Incontestably, it was the perfect nickname. You could make a case that it was the best nickname in the history of American sport, although good nicknaming, like legible handwriting and jitterbugging, has pretty much become a lost art. But his was perfect because it compressed into imagery a style and a talent so wonderful that even now, more than half a century later, just saying it evokes heroic images.
The weekly newsreel clips that made the rounds of the movie houses in those days took the images to millions and enhanced them. In black and white, fluttering at 16 to 18 frames a second, they stoked the illusion of speed and made even more impressive the other eerie components of his long touchdown runs: the sublime shifts and feints, the paralyzing stiff-arms, the breathtaking bursts of speed. Reviewing those reels now, you get the impression that if Red Grange were not, indeed, a Galloping Ghost, he surely must have just seen one.
Still photographs taken at the time pinned down the image and put a face to it, but even in those Grange looked ghostlike. Beneath the leather pancake of his headgear, his eyes, embedded in deep sockets, appeared in perpetual shadow and shone so brightly black that they seemed more like objects to be looked at than to look with. A protracted exposure to hard work—he had toted ice for wages during his hardscrabble boyhood in Wheaton, Ill.—had toughened him. He was ruggedly handsome, but he never seemed youthful. Even at 22, which he was in 1925 when he single handedly took professional football out of the dark ages, he had a face like a well-worn coin. It is ironic that today, when he is very old, he looks much younger than he is.
There remains but a handful of people who actually saw Grange play, and most recall him only after he had suffered the crushing knee injury that made him a straight-ahead runner as early as his second year as a professional. He played the remaining six years of his pro career in pain, and witnesses at the end recall a productive but less nimble ballcarrier, the way most modern observers remember Joe Namath after his knees were gone. Those who played with and against Grange, men like Bronko Nagurski, remember him almost as much for his defensive skills. In those days the rules did not permit a player to escape to the bench when the other team got the ball.
Could it be that Grange really was the greatest ever? Damon Runyon wrote about him, as did Westbrook Pegler and Paul Gallico. It was the Golden Age of Sport, and those three supplied much of the burnish. When Runyon saw Grange play for the first time, he said he was "three or four men and a horse rolled into one. He is Jack Dempsey, Babe Ruth, Al Jolson, Paavo Nurmi and Man o' War." Gallico called him a "touchdown factory."
On an October day in 1924 in Champaign, Ill., against a Michigan team that hadn't lost in 20 games, Grange scored touchdowns on runs of 95, 67, 56 and 45 yards—in the first 12 minutes of play. He added a fifth TD later and passed for a sixth, as Illinois won 39-14. Grantland Rice, who is generally credited with giving Grange his sobriquet (Warren Brown of the Chicago Tribune and Charlie Dunkley of AP are also given nods), was deeply moved. When Rice became moved, he summoned poetry:
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 rarely touch.
Rice never missed a chance to see Grange play after that.
A year later, in Philadelphia, Grange played 57 minutes in a stunning 24-2 defeat of heavily favored Pennsylvania. In ankle-deep mud, he amassed 363 yards and scored on runs of 56, 13 and 20 yards. Laurence Stallings, who had co-written What Price Glory?, worked the game for the New York World primarily to see Grange. He agonized over his portable as he considered the performance and finally said, "This story's too big for me. I can't write it."
That was Grange's senior season at Illinois. In the 20 games he played as an undergraduate, he scored 31 touchdowns, many on spectacular long runs, usually when they stood to mean the most to his team. A maddeningly humble man, Grange has always regarded this ability as a kind of celestial fluke, like a passing comet, and has given any recitation of it the kind of passion one might show in reading a train schedule. The reason may be that he was on such intimate terms with the end zone for so long. At Wheaton High he scored 75 touchdowns and was also a four-time state sprint champion and captain of the basketball team.
Two days after his last college game, a 14-9 victory over Ohio State in Columbus before 85,500 fans—college football's largest crowd up to that time—Grange did something extraordinary, as significant as any single event in the history of American football: He turned pro. Specifically, his colorful agent, C.C. (Cash and Carry) Pyle, made him an offer he and the Chicago Bears could not refuse: the chance for everybody to make a lot of money in a hurry.
To appreciate the impact of Grange's decision, you have to understand that in 1925 pro football was regarded as a dirty little business run by rogues and bargain-basement entrepreneurs. The Milwaukee franchise had to fold that year because it was using high school players. Tim Mara bought the year-old New York Giants for $500. The game was confined mainly to tank towns (Pottsville, Frankford, Providence, Rock Island, Green Bay) where gatherings—you couldn't call them "crowds"—numbered four or five hundred on a good day. People who patronized professional football were thought to be of a caliber you now associate with Roller Derby.
College officials wanted no part of the pro game. Besides being seedy, pro football posed an economic threat. So they were aghast that the mighty Grange would defect without at least waiting for graduation day. He was, after all, college football's jewel, a three-time Walter Camp All-America who had represented all the appropriate virtues. He didn't drink or smoke. He hadn't even had a date until he got to college, and once there he was a solid student. The only thing outrageous about him was his modesty. ("The Michigan game? I had great blocking.")
The Chicago News warned that a "living legend" would be wise not to "go and sully" his reputation. Fielding Yost, the Michigan coach, said, "Anything but that." Grange's own coach, Bob Zuppke, lobbied against it ("Stay away from professionalism, and you will be another Camp") and criticized him pointedly at a banquet they attended. "Zup," said Grange, a pragmatist awakening, "you coach for money. Why isn't it O.K. to play for money?" They didn't speak for two years.
