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Grange, Redfree

(13 June 1903–28 January 1991)
  • John M. Carroll

Red Grange.

Red Grange [second from right], signing a movie contract, with his manager, Charles C. Pyle, standing alongside.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-105233).

Grange, Red (13 June 1903–28 January 1991), football player, coach, and broadcaster, was born Harold Edward Grange in Forksville, Pennsylvania, the son of Lyle Grange, a lumber camp foreman, and Sadie Sherman. When Grange’s mother died in 1908, his father moved the family, which included Red’s older sisters and his three-year-old brother, to Wheaton, Illinois, where the elder Grange had grown up. Years later, Red, as he was nicknamed because of his auburn hair, recalled that “at first I missed Forksville terribly,” but as time passed he realized that Wheaton “offered a more civilized way of life.”

Struggling to make a living and to provide care for his children, Lyle Grange sent his two daughters to live with his wife’s relatives in Pennsylvania. The rest of family moved to a number of different residences in Wheaton, including a two-year period when they lived with one of Grange’s uncles. After Lyle Grange joined the Wheaton police department in 1913 and became city marshal the following year, the family’s financial situation improved. In 1917 Lyle Grange rented an apartment in the city’s business district where he and Grange’s brother lived until they were joined by Red, who had spent a year living on another uncle’s farm on the outskirts of town.

Taking after his father, who had been renowned in the lumber camps for his strength and agility, Red Grange was a superb athlete from an early age. He once recalled, “I don’t remember ever losing a footrace as a kid” and added that “the more important part of living came after school when I was able to play football, basketball, and baseball with my pals.” Grange received ample encouragement from his father, who seldom missed one of Red’s games or track meets despite often being the only policeman in Wheaton. At Wheaton High School Grange was a star athlete in four sports (track, baseball, basketball, and football) and earned 16 letters in four years. Although he always claimed his favorite sport was baseball, Red received his highest accolades playing football. While in high school Grange scored 75 touchdowns (only one of which came during his freshman year, when he played end instead of halfback) and kicked 82 conversions for a total of 532 points. During the summers he delivered ice to help support his family, which later earned him the nickname the “Wheaton Iceman.”

Despite his prodigious athletic achievements, Grange was not heavily recruited. He decided to attend the University of Illinois because tuition there was inexpensive, his friends had decided to attend college there, and he was impressed by Illinois football coach Robert Zuppke, whom he had met at the Illinois state championship track meet. In 1922, as a freshman at Illinois, Grange nearly decided not to try out for football because about 120 other men were trying out for the freshman team, most of whom were bigger than he was. Grange recalled that, when he explained the situation to his fraternity brothers, they got hold of a paddle and had him bend over. At that point Grange immediately agreed that “football makes a lot of sense to me.” The following day he returned to practice where he was issued his famous number 77 jersey. When later asked how he got such a high number, Grange simply replied, “the guy in front of me got 76; the guy in back got 78.” Surrounded by other talented recruits (two of his teammates, Ralph “Moon” Baker and Frank Wickhorst, would be selected All-Americans at other schools), Grange was an immediate sensation on a freshman team that regularly beat the Illinois varsity squad in scrimmage games.

In 1923, his first varsity season, Grange led the Fighting Illini to an 8–0 record and a Big Ten Conference co-championship. His totals that season included 12 touchdowns and 1,260 yards rushing in just seven games. At the conclusion of the season Walter Camp selected him as halfback on his All-American team, a position he would retain in 1924 and 1925. The shy and modest Grange routinely depreciated his accomplishments. When later asked about his running ability, he replied that “it was God-given; I couldn’t take any credit. Other guys could make 90s and 100s in chemistry. I could run fast. It’s the way God distributes things.”

In 1924 Grange became a national hero when he achieved one of the best individual performances in college football history against a powerful University of Michigan team. Playing before more than 67,000 spectators at the dedication of Illinois Memorial Stadium, Grange led the Illini to a 39–14 rout over the Wolverines. During the first quarter alone he ran for touchdowns of 95, 67, 56, and 45 yards, and he amassed 303 total yards. He added a 12-yard touchdown run in the third quarter and passed for a sixth touchdown in the final period. All told, Grange accounted for 480 yards by running and passing in just 41 minutes of play. Three weeks later Grange played another spectacular game against the University of Chicago in which he scored three touchdowns and accounted for 450 total yards to preserve a 21–21 tie against the eventual Big Ten champion Maroons. Although Illinois’s record of 6–1–1 was good for only second place in the conference, Grange became a national celebrity. Chicago sportswriter Warren Brown nicknamed him the “Galloping Ghost,” and nationally syndicated columnist Grantland Rice immortalized him in verse.

