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
June 11, 1903–Ernie Nevers is born in Willow River, Minnesota.
ers may be the most forgotten great player in pro football history. Nevers kept his home life private and rarely did interviews which may be the only reason he’s not mentioned in the same conversation as other great football runners of the time like Jim Thorpe, Red Grange and Bronko Nagurski. Pop Warner, his coach at Stanford called him “the football player without a fault” and considered him to be an equal in football talent to Jim Thorpe, who was also coached by Warner. Nevers could run, pass, tackle, punt and play defense.
In 1924, he broke both his ankles early in his junior season and spent the rest of the year recovering. For New Years Day, Stanford was scheduled to play Knute Rockne’s Notre Dame team and their Four Horseman backfield of Harry Stuhldreher, Don Miller, Jim Crowly and Elmer Layden in the Rose Bowl. Two days before the game Nevers was still walking on crutches so Warner crafted a couple of braces to help support his ankles so he could play.
Nevers played the entire 60 minutes that day, rushing for 117-yards, more yardage than the Four Horsemen combined. On defense he was in on 80 percent of Stanford’s tackles and intercepted a pass. Despite his brave effort, Notre Dame won 27-10.
In 1926 Nevers turned pro, signing with the Duluth Eskimos (an NFL team at the time). With Red Grange leaving the NFL to form his competing league, Nevers became the big name for the NFL to promote. To capitalize on his fame as a college football player the NFL made the same move that Halas did with Grange. They turned Duluth into a touring team so they could spotlight Nevers in as many cities as possible.
The Eskimos played 29 games that season against NFL and club team competition. Nevers played all but 29 of a possible 1,740 minutes that year. In 1927, even though Red Grange’s American Football League had failed, the Eskimos went on another long tour of cities. By the time it was over, Nevers was beat up to the point where he skipped the 1928 season and acted as an assistant coach for Warner at Stanford.
Besides playing football in 1926 and 1927, Nevers pitched in the American League for the St. Louis Browns. He wasn’t very effective. Nevers record for his three year major league career was 6-12, but he is in the record books for surrendering two of Babe Ruth’s 60 home runs in 1927.
In 1929 Nevers returned to football with the Chicago Cardinals. On November 28th, at their home field in Comiskey Park against the Bears, Nevers set an NFL record that still stands by scoring all 40 Cardinals points with six rushing touchdowns and kicking four extra points in a 40-6 victory.
Nevers was a First-Team All-Pro each of his five seasons in the NFL and he was also a charter inductee into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963. His #1 is the only number retired by Stanford University and he's part of the Arizona Cardinals' Ring of Honor.
Here is the NFL Film's profile during their countdown of the Top 100 Players of All Time; Ernie Nevers was number 89
Deaths this week:
June 16, 1970 – Brian Piccolo, fullback for the Chicago Bears, died of cancer.
Piccolo led the nation in rushing and scoring in his senior season at Wake Forest in 1964 but wasn’t drafted. He was 5’ 11” and 190-pounds and wasn’t considered big or fast enough to be a pro running back. With nothing to lose, the Bears signed him as a free agent.
In 1966 he spent most of his time playing on special teams but in 1967 he rushed for 317-yards as Gale Sayers’ back-up. It was also the year that the Bears decided to room players together by position so he and Sayers, the only running backs on the team, became the first white and black players to room together in the NFL and their friendship began.
In 1968 Sayers tore up his knee in the ninth game of the season against the 49ers and Piccolo took over as starter. With help in his rehab from Piccolo, Sayers came back in 1969 with Piccolo starting with him as fullback. After having to leave a late season game he was sent for tests when the team arrived back in Chicago. When he was examined the doctors diagnosed the cancer that would eventually take his life.
In May 1970, while accepting the George Halas award as the league’s most courageous player for his comeback from knee surgery in 1969, Sayers gave the speech that would become the emotional climax to the movie Brian’s Song a year later; " He has the mental attitude that makes me proud to have a friend who spells out the word 'courage' 24 hours a day of his life. I love Brian Piccolo, and I'd like all of you to love him, too. Tonight, when you hit your knees, please ask God to love him." (It’s acceptable according to man-law to allow yourself to cry at this point of the movie).
