Ghost of Illinois
By Larry Schwartz
Special to ESPN.com
"I was interviewing George Halas and I asked him who is the greatest running back you ever saw. And he said, 'That would be Red Grange.' And I asked him if Grange was playing today, how many yards do you think he'd gain. And he said, 'About 750, maybe 800 yards.' And I said, 'Well, 800 yards is just okay.' He sat up in his chair and he said, 'Son, you must remember one thing. Red Grange is 75 years old.' "
-- Chris Berman on ESPN's SportsCentury show.
Grange, a three-time All-American halfback at Illinois and the player who put the NFL on the map, was voted No. 28 among North American athletes of the 20th century by SportsCentury's distinguished 48-person panel.
Oct. 18, 1924 -- Though Memorial Stadium was opened last year, during Illinois' consensus national championship season, the stadium was formally dedicated at today's game. A crowd of 66,609 jammed the stadium to watch Illinois play Michigan, unbeaten in its last 20 games.
|Defenders had trouble touching Red Grange, much less tackling him.|
Grange was surprised that the opening kickoff was directed to him. The Wolverines were more surprised when Grange avoided several tackles and broke free for a 95-yard touchdown return. That was just the appetizer.
The 5-foot-11, 175-pound junior was as elusive as a ghost to the Wolverine defenders, who had trouble touching him, much less tackling him. Some five minutes later, Grange scored on a 67-yard run. Then he made two more remarkable touchdown dashes -- of 56 and 44 yards -- to give Illinois a 27-0 lead.
All four touchdowns -- which covered 262 yards -- came in the first 12 minutes.
Grange then went to the sideline for a breather, but he wasn't finished. In the second half, he ran 11 yards for Illinois' fifth touchdown and then the versatile back passed 20 yards for its final score in a resounding 39-14 triumph.
Decades later, Grange recalled the contest: "I don't think I ever played in any other game where every man did exactly what he was supposed to do. ... I don't think any college team in the nation could have licked us that day. Maybe on the Friday before or the Sunday afterward they might have beat our brains in, but not on that one Saturday."
Odds and endsAs a high school junior, Grange scored 36 touchdowns in leading Wheaton (Ill.) High School to an undefeated season. Each time he scored, his father gave him a quarter.
Grange was Illinois state high school champion in the 100- and 220-yard dashes and the long jump.
For delivering ice in Wheaton during the summers, he earned $37.50 a week.
Grange said he got the No. 77 at Illinois because "the guy in front of me got 76; the guy in back of me got 78."
As a college senior, Grange was on the cover of Time magazine (Oct. 5, 1925).
When Illinois played at Penn in 1925, it was such a big game that Laurence Stallings, a famed war correspondent who had co-written "What Price Glory?" covered the game for the New York World. After Grange accounted for 363 yards in leading Illinois to a 24-2 upset of the Ivy League powerhouse, Stallings said, "This story's too big for me. I can't write it."
When Grange's college coach, Bob Zuppke, tried to persuade him from becoming a pro after his college eligibility expires, Grange said, "Zup, you coach for money. Why isn't it okay to play for money?"
Grange earned more than $100,000 -- a stupendous sum at that time -- for the Bears' 19-games-in-17-cities tour in a little more than two months.
On Dec. 6, 1925, more than 65,000 showed up at the Polo Grounds to watch Grange, helping save the New York Giants' franchise. Grange scored a touchdown on a 35-yard interception return in the Bears' 19-7 victory. Offensively, he ran for 53 yards on 11 carries, caught a 23-yard pass and completed 2-of-3 passes for 32 yards.
Halas said that no player has had a greater impact on the game of football, college or professional, than Grange.
At a stop at the White House, Grange and Halas were introduced to President Calvin Coolidge as being with the Chicago Bears. "Glad to meet you fellows," said the President. "I always did like animal acts."
Grange was the Michael Jordan of his day in terms of endorsements. There were Red Grange dolls, Red Grange sweaters, Red Grange candy bars, Red Grange shoes ... and even Red Grange meat loaf.
Grange married his wife Margaret, nicknamed Muggs, in 1941 and they were together until his death in 1991. She was a flight attendant, and they met on a plane. The couple had no children.
To commemorate college football's 100th anniversary in 1969, the Football Writers Association of America chose an all-time All-America team. Grange was the only unanimous choice.
Grange was afflicted with Parkinson's disease in the last year of his life.