as well. His summer job and part-time job throughout high school was an ice deliveryman. Grange was given the nickname “The Wheaton Iceman.”

This job would help give Grange the physically advanced body.His final high school game was historic. The game was for the DuPage County championship against Downers Grove. He scored 45 points in this championship game, which the article claimed is still a record today. The same article described how Grange was knocked unconscious in his senior year against a powerful Scott High School.

It said he would remain unconscious for the next 2 days, and he would end up having difficulty speaking for some time after coming to. This probably led him to at least consider not playing football at the next level.

Red Grange College Years

It was said, “Despite scoring 75 touchdowns and 532 points in high school, Grange considered skipping football at Illinois and competing in basketball and track.” His fraternity brothers from Zeta Psi convinced him to play and we all need to thank the Zeta Psi for doing this. Grange would enter the University of Illinois in 1922, and then play for the football team from 1923 through 1925.

While at Illinois, he was known as a halfback that had long dazzling runs. His first game was against Nebraska. He would end up scoring 3 touchdowns, one of which was a punt return. In his sophomore year, Grange would lead an undefeated Illinois team to the national championship.

However, these feats didn’t come close to what was about to happen. There was a game that would put him on the map unlike anyone could have even come close to perceive.

This game he became a national icon was in 1924 against the University of Michigan, a powerhouse football team at the time. Leading up to the game, Michigan had gone 20 games without a defeat. The team only allowed 4 touchdowns in the previous 2 seasons.

A video found on YouTube called Larger Than Life: The Red Grange Story had an interview of Red Grange in his elderly years recalling the game against Michigan. He described how Coach Zuppke would write him a letter every week since the middle of June talking to them about how they were going to crush Michigan in the upcoming year.

I highly recommend you check out the entire documentary. It is very interesting.
Now to the game. The opening kickoff landed in Red’s bread basket. He proceeded to run the ball back to the house for a 95-yard touchdown. Michigan, the Illinois fans, and everyone listening on the radio were stunned.

It was understood this was a fluke, so due to the rule of choosing to kick or receive, the Michigan coach decided to kick it back to Grange. This time he would end up being tackled, so all seemed back to normal again. However, the next play would see Grange scamper for a touchdown run of 67 yards.

The famous WGN radio station was broadcasting a football game for the first time, and most people listening thought it must have been a prank, because no way would Illinois be able to score 2 touchdowns in quick succession against the vaunted Michigan defense.

Well, Grange would prove this to be just the beginning. He ended running for scores of 56 and 44 yards after this. Yes, he scored 4 touchdowns in the first quarter, which matched the entire previous 2 year allowed rate for the Michigan team. He ended up rushing for another touchdown, and then he also passed for a score. This game would end Michigan’s unbeaten streak with a final score of 39-14, with Illinois winning.

His final stat line was 212 rushing, 64 passing, and 126 kickoff yards; with 5 rushing touchdowns and 1 passing score. This was an undeniably crazy game that put Red Grange on the map.

The game helped Red Grange earn the nickname, The Galloping Ghost, which would be given to him by Grantland Rice. This is the same person described in the first episode that took over the All-American selection process for Walter Camp. Rice would write a poem describing “The Galloping Ghost.”

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.

Another performance that helped put Grange on the map was against Pennsylvania, a powerhouse football team from the East. At the time, the Eastern college teams didn’t think much of the teams from the Midwest. This game put a stop to the belief of inferiority in the Midwest. Grange would compile 363 yards and 3 touchdowns, giving Illinois a 24-2 victory.

NFL Years

Due to the popularity of Grange in the college ranks, George Halas of the Chicago Bears had an eye on him. Grange would have an agent by the name of C.C. “Cash and Carry” Pyle that would set up the deal. Immediately after his last college game, Pyle set up for Grange to sign a contract with the Chicago Bears.

His debut NFL game was 10 days after his last college game on Thanksgiving, in 1925 against the Chicago Cardinals, in Cubs Park (now Wrigley Field). The game was a wild success, drawing 36,000 fans, the most up to this date in the history of the NFL. Red Grange, The Galloping Ghost, was fully the reason for this record breaking attendance.

