Dropping Back In NFL History: The Running Men

By Tom Pollin
June 14, 2012 9:18 am
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Back in the days when an “iPad” was something you wore over your eye after an injury, college football was not a game that launched its best players into pro careers. College football ruled the sports schedule in the same way the NFL does now. When the very best had finished their college careers they were expected to take their honors, awards and degrees and head off to make their fortunes in the business world. Starting in 1925 that thinking began to change. Settle in as we make the jump in the “Wayback Machine” to Illinois in the 1920’s.

June 13, 1903–Harold “Red” Grange is born in Forksville, Pennsylvania.
While Jim Thorpe brought attention to professional football by being the first big name athlete to play, the signing of Red Grange by the Bears began the process of legitimizing pro football in the minds of the general public.

Grange’s family moved to Wheaton Illinois after his mother died when he was five years old. Grange became a four sport athlete in high school in football, baseball, basketball and track. During his four years of football he scored 75 touchdowns and as a junior, led the team to an undefeated season. To help with the family in those years he took a part time job hauling ice which helped him build his overall body strength. This job also led to his first nickname, “the Wheaton Ice Man”.

In 1922, Grange enrolled at the University of Illinois but had to be convinced to try out for football. He made the freshman team and the following season in his varsity debut against Nebraska he ran for three touchdowns. He finished that season with 723-yards and scored 12 touchdowns for the undefeated Illini.

In his junior season, on October 18, 1924 against Michigan, Grange became famous nationally. It was the opening game for the new Memorial Stadium and over 66,000 people were in the stands. Michigan hadn’t been beaten in two years and head coach Fielding Yost told the press before the game that, “Mr. Grange will be carefully watched every time he takes the ball. There will be eleven clean, hard Michigan tacklers headed for him.” Those eleven clean, hard Michigan tacklers barely touched him all afternoon.

Grange returned the opening kickoff 95-yards for a touchdown. When Illinois got the ball back after Michigan’s first possession he broke the first play for a 67-yard touchdown run. Before the first quarter was finished he had two more touchdowns, then went to the quarterback and said, “I need a breather.” He came back into the game in the third quarter, ran for a 12-yard touchdown and capped the day with a 23-yard touchdown pass for a 39-14 victory. Grange had carried the ball 21 times for 402-yards (a 19.1 yards per carry average) and accounted for all six Illinois touchdowns. After the game, Warren Brown, a writer for the Chicago American newspaper, gave Grange the nickname “The Galloping Ghost”.

In the meantime in Chicago, George Halas was typing up press releases and running them to every newspaper in town in an attempt to grab attention for the Bears and the National Football League. He was also trying to find someone who could generate baseball sized attendance at games. After Grange’s final college game, a 14-9 win over Ohio State on November 21, 1925, he and his agent Charles C. C. “Cash & Carry Pyle sat down with Halas and agreed to a contract that would pay Grange $3,000 a game plus a percentage of each game’s gate.

The next day, Sunday November 22, Grange was on the bench as the Bears played Green Bay. Since the deal hadn’t been announced to the press yet, Grange kept a blanket draped over him to try and escape notice. The next day the deal was announced, along with a schedule of 19 regular season and exhibition games to be played over 67 days.

His decision to turn pro generated an uproar throughout college football. When Grange returned to the campus for the team’s postseason banquet, head coach Bob Zuppke directed some of his remarks at Grange, saying he didn’t want any more $100,000 a year players on his program. The Big Ten Conference created a rule prohibiting anyone who’d ever played professional football from being employed as a coach. “I’d have been more popular with the colleges if I had joined Capone’s mob in Chicago rather than the Bears,” Grange later said.

36,000 fans showed up at Cubs Park (later named Wrigley Field) to watch Grange make his debut against the crosstown rival Chicago Cardinals in a scoreless tie. In two games in December in New York to face the Giants over 138,000 fans filled the Polo Grounds and helped stabilize the financially struggling Giants. After playing 10 games in 18 days in the East and Midwest they took a two week break and went on a nine game trip through the South and West Coast.

While Grange drew standing room crowds in a many of his stops during the tour, the real advantage he gave the NFL was with the attention he drew from some of the prominent sportswriters of the time. Most of the writers that covered the Bears and Grange on their tour continued to cover pro football, helping the game grow in stature with the public.

Before the following season, after being turned down in a bid to buy a piece of the Bears, Pyle and Grange formed a competing league, the American Football League with Grange playing for the New York team that they named the Yankees. The league folded after a year but the Yankees were allowed to join the NFL for 1927. In the third game that season against the Bears, Grange suffered a knee injury that knocked him out of that season and all of 1928. In 1929 Halas welcomed him back to the Bears but the speed and elusiveness was gone.

Grange continued to play running back and developed into an excellent defensive back by the end of his career. He also still had a couple of signature moments left. In an unofficial championship game at the end of the 1932 season, Grange caught a touchdown pass from Bronko Nagurski for the only score in a 7-0 Bears victory.

In the first official NFL Championship Game in 1933, the Bears were up on the New York Giants 23-21. On the final play of the game, Harry Newman of the Giants completed a pass to Dale Burnett, who had teammate Mel Hein trailing and Grange as the last defender to beat. Grange sensed that Burnett planned a lateral to Hein so he hit him high and wrapped up his arms. Burnett couldn’t make the pitch and the game was over.

Grange retired after the 1934 season. He spent some time broadcasting Bears’ games in the 50’s and was also a color commentator on NBC’s College Football Game of the Week. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1951 and was one of the charter inductees of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963. His number 77 is retired by both the University of Illinois and the Chicago Bears. On January 28, 1991 Red Grange died at the age of 81 of pneumonia.

Here is the NFL Film's profile during their countdown of the Top 100 Players of All Time; Grange was number 48.


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By Tom Pollin
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