On June 16th at the age of 26 Brian Piccolo died. After each season the Bears present the Brian Piccolo award to one rookie and, starting in 1992 one veteran, who their teammates feel “best exemplifies the courage, loyalty, teamwork, dedication and sense of humor of Brian Piccolo. In 2012 linebacker Nick Roach and defensive tackle Stephen Paea were the recipients. In addition, Brian Piccolo's number 41 is one of the 13 numbers retired by the Chicago Bears.
Brian Piccolo’s friends, family and former teammates established The Brian Piccolo Cancer Research Fund in 1970. For more information about the fund the web address is www.brianpiccolo.org.
Notable Birthdays This Week:
June 11, 1956–Joe Montana
; Quarterback (49ers/Chiefs) 1979–1994; 3-time First-Team All-Pro; 6-time Pro Bowler;
Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2000
This week turned out to be very running back intensive and a quarterback with the stature and accomplishments that Joe Montana has deserves to be the focus of a column; in the meantime, happy birthday Joe Montana.
June 17, 1923–Elroy "Crazy Legs" Hirsch
; End (Chicago Rockets/Rams) 1946–1957; 2-time First-Team All-Pro;
3-time Pro Bowler; Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1968
June 17, 1940–Bobby Bell
; Linebacker (Chiefs) 1963–1974; 6-time First-Team All-Pro; 9-time Pro Bowler;
Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1983
June 17, 1965–Dermontti Dawson
; Center (Steelers) 1988–2000; 6-time First-Team All-Pro; 7-time Pro Bowler;
Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2012
Birthday Name of the Week:
June 14, 1973–Sam Shade
; Safety (Bengals/Redskins) 1995–2002
One season with the Falcons and this would have been perfect.
The Rest of This Week’s Birthdays”
; Tailback/Wingback (Cardinals/Cleveland Rams) 1934–1939
; Defensive Back (Steelers/Vikings) 1957–1962; 1-time Pro Bowler
; Safety (Bears) 1976–1987; 1-time First-Team All-Pro; 2-time Pro Bowler
; Defensive End (Dolphins) 1978–1987; 1-time First-Team All-Pro; 1-time Pro Bowler
; Linebacker (Rams/Chargers) 1981–1989; 1-time Pro Bowler
; Right Guard (Packers/Eagles) 1982–1993
; Punter (Saints/Panthers/Buccaneers/Redskins) 1987–2000
; Linebacker (Seahawks/Bears) 1989–1997
; Running Back (Cardinals/Jets) 1990–1994; 1-time Pro Bowler
; Safety (Cowboys/Dolphins/Lions) 1993–2004; 3-time Pro Bowler
; Defensive End (Raiders/Vikings) 1996–2006
; Defensive End (Lions) 1999–2008
; Tight End (Cowboys) 2009–2011
; End (Frankford Yellow Jackets) 1927–1931
; Safety (49ers) 1981–1987; 2-time Pro Bowler
; Fullback (Patriots/Eagles) 1992–1999
; Tackle (Rams/Browns) 1997–2008
; Tight End (Colts) 2003–2011; 1-time First-Team All-Pro; 1-time Pro Bowler
; Linebacker (Steelers/Lions) 2002–2011
; Wide Receiver (Rams/Titans) 2008–2011
; Wingback (Steelers) 1941–1945; 1-time Pro Bowler
; Defensive End (Patriots) 1973–1980
; Safety (Seahawks/Vikings) 1978–1988
; Right Guard (Colts) 1982–1989
; Defensive Tackle (Oilers) 1985–1992
; Nose Tackle (Bills) 1988–1994
; Defensive Tackle (Seahawks/Ravens/Raiders/Bills/Bengals/Broncos) 1994–2007;
3-time Pro Bowler