C.C. Pyle, George Halas, and Dutch Sternaman knew they had a goldmine to grab ahold of. This was a chance of a lifetime, so they set up a “barnstorming tour.” The tour would take Grange and the Bears to play 8 games in 12 days.

One game was against the New York Giants at New York’s Polo Grounds in front of 70,000 fans, another record breaking attendance mark. Grange was the big draw, and it was said his presence ended up saving the New York Giants football team from going broke and folding.

Red and the Bears would end up going South and West to play 9 more games, culminating in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum against the Los Angeles Tigers. The Bears defeated the Tigers in the game, and Grange would end up becoming rich during the tour.

Before the 1926 season, Grange’s agent Pyle demanded at least a 5-figure income and a 1/3 ownership in the team. Halas and Sternaman refused, so Pyle started a new team called the New York Yankees and founded the first rendition of the American Football League. Unfortunately, against the Bears, Grange would suffer a crippling injury.

He would retire and not play in the 1928 season. Grange was quoted saying, “I didn’t play at all in 1928. I was just an ordinary ball-carrier after that. I did develop into a pretty good defensive back, however.”
Grange and Ernie Nevers both retired in 1928. It appeared Ernie Nevers was another star player. Between economic drought and losing 2 of the biggest stars, the league would dwindle to only 10 teams.

Thankfully, the league would not fold. In 1929, Halas invited Grange back to the Bears, but he would end up playing mostly defensive back the remainder of his career, which lasted until 1934.

A game in 1929 went down in history, but it was for Ernie Nevers. In a game between the Chicago Bears and Chicago Cardinals on November 28, the Cardinals crushed the Bears 40-6. What was most impressive was the fact Ernie Nevers scored all 40 points for the Cardinals. This is still a record today for the most points scored by one person in an NFL game.

One of the final big-time games Red Grange participated in was the first championship game for the NFL, in 1932. The game was played indoors for the first time, because the weather outside was frigid cold and there was extreme snow. In this game, the Chicago Bears would square off against the Portsmouth Spartans, which would end up becoming the Detroit Lions in 1934.

The field was only 80-yards, because it wasn’t originally set up to be ready for a football game. In the episode I discuss a joke conspiracy I made up that links the Franklin D. Roosevelt election in 1932 to the Chicago refs calling the Calvin Johnson catch a no catch. It’s too long to get into in this post, but I think you should listen to the show to get the details.

The reason I mention this is because the winning touchdown in this championship was a pass from Bronko Nagurski to Red Grange. There was controversy on the play, because Portsmouth claimed Bronko was not more than 5-yards behind the line of scrimmage, which was a rule at the time.

The last game I describe is the 1933 championship game, where Red Grange was a defensive hero, making a tough game-saving tackle in closing seconds.

Summing Up Red Grange

Although his time on the gridiron was enough to stop this article and call him one of the most important sports figures of the 20th century, Red Grange was involved in so many more things.

He worked as an insurance businessman, did some acting for advertisements, made movies, was an assistant coach, had many sponsors, and even had a candy bar named after him. An area he contributed to the game of football well past his playing days was as a broadcaster for college and professional games from 1947-1961, announcing 312 Bear’s games during this span. 

Red Grange was a charter member of the College and Professional Football Hall of Fames. His number was 77, which I will no longer consider a boring number. He was one of the most famous athletes of the 20th century, and his contributions to the game back in the beginning of the 20th century set the NFL on a trajectory to become the powerhouse it is today. A quote from Damon Runyan summed up what people of the time though about Grange: 

“The man Red Grange of Illinois is three or four men rolled into one for football purposes. He is Jack Dempsey, Babe Ruth, Al Jolsen, Paavo Numi, and Man’O’War. Put together, they spell Grange.” 

Harold “Red” Grange passed away on January 28, 1991 (age 87) in Lake Wales, FL. The last thing I want to say about Red Grange is that although he had all the fame in the world, he maintained a humble persona his entire career. He was a stand-up dude.

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