Illinois had a weaker team in 1925 and struggled in the early going with a 1–3 record, with Grange accounting for only three touchdowns. In the East, considered by many to be the cradle of football, some experts continued to question Grange’s ability to measure up to their standards. Grange put that controversy to rest with another spectacular performance in a 24–2 rout of a highly rated Pennsylvania team on a rain-soaked field in Philadelphia. He scored three touchdowns and accounted for 376 total yards. After Illinois’s last game against Ohio State, Grange shocked the nation by announcing that he was quitting college and turning professional. Grange had signed a contract with Wheaton theater owner and promoter Charles C. Pyle, who in turn contracted with George Halas of the Chicago Bears for Grange to play a series of games with the National Football League (NFL) team. Under the terms of the deal Grange and Pyle would split the gate receipts with the Bears and Grange would receive 60 percent of that sum. Because the NFL was in its infancy at the time and most college officials and some of the public frowned on the professional game, Grange received much criticism for his decision.

Grange made his professional debut on Thanksgiving Day 1925 before 36,000 fans at Cubs Park (later Wrigley Field) in Chicago. After playing another game in Chicago, the Bears began an eastern road trip in which they played eight games in 11 days. At the Polo Grounds, Grange and the Bears drew a then record 72,000 fans to a game against the New York Giants. After Grange was injured in Pittsburgh and could no longer play, the tour ended in Chicago two games later on 13 December. After a two-week rest Grange and the Bears embarked on a second tour of nine games that began in Coral Gables, Florida, and ended in Seattle. During this tour Grange drew 75,000 fans at the Los Angeles Coliseum in a game against the Los Angeles Tigers, a team made up of West Coast former college players. It is estimated that Grange made more than $100,000 on the tours. Grange’s celebrity status and the two tours also gave the fledgling enterprise of professional football a much-needed boost; some believe that this was a turning point in the rise of the NFL.

After failing to gain an NFL franchise in New York (rivaling the Giants), Pyle, with financial support from Grange, established his own league, the American Football League (AFL), in 1926 with Grange playing for the the AFL’s New York Yankees franchise. Grange and the Yankees drew large crowds, but both the AFL and the NFL struggled financially that year because of head-to-head competition in many cities. The following year Pyle made peace with the NFL. He agreed to disband the AFL, and the NFL allowed him to establish the Yankees as a second NFL team in New York. During the 1927 season, however, Grange sustained a serious knee injury that he aggravated by attempting to complete the season. As a result he was forced to sit out the 1928 season. Having dissolved his partnership with Pyle, Grange returned to the Chicago Bears in 1929 and continued to play until 1934. After his knee injury Grange was never again the breakaway runner he once was, but he was a steady straight ahead halfback and a superb defensive player. He was selected to the All-Pro team in 1930 and 1931. His professional totals include 56 touchdowns and four conversions for 340 points. Following his retirement as a player he became an assistant coach for the Bears and served in this capacity until 1937.

During the 1920s Grange made three motion pictures: One Minute to Play (1926), Racing Romeo (1927), and a 12-episode serial, The Galloping Ghost (1929). In 1928 he briefly appeared in the top-billed vaudeville show C’mon Red. After he left coaching, Grange worked for a soft drink company before becoming an insurance broker in 1942. In October 1941 he married Margaret Hazelberg; they had no children. Grange became a part-time radio broadcaster in 1942 and by 1948 was working on radio and television broadcasts of the Chicago Bears and nationally broadcast college games. The first prominent athlete to become a sportscaster, Grange broadcast more than 480 games until his retirement in 1969. Grange was named to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1951 and the Professional Football Hall of Fame in 1963. In 1981 he received the prestigious Walter Camp Distinguished American Award. Grange died in Lake Wales, Florida.

Bibliography

Materials relating to Grange’s career are in the Professional Football Hall of Fame, Canton, Ohio. The University of Illinois Archives and the Wheaton College Archives also have collections on Grange. His autobiography, as told to Ira Morton, is The Red Grange Story: An Autobiography (1993). See also Robert S. Gallagher, “The Galloping Ghost: An Interview with Red Grange,” American Heritage 26 (Dec. 1974): 21–24, 93–99; John Underwood, “Was He the Greatest of All Time?” Sports Illustrated, 4 Sept. 1985, pp. 114–35; and Richard Whittingham, What a Game They Played: An Inside Look at the Golden Era of Pro Football (1984). An obituary is in the New York Times, 29 Jan. 1991.