Harold (Red) Grange, the Illinois halfback who was to become as celebrated as any athlete of his time, might have been just another forgotten track man had it not been for his Zeta Psi fraternity brothers at Champaign-Urbana. A four-letter man during his high school days in Wheaton, Ill., he promptly wrote himself off as a football player when he got to college and took a look at the competition: he judged himself too small, and decided to stick to basketball and track. But his plan did not meet with the approval of his fellow Zeta Psis. Familiar with his high school reputation as a quadruple threat, they undertook to persuade him—with a fraternity paddle—to change his mind. The persuasion was so vigorous that where Grange had been afraid to try out for football he suddenly found himself afraid not to, and thus was urged on his way to immortality.
Once committed, Grange quickly began to build the legend. As a freshman in his first varsity game Grange scored three touchdowns against Nebraska. He went on to play in seven of the mini's eight games in 1923, scoring 72 points, gaining 937 yards total offense and helping his team to the national championship.
Illinois opened its 1924 schedule with four straight wins, including a 39-14 victory that ended Michigan's 19-game winning streak, and the 36-0 crushing of an Iowa team that had given away only five points to their four previous opponents. In his most famous performance, Grange scored five touchdowns against Michigan, four of them in the first 12 minutes, and passed for a sixth. Against Iowa he scored twice and rushed and passed for 249 yards.
By 1925, with his college career only half complete, Grange was already famous, immortalized in verse by Grantland Rice:
November 12, 1973
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
An inventive advertising man dubbed the 1924 Wills Sainte Claire automobile "the Red Grange of Traffic," because it boasted "such suppleness, such dash, such unbelievable change of pace."
To make the most of these skills—in the man, not the machine—Illinois Coach Bob Zuppke designed a special "Grange formation," essentially a single wing set behind a split line with Grange stationed at tailback 5½ yards deep. The exaggerated distance kept The Ghost from galloping up the heels of his interference and it worked so well that for a year and a half, through 12 straight Illinois wins, only one team came close to containing the redhead. That was Amos Alonzo Stagg's powerhouse at the University of Chicago.
In their confrontation in 1923 Grange had been limited to 108 yards total offense and one touchdown—enough, as it turned out, to beat Chicago. Despite this narrow margin of victory, the Illini were heavy favorites to win the 1924 rematch, mostly because of the feats Grange had performed in the meantime. As one newspaper glowingly explained, "No team or player has captured popular favor in years as have Illinois and the famous Red Grange." It modestly added, "...to neutral observers the Illinois eleven is regarded as an almost perfect team."
Chicago was less impressed as it prepared for the Nov. 8 game. A brawny, bruising bunch (they were known as the Monsters of the Midway before the professional Bears adopted the title), the Maroons had been pointing for Illinois all season. Stagg held secret practice sessions in which he polished what one story called "a smashing attack to combat the ground-gaining and point-scoring propensities of Red Grange." So determined were Stagg's efforts that another correspondent wrote, "Everything in the veteran mentor's repertoire of attack and defense plays has been drawn upon to perfect the Maroon machine."
On game day 33,000 jammed into little Stagg Field, among them the former Yale coach and All-America selector Walter Camp, who had come a thousand miles for a look at Grange.
Chicago received the opening kickoff and drove to the Illinois five as Big Bertha, the band's eight-foot, two-inch bass drum, pounded out a cadence. But Austin McCarty fumbled. Illinois kicked on first down, the ball was returned to the Illinois 30, and nine plays later the reprieved McCarty plunged over for the touchdown. Up to then the Chicago offense was doing what it did best, grinding out yardage between the tackles. Grange, who also played safety, would later recall that "every play they had seemed to be planned for five or six yards, and they always got it."
Given the option, Illinois for some reason chose to kick off again, and once more the Maroons marched. The first period ended with Illinois backed up to within six inches of its goal line and the second began with Harry Thomas crossing it. Chicago was now leading 14-0, and the Illinois offense, let alone Grange, had yet to touch the ball.
Chicago kicked off next and finally Grange took charge, moving the Illini to the Maroon four. Then Grange ran to the wide side and scored.
In its next possession Chicago began another upheld grind. Zuppke, hoping to stop the onslaught, put Grange at defensive end, but it was no use. A 27-yard pass and wide gaps in the Illinois line set up an easy touchdown from the five. Amazingly, Chicago was leading 21-7 and a rout seemed imminent.
Illinois returned the following kickoff to its 26 and Grange, rising to the urgency of the moment, reeled off his longest gains thus far, 14 yards and then 12. At third down and two, Earl Britton went into punt formation, but instead of kicking he passed to his right end, Chuck Kassell, who lateraled to Grange. He was brought down on the four. With time running out in the half, Grange fought his way into the end zone. Illinois now trailed 21-14.
The opening offensive series of the second half set the mood for the rest of the game. Both defenses toughened, punts were exchanged and on an Illinois field-goal attempt a brief scuffle erupted. Following a Chicago quick kick, Illinois took over at its 20. Grange carried on the next play and began following a convoy of blockers around left end. Suddenly he cut sharply toward the middle of the field against the flow of Chicago defenders. His long strides took him past midfield, deeper and deeper into Maroon territory, and suddenly it was obvious to every one of the 33,000 fans that Grange was going to score again. His third touchdown, an 80-yarder. Britton's extra point made it 21-21.
The game stretched into the fourth quarter, each team missing a field-goal attempt. Grange ran for another long gain, 33 yards to his own 47, but both teams had drives stopped by interceptions. Finally, with less than two minutes remaining, Illinois took over on its own 11. On the first play Grange broke into the clear and was stopped only when a defender desperately shoved him out of bounds at the Chicago 39. Far down the field, however, a reserve had been caught holding. The run was thus nullified and the ball was brought back to the one. Four plays later the game ended, a bitter struggle reduced to a mutually frustrating tie.
The nationwide impact, however, was tremendous. Camp said of the contest, "It was one of the most wonderful games I have ever seen on any field anywhere." Grange himself, who collapsed from exhaustion during his grueling two-way performance, could later pinpoint this as the toughest game he ever played.
If the outcome was disappointing for Illinois, the game provided a statistical high point for Grange. He had eluded Stagg's keying defense to gain 196 yards in 27 carries. He had completed five of 10 passes for 86 yards and caught two more for 40. The 322 yards in total offense was to stand as a record for his college career.
Finally, as the redhead recalled on his retirement from football in 1935, "I had teeth marks all over my legs when the game was finished. It was the only time I was ever bitten."