‘20s Star Grange, 87, Dies : Football: “Galloping Ghost” was one of game’s pioneers playing for University of Illinois and Chicago Bears.
Harold (Red) Grange died early Monday at 87, the last living reminder of that fabulous company of athletes who made the decade from 1920 to 1930 the Golden Age of American Sports.
Grange died of complications from pneumonia in a hospital at his home near Lake Wales, Fla., said Margaret Grange, his wife of 49 years. His condition was diagnosed as Parkinson’s disease last year. He had been hospitalized since July, and on the critical list for a week.
Grange, perhaps the most gifted and certainly the most publicized football player of all time, outlived them all: Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey. Bobby Jones and Bill Tilden. And the other golden names of that magic decade, jockey Earl Sande, football’s Four Horsemen and their coach Knute Rockne, women’s tennis champion Helen Wills Moody, baseball’s Ty Cobb and a horse who, in that sports-obsessed era, seemed only slightly less than human, Man o’ War.
Grange, during three varsity years at the University of Illinois, raised college football to new levels of excitement with his quicksilver, broken-field running. Even Americans who hadn’t cared about the game until his emergence became aware of who and what No. 77 was and could do.
When he signed a contract with the Chicago Bears in 1925 after finishing his senior season with the Illini, the publicity attendant to the act gave professional football a cachet of respectability it had never enjoyed.
His death followed only by hours the 25th Super Bowl, an event light years removed from the leather helmets and interminable bus and train trips of Grange’s era.
Grange’s nicknames--”the Wheaton Iceman” (from his hometown of Wheaton, Ill., where he carried ice to earn his college tuition) and “the Galloping Ghost” (conferred on him by sportswriter Grantland Rice)--became a part of American folk language.
Harold Edward Grange was born in Forksville, a hamlet in Eastern Pennsylvania, the son of a lumberjack foreman. He had two older sisters and a younger brother. When Grange was 5, his mother died and his father moved with his four youngsters to Wheaton, west of Chicago, where he had close relatives.
As a youth in Wheaton, Grange was an all-around athlete. He not only played football but basketball and baseball as well, and he was a star sprinter on the high school track team. In fact, it was his intention not to go out for football but for basketball and track when he enrolled at the University of Illinois in 1922, because he preferred those sports.
He never did play basketball, nor did he run for the track team at the university. But he played baseball in the spring.
Grange was a football sensation even in his freshman year, when he was ineligible for the Illinois varsity. The Illini freshman would regularly overwhelm the varsity in scrimmages.
Grange was always proud of the fact that he paid his own way through the university, with some help from his father, by then a Wheaton police officer, and with money he earned during summers from his ice route.
He told The Times in a June, 1983, interview, “I didn’t have a scholarship. Never such a thing. Heavens, no. Everybody paid their own way. I never got a dime to go to school.
“I majored in business. Took a business course and economics, history, analytical geometry. I had all kinds of trigonometry.
“And I had good marks in school. Just because I played football, doesn’t mean I was dumb. A lot of people think, because you play football, you’re dumb.”
Grange’s first varsity game, against a powerful University of Nebraska team in 1923, propelled him toward national fame. He ran a punt back 66 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter. Later, he scored on dashes of 35 and 12 yards. “GRANGE SPRINTS TO FAME” ran the next day’s headline in the Chicago Tribune.
During the next three years at Illinois, his name became as familiar to Americans who had never seen a football game as it was to devout followers of the sport.
In 20 games over three seasons at Illinois, he scored 31 touchdowns and ran for 3,637 yards. Grantland Rice after witnessing one Grange performance rhapsodized:
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/A rubber bounding, blasting soul/Whose destination is the goal/Red Grange of Illinois.
Corny, maybe. But when Grantland Rice rhapsodized, the sports-obsessed nation of that time listened.
Each of those three years at Illinois, he was named an All-American, then an uncommon feat. Years later, he also was elected an original member of the Professional Football Hall of Fame.
Grange also was the star of one of football’s most memorable college games, Illinois against Michigan, on Oct. 18, 1924, before more than 67,000 in new Illinois Memorial Stadium.
In the 1983 interview, Grange would remember the prelude to the kickoff: “The year before, Illinois and Michigan had tied for the Big Ten championship. Neither team lost a game. We played eight games in those days and we did not play each other.