Grange played his final game for Illinois on a Saturday, announced his intentions at the Bears game in Chicago on Sunday (he was mobbed by ecstatic fans), signed what amounted to a personal-services contract with the Bears on Monday, practiced two days and played his first pro game on Thanksgiving Thursday. What followed were the 17 days that made pro football.
A hybrid schedule—part regular season, part exhibition, all barnstorm—had been doodled up by Pyle and approved by George Halas, the Bears' owner, coach and starting right end. It called for a miracle of endurance: 10 games in 17 days, seven of them within a nine-day period. Grange was expected to perform in every game. For that, he was guaranteed a 50-50 split of all gate receipts, with Pyle getting 40% of Grange's share.
The first game matched the Bears against the Chicago (now St. Louis) Cardinals. Accustomed to attracting crowds of less than 5,000, Halas was not prepared for the demand. The 20,000 tickets he had printed were sold in three hours. More had to be ordered. A standing-room-only crowd of 36,000 jammed into Cubs Park (now known as Wrigley Field) on a snowy day. No NFL game had drawn near that number. Halas was said to have cried while counting the receipts.
St. Louis, Washington, Boston, Pittsburgh...the trains carrying the Galloping Ghost and his supporting cast of 17 mortal Bears rumbled across the East and Midwest, and wherever they went, it was the same. Grange was an event, a happening so stupendous that the curiosity to see him seemed insatiable. The Bears played before an NFL-record 40,000 fans in Philadelphia in a steady downpour, and Grange scored the game's only two touchdowns. The next day, wearing the same muddy jerseys, the Bears were cheered by 73,000 fans at the Polo Grounds in New York as Chicago beat the Giants 19-7. The $130,000 take saved Mara from financial ruin. "My worries," he said, "are over."
More than 125 reporters covered that game. Rice, Pegler, Runyon and Ford Frick joined the merry group for the remainder of the tour. The Bears were hurried along like artificially ripened fruit to take advantage of the market. At every stop, Halas passed out press releases he had written himself. The Bears traveled in Pullmans and used the ladies' washroom as a training room. Although there were a lot of injuries—the trainer had to suit up for a couple of games—the converts kept coming.
The gate at one stop was $200,000. A Chicago writer noted, "All of a sudden some people around the country think that pro football might be a good investment." In Detroit, nursing a torn muscle and a blood clot in his left arm, and bone tired from the killing pace ("Deep lines showed about Red's face," wrote Frick), Grange could not play. More than 20,000 fans demanded refunds. That game and the next one the following day in Chicago were his only no-shows. "In those days," Grange said later, "you were taken off the field only if you could not walk or breathe."
To keep the trip, in perspective, a Chicago newspaper printed a gleeful running box score of Grange's cumulative earnings. They came to roughly $300 an hour. By the end of the tour, Grange was in pitiful shape, but he rallied when he saw Pyle. "Make me feel good. Tell me how much I'm up to now," he said. Grange's share, with endorsements, came to more than $100,000. Pyle had made deals for Grange's name to go on sportswear, soft drinks, shoes, a doll, pictures, peanuts, a chocolate-nut candy bar—even a meat loaf. When Pyle brought in an offer from a cigarette company, Grange demurred. "I don't smoke," he said.
"You only have to say you like the aroma," said Pyle. Grange relented.
By now Grange occupied a room in the annals of sport that no football player had ever entered. The New York Times called him "the most famous, the most talked of and written about, the most photographed and most picturesque player the game has ever produced." Wrote the enraptured Rice:
There are two shapes now moving,
Two ghosts that drift and glide,
And which of them to tackle
Each rival must decide;
They shift with spectral swiftness
Across the swarded range,
And one of them's a shadow,
And one of them is Grange.
The Ghost was allowed eight days to recuperate before Pyle had him and the Bears off on a second barnstorming tour. This one lasted nine games, beginning on Christmas Day in Miami and moving across the South to the Far West. In Los Angeles, Brother Pyle's Traveling Football Salvation Show drew 75,000 spectators, another pro record.
By the time the Bears hit the finish line in Seattle on Jan. 31, they had played 19 games in 17 cities in 66 days, or about two games a week. Grange went home to Wheaton bruised and battered, but driving a new $5,500 Lincoln Phaeton and wearing a $500 raccoon coat. That spring the Wheaton Iceman (his other enduring nickname) wore the coat on his rounds. His old benefactor at the icehouse, Luke Thompson, asked him please not to park the Phaeton out front. "It confuses me as to who is working for whom," said Thompson.
From then on, football was no longer Grange's game; it was his entrée. There followed the second phase of his celebrity, that of the slightly flawed but increasingly beloved swashbuckler seeking any hedge against his own mortality. "Ten years from now," he said with uncanny imperception, "no one will know or care what Red Grange did or who he was." With Cash and Carry's assistance, he began storing up for the inevitable downside.
When Halas rebuffed their bid to buy a piece of the Bears for the 1926 season, Grange and Pyle went to New York and started their own American Football League. (Fancy that.) When the league bombed, Grange and his New York Yankees joined the NFL in 1927. That season, in the third game, against—of all teams—the Bears, he collided heavily with Chicago's huge center, George Trafton. As they fell, Grange's cleats grabbed in the turf, and Trafton landed on Grange's twisted knee.