; Safety (Jaguars/Cowboys) 2005–2011
; Wide Receiver (Dolphins) 2011–2011
; Wide Receiver (Dolphins) 2011–2011
; Guard (Buccaneers) 2010–2011
; Cornerback (Buccaneers) 2010–2011
; Tackle (Bears) 2011–2011
; Right End/Wingback (Providence Steam Roller/Boston Braves) 1925–1932
; Back (Bears) 1932–1938
; Center (Boston Redskins/Bears/Eagles) 1934–1941; 1-time First-Team All-Pro;
1-time Pro Bowler
; Guard (Redskins/Boston Yanks) 1942–1947; 1-time Pro Bowler
; Middle Guard (Giants) 1949–1952; 2-time Pro Bowler
; End/Defensive Back (Rams/Cardinals/Cowboys) 1950–1960; 1-time Pro Bowler
; Defensive Back (Lions/Bears/Saints) 1958–1969; 1-time Pro Bowler
; Running Back/Quarterback (Colts) 1961–1972; 1-time First-Team All-Pro; 2-time Pro Bowler
; Left Tackle (Bills) 1961–1969; 2-time First-Team All-Pro; 5-time Pro Bowler
; Defensive End (Packers/Redskins/Raiders) 1961–1971; 1-time First-Team All-Pro;
3-time Pro Bowler
; Defensive Back (Bills) 1964–1968; 1-time Pro Bowler
; Linebacker (Browns/Chargers/Chiefs) 1967–1977
; Tackle (Packers/Dolphins/Vikings) 1977–1987
; Quarterback (Bears/Raiders) 1977–1995
; Wide Receiver (Redskins/Colts/Falcons) 1986–1994; 2-time Pro Bowler
; Linebacker (Seahawks) 1989–1996
; Cornerback (Ravens) 1999–2009; 1-time First-Team All-Pro; 3-time Pro Bowler
; Guard (Vikings) 2005–2011
; Defensive Tackle (Eagles) 2008–2011
; Tackle (Raiders) 2010–2011
; Tackle (Steelers/Eagles) 1947–1957
; Cornerback (Colts/Steelers/Redskins/Jets) 1958–1968
; Cornerback (Dolphins) 1982–1991
; Center (Ravens) 1998–2007
; Quarterback (Browns/Cardinals/Panthers) 2006–2011; 1-time Pro Bowler
; Quarterback (Titans) 2011–2011
; Defensive Tackle (Panthers) 2011–2011
; Tackle (Giants/49ers/Colts) 1938–1949; 1-time First-Team All-Pro; 2-time Pro Bowler
; Defensive End/Defensive Tackle (Redskins/Eagles) 1970–1979
; Defensive End/Defensive Tackle (Bills/Oilers/Rams/Seahawks/49ers) 1970–1979
; Tight End/Tackle (Steelers) 1971–1984; 1-time Pro Bowler
; Tackle (Cardinals) 1982–1994; 3-time Pro Bowler
; Punter (Redskins/Dolphins/Jets/Rams/Texans/Jaguars) 1995–2011; 1-time First-Team All-Pro;
3-time Pro Bowler
; Wide Receiver (Jets/Steelers) 2004–2011
; Running Back (Raiders) 2008–2011
; Linebacker (Bears) 2007–2011
; Linebacker (Titans) 2009–2011
; Safety (Chargers) 2010–2011
Right Guard (Lions) 1957–1967; 3-time Pro Bowler
; Guard (Raiders) 1960–1969; 5-time Pro Bowler
; Right Guard (Giants) 1977–1989
; Linebacker (Rams/Bengals/Buccaneers) 1984–1995
; Center (Lions/Seahawks) 1985–1999; 3-time Pro Bowler
; Wide Receiver (Eagles/Dolphins) 1990–1997
; Guard (Dolphins/Redskins) 1990–2000
; Placekicker (Lions) 1992–2011; 2-time Pro Bowler
; Linebacker (Colts/Jaguars/Falcons/Falcons) 1999–2011
; Defensive End (Chiefs/Jets) 1998–2007
; Tackle (Packers) 2000–2010
; Defensive Tackle (Titans/Redskins/Patriots/Buccaneers) 2002–2011;
2-time First-Team All-Pro; 2-time Pro Bowler
; Quarterback (Ravens/Raiders) 2003–2011
; Defensive Back (Buccaneers/Steelers) 2004–2011
; Defensive Tackle (Eagles) 2009–2011
; Defensive Back (Cardinals) 2007–2011
; Tackle (Panthers) 2008–2011