“The next year, this was our fifth game. And so, we were still undefeated. We had just moved into a brand new stadium. . . . And it was the dedication of the stadium that day. Thirdly, it was homecoming. . . . We had football writers from practically all over the United States. . . . Every big name in sportswriting in the United States was there.
“How can you want any more things going for you than that?”
Red Grange made the most of the occasion. Legendary coach Amos Alonzo Stagg later would call Grange’s accomplishment against the favored Michiganders “the most spectacular single-handed performance ever made in a major game.”
For starters, Grange grabbed the opening kickoff and, cutting back and forth across the field, stunned Michigan with a 95-yard touchdown run. That was followed--still in the first quarter--by scoring dashes of 67, 56 and 44 yards. Twelve minutes after the opening whistle, Illinois Coach Bob Zuppke took him out of the game so Grange could catch his breath.
In the third quarter, Zuppke put him back in and Grange promptly circled right end for 15 yards and another touchdown. In the final quarter, Grange passed for a score. Final score: Illinois 39, Michigan 14.
In 41 minutes, Grange carried the ball 21 times for 402 yards and completed six passes for 64 more.
Grange’s senior season began disappointingly. The team lost seven regulars to graduation and its quarterback because of a broken collarbone. In succession, the 1925 Illini were beaten by Nebraska, Iowa and Michigan and they barely beat Butler.
Then Grange and his teammates went to Philadelphia’s Franklin Field to play the mighty University of Pennsylvania team before 65,000.
Sports historian W.C. Heinz, in True magazine many years later, wrote of the game:
“It had rained and snowed for 24 hours, with only straw covering the field, and at the kickoff the players stood in mud. Penn kicked off and, on the third play, the first time he carried the ball, Grange went 55 yards to his first touchdown. Next he went 55 yards to the Penn 25-yard line, and Illinois worked it over from there. In the second quarter, Grange twisted 12 yards for another score and in the third quarter he scored for the last time, running 20 yards. Illinois won, 24-2, Grange having carried 363 yards in 36 tries, scoring three touchdowns and setting up another.”
Two days later, when the train carrying the Illinois team arrived in Champaign, 20,000 students, faulty members and townspeople greeted their heroes at the station and carried Grange two miles to his fraternity house. Asked years later how he felt about that welcome, the then 5-foot-11, 170-pound redhead replied:
“I remember I was embarrassed. You wish people could understand that it takes 11 men to make a football team. Unless they’ve played it I guess they’ll never understand it, but I’ve never been impressed by individual performances in football, my own or anyone else’s.”
In later years, Grange always would caution young athletes to be concerned about their education first and then sports. “Graduate from college,” he would say, advice he had not followed.
He turned professional after his final game of the 1925 season.
The Chicago Bears exploited him by playing eight games in 12 days in the East and Midwest, then followed that up with only a slightly more leisurely barnstorming trip through the South and on to California. His appearance in the Coliseum in early 1926, as might be expected, put him in touch with movie studio people who made him an offer that Grange accepted.
He lived in Southern California during the off-season for two years and made a movie in which he played himself, followed by a Pearl White-style serial for which he did many of the stunts himself.
Grange was hurt relatively early in his pro career. He recalled that injuries to his knees reduced his agility and he was forced to change from an artful dodger to a straight-ahead runner.
His ability as a defensive back alone made him highly prized by the Bears toward the end of his career, in a time when both college and professional players played on both sides of the line. Grange always thought he was a better defender.
He played his last football game, a preseason contest, against the New York Giants in 1935. Grange said he knew it was time to get out when a lineman notorious for his lack of speed caught him from behind when it appeared Grange was touchdown bound.
Even after he retired, his impact on the game was so great he was in constant demand for speeches and public appearances and magazine articles.
He became a successful businessman, with an insurance company in Chicago.
And in the early days of television he was both a football color commentator and a play-by-play announcer. His wife, Margaret--whom he met when she was a flight attendant and whom he married in 1941--often showed visitors to their Florida home a log of the games her husband worked. It revealed that he did 480 televised games.
Grange’s pace told on him physically and he suffered a heart attack. When he recovered, he and his wife moved to Miami and several years later to Indian Lake Estates, south of Orlando, Fla.
Zuppke, whose coaching tenure at Illinois (1913-1941) bracketed the era when Tom Harmon--who was often likened to Grange--was at Michigan, wrote long years later of his best-known player:
“I will never have another Grange, but neither will anyone else. They can argue all they like about the greatest football player who ever lived. I was satisfied I had him when I had Red Grange.”
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