Grange tried to come back sooner than he should have, reinjured the knee and missed the entire 1928 season. The damage was permanent. When he rejoined the Bears in 1929, he was no longer a breakaway runner, but he would play through the 1934 season. He had, however, found other open fields in which to maneuver.
Pegler once countered an editorialist's suggestion that Grange should shun pro football and "try to write or act in the movies" by saying, "To be an imitation writer or a fake movie actor would surely be less virtuous than becoming a real football player." Ironically, by becoming a "real football player," Grange assumed those other roles as well. He made movies. He helped write a book on Zuppke, with whom he had a reconciliation, and, much later, a column of college football picks for this magazine. He appeared on the cover of Variety and had a brief stint in a vaudeville act called C'mon Red.
In 1928, Pyle staged a transcontinental 3,422-mile footrace and accompanying sideshow that became known as the Bunion Derby. Grange rode along in a specially outfitted $25,000 bus to help in the promotion. The Bunion Derby, like Grange's one-man review, was a reach. The thousands who were expected to flock to those towns the runners passed through didn't materialize, and Pyle's sideshow, which included a fire-eater, a wrestling bear, a mummified human cadaver and a five-legged pig, was a flop. In Conway, Mo., citizens egged the bus.
Grange's movie career, like that of most athletes who try Hollywood while their names are hot, was a shooting star. Pyle made a deal with Joseph P. Kennedy during that first barnstorming season. Afterward Cash and Carry flashed a $300,000 check that the guileless Grange immediately identified as phony. "One of Charlie's crazy stunts," he said. Nonetheless, Grange did make two films (One Minute to Play and Racing Romeo) and a serial (The Galloping Ghost) for Kennedy. Each was as unsensational as the next, and Grange complained that it was "hard work." After 1929 he didn't make any more movies.
As his football abilities waned, his involvement in the game changed. In the '40s, he was briefly named president of the proposed United States Football League (fancy that), but resigned before it got airborne. He went into broadcasting, and his sometimes unique use of the language gave critics the impression he was self-educated. Still, he was in great demand. He did the Bears games on radio and TV for 14 years and teamed with Lindsey Nelson on network telecasts of college games.
Nelson recalls that Grange was never beguiled by his own importance ("He was incapable of taking himself seriously") and suffered his detractors with good humor. Nitpickers in Chicago were not relentless, but they were pointed. "It is considered a masterpiece of achievement," wrote one, "when Grange has the right team in possession of the ball."
Athletes to Grange were "atha-letes," and sometimes an atha-lete played "right side rinebacker." He had trouble with the collective noun. "The Army team," he would say, "now have four first downs to Navy's three." A staunch defender of Grange, Nelson told a complaining NCAA television executive, "That's the way they do it in England."
"Dammit, Lindsey," said the executive, "Red didn't go to Oxford. He went to Illinois!"
Nelson recalls that Grange once said his greatest achievement was the success he made of an insurance business in Chicago, "because he felt he did that by himself. Everything else was God-given and teamwork." However, Grange gave up the business after a mild coronary in 1951. By then, no doubt, he realized that his apotheosis as a sports hero was going to carry him through after all. When Grange talked, people queued up to listen, and he was not so much a sweetheart that he qualified everything he said. He was, for example, adamant in his futile support of a pension plan for those who had played pro ball when he did and were not as well off as he was. But he always made his case politely.
Says Nelson, "Red had such a wonderful way of handling things that he could make the worst of situations seem O.K. A waitress dropped a bowl of Roquefort dressing on my new blue suit in Chicago one night. I hopped up and was dancing around, all excited, and there sat Red, looking at me ever so sweetly. 'I thought you ordered Thousand Island,' he said."
Sixty years is actually a short bridge in time when a hero is being defined or on his way to being better defined. Instead of dissipating, the testimonials to Grange's preeminence have accumulated over the years. Halas said over and over again that Grange's signing in 1925 was an event "comparable to the national televising of games" in bringing pro football to power. Nagurski called him "the greatest running back I ever saw." Bulldog Turner said he was "the greatest name football ever had." To commemorate college football's 100th anniversary in 1969, the Football Writers Association of America chose an alltime All-America team. Grange alone was a unanimous choice. O.J. Simpson made the second team.
Unlike those modern-day cads and bores who make millions from their sports without exhibiting a redeeming social grace, Grange was a much-loved figure, partly because he was easy to love. The effusive Sid Luckman said that just meeting him was "one of the greatest honors I've received in sports." Upon meeting Grange socially, the Giants' All-Pro center/linebacker Mel Hein called him "the nicest, dearest man I ever met." Hein had first met him on the field at the end of "a stiff-arm so strong it knocked me over."
"The most modest hero who ever lived," said baseball Hall of Famer Ralph Kiner when he met Grange. "An absolute peach," said Nelson. "You couldn't get him mad at you if you tried."
Eventually, Grange left football altogether, but as the years rolled by, he surfaced now and again, usually at the business end of a comment about the passing scene. Asked what it had been like as "the first Herschel Walker" to quit college to go pro, he said he couldn't have been better received "if I'd announced I was joining the Capone mob." Asked about the rigors of playing 10 games in 17 days, he said, "It beat practicing." Asked about the millions of dollars agents were demanding for their players, he said, "I'd have to have an agent, too, because I couldn't keep from laughing if I asked for that kind of money to play football."
In 1980 his age coincided with his old number, 77, which had become so familiar that it turned into a golfing term. "I shot a Red Grange today." The predictable birthday columns reviewed his achievements. He conducted the interviews by telephone from his home near Lake Wales, Fla., where his wife, Muggs, would say, "He'd rather do it that way. He really doesn't care one way or the other if anybody writes about him anymore."
