Throwback Thursday: Red Grange, "The Galloping Ghost", College Football's First Superstar
Harold Edward "Red" Grange, also known as "The Galloping Ghost," is widely regarded as one of the greatest football players of all time and arguably the game's first superstar. His career at the University of Illinois from 1923 to 1925 was legendary, and solidified his place in the annals of college football. The Roaring Twenties were a great period in American sport, and Grange was one of it's brightest stars. In his write up of a 24-2 Illinois victory over Penn State in 1925, where Grange had run for 237 yards and three touchdowns in extremely muddy conditions, the famous sportswriter Damon Runyon wrote:
"This man Grange of Illinois is three or four men, and a horse rolled into one for football purposes. He is Jack Dempsey, Babe Ruth, Al Jolson, Paavo Nurmi and Man o'War. Put them all together. They spell Grange."
Grange was born on June 13, 1903, in Forksville, Pennsylvania. His family moved to Wheaton, Illinois, when he was five years old, and it was there that he developed a love for football. He played for Wheaton High School and quickly established himself as a standout player, earning a job as an ice toter, delivering huge blocks of ice to the community to help his family raise money and help him bulk up, earning the nickname "The Wheaton Iceman".
In an October 4, 2014 article in the Chicago Tribune, Jeff Carroll wrote that "local businessman Luke Thompson offered a dollar to any schoolboy who could hoist a 75-pound frozen block onto his shoulder." He added that for Grange, "summers would mean working on Thompson's ice truck for 14 hours a day, from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m., six days a week."
Grange caught the attention of Bob Zuppke, the head coach of the University of Illinois football team, and Grange was offered a scholarship to play for the Fighting Illini.
Grange's college football career began in 1923, and he immediately made an impact. In his first game against Nebraska, he returned the opening kickoff for a 95-yard touchdown. He went on to score three more touchdowns in that game, leading Illinois to a 24-7 victory. Grange also played defense, adding two interceptions to an extraordinary debut performance. He continued to dazzle throughout the season, rushing for 752 yards and scoring 13 touchdowns in just five games. His performances earned him the nickname "The Galloping Ghost."
The 1924 season was even more impressive for Grange. He rushed for 1,447 yards and scored 22 touchdowns in eight games. In the Fighting Illini's October 1924 game against Michigan, he scored four touchdowns in the first 12 minutes of the game. He finished the game with five touchdowns, throwing for a sixth and gained 402 all-purpose yards. He was the first college football player to appear on the cover of Time magazine, in October 1925, and he was quickly becoming a national sensation.
Grange's college football career reached its pinnacle in 1925 when he led Illinois to a 39-14 victory over Michigan. He rushed for 267 yards and scored three touchdowns in the game, cementing his status as one of the greatest college football players of all time. He finished his college career with 3,362 rushing yards and 31 touchdowns in just 20 games. His number 77 is one of only two numbers retired by the University of Illinois. The other was legendary Chicago Bears linebacker Dick Butkus.
After his college career, Grange signed with the Chicago Bears and became one of the first football players to turn professional. His debut, in an era where professional football was less popular than the college game and where crowds were relatively sparse, drew 36,000 spectators. A week and a half later, 73,000 fans turned up to watch him at New York's historic Polo Grounds. He played for the Bears for seven seasons, leading them to two NFL championships. He retired from football in 1935 and went on to have a successful career as a sportscaster and businessman.
The great sportswriter Grantland Rice penned a memorable poem about Grange, narrated in this clip by the late broadcaster Keith Jackson:
Red Grange's college football career was nothing short of legendary and elevated him to a national star in a glittering era for sport, before playing his part in saving the floundering professional game. He was a dominant force on the field, dazzling fans and opponents alike with his speed and agility. He set numerous records during his college career, and his impact on the sport of football was enormous. Despite his fame and accolades, he remained modest about his considerable talent:
"I played football the only way I knew. If you have the football and 11 guys are after you - if you're smart - you'll run. It was no big deal." - Red Grange.