- The Washington Times - Monday, October 17, 2005

“This man Red Grange of Illinois is three or four men rolled into one Jack Dempsey, Babe Ruth, Al Jolson, Paavo Nurmi and Man o’ War.”

Columnist Damon Runyon

In the Golden Age of Sports, such Overwrought Sportswriting was typical of the times. But Runyon hardly could be blamed considering what he saw on Oct.18, 1924 at the University of Illinois’ new Memorial Stadium in Champaign.

Eighty-one years later, it remains perhaps the most awesome display ever unfurled by a running back. That was the day Harold “Red” Grange sped into college football history as the Galloping Ghost.

He was 21 years old then, a 5-foot-11, 175-pound stripling who hardly looked strong enough to play both ways for the Fighting Illini. But soon after he finished destroying Michigan’s mighty Wolverines that sultry afternoon, nearly every football fan knew his name in an era when there was little radio and no television to spread the exploits of athletic heroes across the land.

Eight decades later and 14 years after Grange’s death from pneumonia at 87, anybody who knows football history will instantly summon up his name if you ask for the identity of the game’s most famous No.77.

Here’s what Grange, a junior coming off an All-American season in 1923, did to a Michigan team coached by the famous Fielding H. “Hurry Up” Yost:

After the Wolverines foolishly sent the opening kickoff in his direction, the redhead zig-zagged 95 yards for a touchdown.

Five minutes later, on the Illini’s first offensive series, he ran 67 yards for another.

Later in the first quarter, he bolted 56 and 44 yards for two more. With the score Grange 27, Michigan 0, Illinois coach Bob Zuppke mercifully took Grange out with three minutes left in the period after he had rushed for 262 all-purpose yards.

Grange was too nice a person to complain, but he must have gotten itchy while parked on the pine. In the third period, he ran 11 yards for his fifth TD and then — presumably just to relieve the monotony — passed 20 yards for a final score in the Illini’s 39-14 romp.

His stats for the day: 212 yards rushing, 64 passing (6-for-6) and 126 on kickoff returns for a titanic total of 402.

Grange, an extremely modest man who became a popular TV analyst in the 1950s and ‘60s, never tried to run over tacklers. Instead he eluded them with his quickness and ability to change speed and direction in an instant. One moment you had him, the next he was gone — hence his famous nickname.

Of course, Red made it all sound simple, saying, “If you have the football and 11 guys are after you, you’ll run if you’re smart.”

And looking back on his career long after, he insisted, “They built my accomplishments way out of proportion. 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. I never got the idea that I was a tremendous big shot.”

But he was — big enough to change both college and pro football forever.

When Grange began his varsity career at Illinois as a sophomore in 1922 — ironically, he almost passed up the gridiron to concentrate on other sports — the East was considered college football’s strongest area, with schools like Yale, Harvard, Pennsylvania and Princeton dominant. By the 1920s, many tough teams had emerged in the South, Midwest and West as well, but most of the Eastern powers looked down their Ivy League noses at the outlanders.

Illinois came east to challenge undefeated Penn in October 1925, and Grange staged another incredible performance by racing 56 yards to score the first time he touched the ball, then returning a kickoff for a touchdown and later adding two more from scrimmage in the Illini’s 24-2 victory.

When his college career ended the following month, owner/coach George Halas of the Chicago Bears was waiting to sign Grange to a $100,000 contract, plus a percentage of the gate, in an era when most NFL games were played on dusty sandlots and most players earned less than $5,000 a season.

Grange’s pro debut attracted a sellout crowd of 36,000 to a Thanksgiving game against the Chicago Cardinals at Wrigley Field. He didn’t do much that day, but Halas reportedly cried while counting the gate receipts.

Halas and Grange’s new agent, flamboyant promoter C.C. “Cash and Carry” Pyle, then took him and the Bears on a nationwide tour covering 19 games in 67 days (Grange missed two because of injuries). Many were sellouts — one in New York against the Giants drew 66,000 to the Polo Grounds — and when the jaunt ended, pro football had become a real threat to the amateur variety for the first time. Years later, Grange said: “I’d have been more popular with the colleges if I had joined Al Capone’s mob rather than the Bears.”

When a bid by Grange and Pyle to buy part of the Bears was rejected by Halas, the ingrate, the two formed the first American Football League in 1926 with Grange playing for the New York Yankees. After the AFL folded, the Yankees joined the NFL in 1927, but Grange suffered a knee injury so serious that he missed he entire 1928 season and never again was the dazzling runner he had been.

Nonetheless, he returned to the Bears in 1929 and played six more seasons, gaining greater attention as a defensive back than as a ball carrier. Near the end of the NFL’s first championship game in 1933, his touchdown-saving tackle preserved the Bears’ 23-21 victory over the Giants.

Grange was an all-league selection four times and became a charter member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963. And other than Ted Williams’ home run in his final at-bat in 1960, no sports icon ended his career so dramatically.

“There goes the old man!” a Giants lineman shouted as the legendary player carried the ball one final time in a January 1935 game.

Grange, balky knee and all, raced 63 yards to the Giants’ 20-yard line.

But when Red Grange was at his peak, such gallops by the Galloping Ghost were routine — and his one-man assault against Michigan was his best day of all.

October 1924 was indeed a hallmark month in sports. On the 10th, Walter Johnson’s Washington Senators won their only World Series with a 12-inning 4-3 victory over the New York Giants in Game7. Eight days later, the “dean of American sportswriters,” Grantland Rice, faced a tough choice: Did he cover the Illinois-Michigan game or Notre Dame-Army at the Polo Grounds?

He chose the latter and although he wrote the most famous sports lead of all time — “Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again …” — Granny clearly made the wrong pick.

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