Then, two years ago, Jack Dempsey died and again Grange was sought out, except on a more melancholy note. All the great heroes of the Golden Age had finally passed from the scene—Ruth and Cobb from baseball, Jones from golf, Tilden from tennis, Dempsey from boxing. Only Grange was left. He is the last of those national treasures, and though it isn't so grand to be a grand old man of 82, he is holding on. To what? To what dreams, and to what memories? What could he be thinking now about his game and the part he played in making it? It was to that end that a man with a notebook recently went to Florida.
The town of Lake Wales is one of those fortresses of underdevelopment around which time did not pass as much as it got rerouted. The thundering interstates that allow one to race from Miami to Disney World to Tampa without seeing anything else were plotted well to either side, and not even a Holiday Inn can be found within the city limits. The only prominent landmark is a 10-story apartment house that was in its heyday the Seminole Hotel. Like the town itself, the building is a faded, peeling relic, protruding from the flat terrain like an impaired thumb.
Route 60, an old, thin zipper that slants across the state below Orlando, penetrates Lake Wales in four lanes from the west and squeezes out the other side in two. The land boom that was anticipated years ago never detonated. Except for the voracious discount chain stores and the inevitable Century 21 real-estate office, enterprise to the east of town has a tentative, distrustful quality about it, like the struggling motels there that promise shelter but don't risk putting phones in the rooms.
Farther east, a silica-mining firm has opened the earth right next to where fruit lies spoiled on the ground in a frost-devastated orange grove. The central Florida winters have become more drastic and threaten to shove the citrus industry deeper down the peninsula. A sign advertises five acres for $9,900, NO MONEY DOWN! A new shopping center, with an appositeness undoubtedly lost on its clientele, features a Kash & Karry grocery.
Exactly 20 miles out, a brown and yellow billboard introduces Indian Lake Estates, a "country club community." Passersby are welcomed to "inspect our model homes," although the "estates," half an acre apiece, were carved out of the palmetto patches, sectioned off and grabbed up years ago by speculators hoping to make a bundle selling them to older people looking for perpetual warmth. That was a more optimistic time. Many of the lots have been resold more than once without development. Long stretches of the neatly cut paved roads are devoid of housing. FOR SALE signs dominate the landscape. Indian Lake Estates is a resort that never quite made it.
The star inhabitant, who did, lives on Amaryllis Drive, three blocks from the sticky, blue-black waters of Lake Weohyakapka and half a mile from the golf course he no longer patronizes. Grange is mostly untouched by celebrity now, and that's fine with him. When he moved in 25 years ago, Grange figured he would fish a lot and play golf. He bought two boats. "It's amazing how little the earth seems to move when you're sitting in a boat," he says.
After a while, though, he didn't fish anymore. He didn't mind the fishing, he said. It was the catching and the cleaning. He golfed until recently, but he found that the game lacked something. "It's like kicking field goals," he says. "You don't have to be a football player to kick field goals; you just have to be precise." Golf, he said, would be all right "if somebody came up from behind and tackled you when you were swinging."
He doesn't travel anymore either, "if I can get out of it." He reads. "Baseball books, mainly," he says. "I'm more of a baseball fan than anything. I got footballed to death after it became a job." And he mows his lawn and feeds a sandhill crane that flies in regularly. But "mainly I do nothing, if that's what I want to do. It's what happens when you have enough dough. Muggs and I can have 20 people in for dinner tonight, or go a month without seeing anybody." When strangers inquire if he might be "the guy who played football," Grange tells them, "That was my uncle."
He was in the driveway of the sprawling, airy green-and-white concrete-block house when the visitor drove up. Grange had a bag of birdseed out and was making a large, neat mound on the concrete. High on a nearby telephone wire, the huge crane waited for his friend to finish serving. Grange straightened effortlessly upon seeing the car and waved. That simple act seemed to make him young again—trim and pink-faced and smiling warmly. From head to toe, he was impeccably coordinated: a chocolate brown Ban-Lon shirt, matching knit trousers, a light cream-colored jacket and brown running shoes that looked untested. Although his hair was white as tissue, it showed tints of red when the sun hit it right. Indeed, he looked as if he could be some older man's nephew.
He admired the visitor's rented Thunderbird, running his fingertips along the top of the car door. Once, he said, he bought four cars at the same time—Auburns for his brother and father and two Stutz Bearcats. "We were car nutty," he said. "The Stutz had a sphinx head on the radiator cap, and the overdrive would go whirrrrrr!" He enjoyed the image of his former auto whirring along the back roads of Illinois. "It was the first car I had that could do 100 miles an hour." In his garage now were a pair of worn-looking Pontiacs.
Inside the ranch-style dwelling, each room seemed to broaden into another. Muggs, a handsome, stringy, bright-eyed woman with a golfer's tan, said Red had designed the house "to take advantage of every inch." It has no halls, and the windows and sliding glass patio doors open onto the screen-enclosed pool so that the breezes can cool even the hottest days. There are some signs of disrepair, but in middle age it remains a comfortable house.
Muggs and Red have been married 44 years. She was a stewardess, and they met on a plane. They have no children. They share quarters with a waddling dachshund named Rusty and a mellowing hoard of memories. They have only memories now, said Muggs, because except for the oil Zuppke painted of Red in his wool jersey and leather helmet, which hangs over the bar, "Everything else has been shipped to the Hall of Fame. Red got tired of me polishin' every time we had company."
Red and the visitor passed a white brick fireplace and a formidable television set on the way to the patio. Red said, yes, he still watches football, "especially if it's a good college game," but "there's so many of them on TV now, and with all the time-outs they just go on forever. Football can't be so important that you'd sit and watch five or six hours of it a day. I get up and go for a beer, or go mow the lawn. I used to mow the hell out of that lawn on a Sunday afternoon."
The trouble with television, he said, "is that they try to sensationalize everything. Hell, a guy hits a home run, that's what he's supposed to do. That's why he gets all that money. When the fans realize it's not that sensational, they get bored. The media makes the Super Bowl seem like it's going to be World War III, and then after you watch it you realize it's not, and you feel cheated."
Grange sat straight in the aluminum patio chair, his posture so erect that his visitor instinctively straightened. The visitor was pleased—delighted, actually—to have found Grange so spry. The legend recounted his feats with no wasted words, as one might give a prepared speech. When the subject demanded it, he skillfully grafted the present to the past. As legends go, the Galloping Ghost had endured the march of time remarkably well.
"Football hasn't changed that much, really," Grange said, "except for the shape of the ball. The ball in the '20s and '30s was fat like a basketball, and on a windy day it was like throwing a balloon. The longer, narrower ball opened up the passing game, no question. But it took away the dropkick. An old dropkicker could kick a field goal inside the 50 with no trouble." He laughed, enjoying the irony. He said there were many ironies.
"The equipment got better and better," he said. "In one of those old helmets I'd get kicked in the head and I'd be dingy the rest of the game. Everything we wore was heavy except the helmets. But then they started making 'em so hard and heavy that coaches started using 'em like spears, getting guys hurt, so that wasn't much of an improvement.
"I don't think coaches are necessarily better today; there are just more of them. We had a coach for the line and one for the backs. Now they've got a coach for everything. It makes the game better to watch because you can specialize. But it still all boils down to blocking and tackling. You get a bunch of guys who'll do that—not can do it, but will do it—and you win."
He had tried coaching the Bears' backfield after he quit playing, but he didn't last past the third season because "it wasn't going to be my life-style. I didn't want to work that hard at it. Halas was the coach, and he had us in there from 8 a.m. to midnight, which wasn't my idea of a normal working day. Besides, I didn't want to have to kick some kid in the pants to make him play."
The visitor said he had seen the old film clips and had been amazed at Grange's running. "It was God-given; I couldn't take any credit," he said. "Other guys could make 90s and 100s in chemistry. I could run fast. It's the way God distributes things. I don't remember ever losing a footrace as a kid. I'd go to those church picnics and I'd win a baseball, and then my father would give me a quarter every time I won. Hell, I was a pro when I was in the sixth grade!"
He smiled, one side of his mouth rising above the other and the skin gathering around his glistening, impenetrable black eyes. "My best day in sports happened when I was 15 or 16," he said. "I'd been on the ice wagon all morning, and I went to this track meet in the middle of the day. I won six first places. Then I went back and finished my rounds and put the ice truck away."
But that didn't explain his style, the visitor said. "People say you ran with the football in a way no one ever has. How do you account for it?"
"I don't know if I can," said Grange. "It's not something you're taught. You throw a football to 10 kids and tell 'em to run at a defense, they'll do it 10 different ways. Hey, would you like a beer? Muggs, how about a couple beers?"
"They used to write about the ice wagon being good training for you," said the visitor.
"I only thought of it that way afterward, because there's no doubt it made me stronger. But I did it for the money. I was 15 or 16 when I started, and I'll never forget that first check—the unheard-of amount of $37.50. Mr. Thompson used to come by with the wagon, and we'd chase it for ice chips. One day he said he'd give any of us a dollar if we could take the tongs and carry a 75-pound block of ice on our shoulders. We all tried it, and it always slid off. None of us could do it, so I practiced. There's a knack to it; you have to hold the ice tongs so they don't come apart, and balance the block on your shoulder. When I got so I could do it he gave me the dollar and said, 'You want to work for me?' "
"The ice tongs are in the Hall of Fame now, chrome-plated," said Muggs, returning with the beer. "We'll have lunch soon," she said. "A typical Red Grange lunch."
Grange unbuttoned his jacket and leaned back in his chair. He seemed to be enjoying himself, despite Muggs's warning that he really didn't care "one way or the other" about these things anymore. "You can come," she had told the visitor, "but it won't matter to him either way."
"I'd go into the icehouse at 5 a.m.," Red said, "and I'd deliver until seven at night. I got to know so many wonderful people, going in the back door. 'Harold, are you hungry?' and I'd get a piece of sausage. I could have weighed 300 pounds. But every summer I'd save the three or four hundred bucks it took to pay for another semester at Illinois."
"You had no financial help?"
"There were no scholarships then, and I wouldn't have taken one if it had been offered. We were taught to earn those things. My father didn't have anything. He'd been a lumberjack as a young man back in Forkville, Pennsylvania, where I was born. When he moved to Wheaton, he became a policeman and was a one-man force for about 30 years. The toughest man I ever knew, my father. I'll tell you, when the drunks got off the Chicago Aurora & Elgin, they'd all run for home instead of raising Cain downtown. I don't think anything in the world scared my father. I was always afraid he'd get shot, he was so fearless. He did, once, in the foot.
"But he didn't have the money to send me to school. My mother had died when I was five, and Dad had to leave my two sisters back East for an aunt to raise. He took my younger brother, Garland, and me to Wheaton. Wheaton was a railroad town of about 4,000 people then, and probably 80 percent of them worked in Chicago. I got to be such a White Sox nut that I'd take the train in on school days, catch the 10:30 to the Wells Street station downtown, then the elevated to Comiskey Park. I didn't fool anybody. One of my teachers said, 'Harold, how'd the White Sox do yesterday?'
They did fine, until the [1919 World Series] scandal, of course. I loved to watch Cicotte pitch, putting that glove up there like he was loading up for a spitball, and he probably didn't throw one in a hundred. And Collins and Weaver in the infield, and Joe Jackson—what a hitter. He could put it over the fence with one hand. There might have been better teams, but I never saw one."
"Had your father been an athlete?" the visitor asked.
"He could have been, he was so big and strong. He lived to 86, and he never missed a football or basketball game. He knew more about my career than I did. He hated anybody who got cocky about success. If I'd gotten cocky, he would have paddled me. But he was like everybody else in town when it came to athletics—they had an interest in you. The merchants would stop you in the street and ask what happened Saturday. Everybody was involved, in a supportive way. It was great because it made you feel like you were part of something."
The visitor asked how heavily Illinois had recruited him.
"The only time Zuppke spoke to me was when I went to Champaign for the state track meet, representing Wheaton. I won the 100 and 220, and he came and put his arm around me and said, 'If you come down, I think you have a chance of making our team.' That's the only selling job he did. Anything more than that was beneath his dignity."
"Do you think recruiting is beneath a coach's dignity?"
"Most of it. Ninety percent of the kids I knew went to Illinois because they wanted to be there. It was a matter of pride and loyalty. Also, for me, it was cheaper. But I know the Michigan kids wanted to go to Michigan, the Iowa kids went to Iowa, not because they were sweet-talked into it. I think scholarships ruined that. I don't think they should give them except when a kid can't afford school any other way, and then they should be equally available whether you play football or play in the band.
"When they started giving scholarships, they made athletes pros. What's the difference if you give a kid a scholarship or the money? What's the difference between a $5,000 scholarship and $5,000 cash? I think most of the trouble they're having now stems from that and from the alumni getting involved. It makes football too big. When football gets more important than the college, they should just forget college and form a league and play football."
"So you didn't get anything in college?"
"I didn't, and I didn't expect it. Not 10 cents. Hell, I didn't even plan to play football until I got there and my fraternity brothers made me."
Grange laughed. "I was pledging Zeta Psi, and in those days they'd line you up and say, 'What sport you going out for?' I said, 'Basketball.' I always thought I was a better basketball player than anything. They said, 'You play four years of football in high school?' 'Yeah.' 'Football's bigger at Illinois than basketball. You go out for football.'
"So I went out, and about 120 guys were there trying out for the freshman team. When I saw how big they were, I didn't even check out a uniform. I came back and said, 'They're too big.' And then they got the paddle out and made me bend over. And I said, 'Football makes a lot of sense to me.'
"As it turned out, that was probably the best freshman team anybody ever had. We beat the varsity regularly, and three of us went on to make All-America our sophomore year—except that Moon Baker made it at Northwestern and Frank Wickhorst at Navy after they transferred. Earl Britton should have made it. What a player—our fullback for three years, the best blocker I ever saw. He gave me my biggest thrill in football."
"What was that?"
The field goal against Iowa our sophomore year. It was our first big game before a big crowd, at Iowa City, 35 or 40 thousand people. I held for him, and I just sat there watching the ball go, 52 or 53 yards, as I remember. I knew immediately he had it. We won the game nine to six." Typically, Grange didn't mention that the Illini were losing 6-3 until he scored the winning touchdown with two minutes to play.
If Iowa was his biggest thrill, what about Michigan?
"What I remember about the Michigan game was the blocking. We outblocked 'em, that's all. And I remember afterward being so hungry. I went back to the fraternity, and a lot of people were partying. So a friend and I ducked out through the kitchen and went for something to eat. Then we went to a movie and went to bed."
"How'd you get number 77?"
"The guy in front of me got 76; the guy in back got 78."
"You didn't graduate, which I suppose at the time was perceived as a bad thing for college sport," the visitor said. "Do you regret it?"
"Well, I never had anybody ask me for my diploma, if that's what you mean. But I suppose I resent it a little that people mistake a lack of a diploma for a lack of brains. I was a good student. Hell, I had all kinds of trigonometry. A lot of people think if you play football you're dumb, but if you play golf or tennis you're smart.
"The thing is, I had a chance to make some money, a lot of money for me. When Herschel Walker got his chance, I couldn't blame him. I don't see how you can turn down four or five million dollars, no matter what anybody thinks. Ten or 15 years from now there'll be new Herschel Walkers. Herschel Walker has to take care of himself."
Muggs returned, holding up a pair of old football pants. They were the color of dead leaves, and beneath the stark weave of their canvas skin the mysterious bulges of protection stood out like large welts. The pants had a formidable, inviolate look, as if they were capable of sweating on their own. The old man sitting in the chair smiled and turned over the belt for the visitor to see the inscription sewn inside: RED GRANGE MODEL. "I never wore these," he said. "They were sent to us by an Indian in Oklahoma."
"They were one of your endorsements?"
"I endorsed everything there for a while."
"Tell me about Cash and Carry Pyle," the visitor said.
"Dapper, that's the first word that comes to mind. He went to the barbershop every day of his life, and he was immaculate. He wore that derby and spats and carried a cane, and he had that neat little mustache. The greatest ladies' man you ever saw. He was married five times, three times to the same woman, and despite everything you might have read, he was one of the most honest men I ever knew.
"Charlie had more good ideas than any 10 men about how to make a buck. He'd made and lost a million three or four times. If he were active today, there'd be no end to the money he'd make. But he was straight with me from the start. He owned two theaters in Champaign. One night I was in there and the usher said, 'Mr. Pyle wants to see you.' I thought he was going to give me a couple of passes.
"I went into his office and he said, 'How'd you like to make $100,000?' I said, 'You've got the wrong guy. I don't do things like that.' He said, 'I'm talking about playing pro football. I'll guarantee you that much.' I said, 'Well, I'm interested.' I was only with Charlie for about three years, but I got everything he said I'd get, and more."
What you have to remember about the times, Grange said, "was that there just didn't seem to be a future in football. Now, of course, the game gives so many atha-letes a chance, and that's good. There's money in it, and when you're at your prime you should be able to pursue it. I told Zuppke, 'I've played three years [at Illinois]. I've got more than three years left. I've got my life ahead of me. Are you going to take care of me until I'm 60?'
"We had some terrific arguments in his kitchen. He'd close the door and keep Mrs. Zuppke out. I said, 'You teach football, I'll take care of Grange.' I just couldn't accept the fact that it was all right for him to coach football for his life and not for me to play it. But most people take care of themselves first, and that's what he was doing. The colleges were scared to death that the pros would lure away their players with money.
"That's why I did it, of course. Football itself wasn't that important to me. But I went from having nothing to owning two or three cars at a time. I bought my father a $25,000 house, which was an expensive house in those days. I spent money like it was going out of circulation, until I learned better. I was a big shot. I drank Dom Perignon champagne. I wore a raccoon coat. I'd go into a restaurant and order from the right side of the menu. After I became a pro, if something I ordered didn't cost $20, I didn't want it.
"It was fun, but I don't think it was a good phase of my life. I noticed one thing that still seems to apply. Once you start getting paid to play, the crowds treat you differently. I got booed for the first time as a pro. It was a new feeling. I can understand it, though. They expect you to play up to what you're being paid. When we made that tour, the crowds only cared that I produced. They didn't care if I was tired or beat-up. I can't blame them. But it made football different for me.
"I don't have any complaints. I've lived the way I wanted, done what I wanted. I don't owe anybody. I couldn't be this way if it weren't for football. But I wonder now and then how the other guys are doing, guys who helped make the pro game, guys who played even after I did.
"Pro ball in the early days got two or three inches on the third page. After we made those tours, it was getting top headlines. We spread the NFL across the country, taking it to towns that never saw a pro game, doing anything to push the product. We played in Memphis one year, and after the game started, we were driving for a touchdown when the promoter came running on the field and told everybody we'd have to start over. The backer of the game was the founder of the Piggly Wiggly stores, Clarence Saunders, and he'd gotten caught in traffic and missed the kickoff. So we started over.
They're benefiting today because of the things we did. And isn't it too bad that the NFL never took care of those early players? I complained a few times, because we had guys in hospitals, guys who had had amputations because of football injuries. Guys who had problems. I thought the game could have done something for them, but it never did. As far as I know, pro football hasn't done anything for anybody except lately, and that's mostly for itself. I never made a real stink about it, but I was sad for the oldtimers."
Muggs returned with lunch—homemade soup, finger-size crackers coated with cheese, and fresh grapes. "That's the way we like to eat," she said. "Simple but to the point." Grange didn't finish his soup. Later, Muggs went to a dental appointment, and Grange and the visitor moved into the kitchen for coffee. Rusty rested on a plaid cushion under the table.
"How did you like Hollywood?" the visitor asked.
Grange said it was fun, that he had been flattered and petted by a lot of important people. "I went to the parties and had some interesting dates," he said. "I played poker with Adolphe Menjou and Andy Devine, and Mr. Kennedy was wonderful to me. But it was the hardest job I ever had. The best part was the blood-and-thunder stuff—the fights, the chases. I did a lot of the stunts myself, riding a motorcycle in some scenes. My dad taught me when he was a cop, and I was a pretty good motorcycle rider. But I didn't want to work that hard."
"What about television? You worked hard at that for a long time."
"Well, it's so demanding. You say the wrong word, people make a big thing out of it. Make a mistake in football, you can cover it up. If it's on TV, it's out. It can make you nervous. I actually didn't talk too much when I did television. Now these color guys hold a clinic after every play to let you know how much they know about the game. They're wrong half the time."
He said he could understand the complaints about his grammar, "although we all make those mistakes. The part I didn't like was when they wanted us to harp on the bad things. I think a lot of guys do it—criticize atha-letes, criticize coaches—to make themselves look good, but it doesn't. When I saw a mistake, I didn't make a big deal, because I didn't want to hurt a guy's feelings. There isn't anything in life where mistakes aren't made."
He said all the celebrated atha-letes he had met had finally come to a live-and-let-live outlook on life. "Babe Ruth came to my room that first year in New York. He called from the lobby. I'd never met him, so I asked him to come up. He said, 'Kid, I want to give you two pieces of advice: Don't pay any attention to what they say or write about you. And don't pick up too many checks.' "
The real book on Ruth, though, he said, was that "when I was with him, I couldn't spend a dime. He picked up checks quicker than anybody. He'd say, 'I'll take that, kid.' There was never a more down-to-earth guy than Babe Ruth."
What about the other starry lights in his constellation who now, in retrospect, shine so brightly? Did he realize how golden the Golden Age was? "No, I don't think so," said Grange. "It's something you accept as the way things are supposed to be. I can't think of a reason for it, except maybe the atha-letes knew the details of their games better in those days. You never stopped learning the details. Coaches would spend hour after hour drilling you. At Illinois we took batting practice, and then we took more batting practice [yes, he played baseball, too]. We never complained because we liked it."
What about Dempsey. Did he know Dempsey?
"I met Jack at a party in New York, one of those 'How are you, Mr. Dempsey,' 'Nice to meet you, Mr. Grange,' and you shake hands. After that I'd go around to his restaurant on Broadway in Manhattan, and we'd sit and talk. The trouble was I didn't know anything about boxing, and he didn't know anything about football.
"Bobby Jones I met at a banquet in Atlanta, and I thought, 'What a smart man and a nice man.' But I couldn't really talk golf with him, because golf was too financial for me. I could appreciate tennis a little more because it was easy to see that it took a good atha-lete to play it well. Pyle introduced me to Bill Tilden at a match at the old Madison Square Garden. Must have been 1928 because I was living in New York then. What I remember about Tilden was his quickness. He had those long arms and legs, and you couldn't get a ball past him. But his quickness was the thing—something all the great atha-letes have in one form or another. That and good legs. Even golfers have to have good legs."
But most of those star crossings, Grange said, were only that—brief encounters: "I met Cobb through a boxer friend in Wheaton. He took me around to the Tiger bench before a game at Comiskey Park, and Cobb said hello. I remember I was glad to see him lose to the White Sox. Jim Thorpe, of course, was my No. 1 guy in football. I played against him in a couple of those exhibitions when he was past 40 and out of shape. I never saw him in his prime, but Halas did and he said he lived up to his clippings.
"The thing I remember about Thorpe was that he wanted to borrow everything from you—your helmet, your shoes. Otherwise, he didn't have a lot to say. He'd let you carry the conversation. I guess there was just so much inside him, being an Indian in a white man's world. He was fiercely proud of that, and he wouldn't take any stuff about Indians. But you'd never hear him say, 'I scored four touchdowns that game.' You'd have to ask. Once you asked him about anything or anybody, though, he'd give it to you straight—'I think so-and-so was horse manure.'
"I remember the first time we had a drink together. He said, 'Are you sure you want this? I know I do, but are you sure you do?' Drinking wasn't something Thorpe was scared of; he was pretty familiar with it. In those days, though, athaletes weren't supposed to touch the stuff, and he was concerned about me. I said, 'I guess I'll pass.' "
It must have been an exciting time, the visitor said, "and to be so well known."
"Well, something always happens to keep you in line. When Pyle took us to Washington, Senator McKinley of Illinois sent a car around to take Halas and me to the White House to meet President Coolidge. He said, 'Mr. President, this is Mr. Grange and Mr. Halas. They're with the Chicago Bears.' Mr. Coolidge said, 'Glad to meet you fellows. I always did like animal acts.' He didn't know anything about football, which is maybe the way it ought to be."
Finally, the visitor got up to leave. Grange seemed sorry to see him go and invited him to come back "anytime." As they walked to the rented car, the visitor noted that the birdseed was all gone. He recalled what Zuppke had said about Grange. Zuppke had once seen a deer bound by in a national park, and he stopped his car and exclaimed aloud, "There goes Red Grange!"
The visitor recited the story for Grange and told how Zuppke, years later, had remarked, "They can argue all they want about the greatest football player who ever lived. I was satisfied I had him when I had Red Grange."
The Galloping Ghost laughed. "I played football the only way I knew how," he said. "If you have the football and 11 guys are after you, if you're smart, you'll run. It was no big deal."
December 25th, 1925
CORAL GABLES FLA.
1: Nov. 26, 1925
2: Nov. 29, 1925
3: Dec. 2, 1925
4: Dec. 5, 1925
5: Dec. 6, 1925
6: Dec. 8, 1925
7: Dec. 9, 1925
8. Dec. 10, 1925
9: Dec. 12, 1925
10: Dec. 13, 1925
11: Dec. 25, 1925
12: Jan. 1, 1926
13: Jan. 2, 1926
14: Jan. 10, 1926
15: Jan. 16, 1926
16: Jan. 17, 1926
17: Jan. 24, 1926
18: Jan. 30, 1926
19: Jan. 31, 1926
THE 66 DAYS THAT MADE PRO FOOTBALL
Cubs Park, Chicago
96 yds. rushing, 1 int.
Cubs Park, Chicago
140 yds., 22-yd. TD comp.
Sportsman's Park, St. Louis
Shibe Park, Philadelphia
Frankford Yellow Jackets
Polo Grounds, New York
New York Giants
35-yd. int. return for a TD
Griffith Stadium, Wash., D.C.
Braves Field, Boston
Providence Steam Rollers
18 yds. on 5 carries
Forbes Field, Pittsburgh
Injured, left after 10 plays
Navin Field, Detroit
Did not play
Cubs Park, Chicago
New York Giants
Did not play
Coral Gables, Fla.
98 yds. on 9 carries, 1 TD
70-yd. TD run
30-yd. TD comp.
136 yds. on 16 carries
Los Angeles Tigers
San Francisco Tigers
41 yds. on 7 carries
15-yd. TD catch, 45-yd. TD run
99 yds. on 9 carries, 2 TDs