Big Ten Icons: Red Grange

It’s an exaggeration, but only a slight one, to describe Red Grange as the “Babe Ruth of College Football.” Grange played only three varsity seasons at the University of Illinois, in the nation’s heartland, while  Ruth was a larger-than-life presence on New York’s Yankees for nearly two decades. He’s credited with rescuing baseball from the throes of a gambling scandal, and there’s no doubt Ruth transformed how the game was played through his unprecedented and prodigious slugging.

Yet Grange was such an electrifying performer as “the Galloping Ghost” during those three Illinois seasons that he helped college football take its place alongside baseball, boxing and horse racing as headline attractions in what is still known as the Golden Age of Sport.

“They can talk all they want about the greatest football player who ever lived,” said Bob Zuppke, his coach at Illinois, “but I was satisfied I had him when I had Red Grange.”

A fair-skinned redhead, Harold “Red” Grange was born in Forksville, Pa., but grew up in Wheaton, Ill., where his father was the town police chief. Grange was an athletic marvel at Wheaton High School, earning 16 letters in football, baseball, basketball and track. His speed and slick open-field moves produced 75 touchdowns on the football field, but at 5-feet-11 and 175 pounds, Grange wasn’t sure he has the size to compete at the college level, and he enrolled at Illinois intending to play basketball and run track. Legend has it some fraternity brothers talked him into joining Zuppke’s squad. Thus was the course of history altered.

The Illini (7-0) were undefeated national champions in 1923, Grange’s sophomore year. He debuted with three touchdowns against Nebraska and finished the season with 723 yards on 129 carries (a 5.6 per-carry average) and 12 TDs.

His legend came to life on Oct. 18, 1924. Illinois was christening brand-new Memorial Stadium with a game against powerful Michigan, which brought a 20-game unbeaten streak to Champaign. Grange electrified the standing-room crowd of 67,000 by bringing the opening kickoff back 95 yards for a touchdown. Before the fans had settled into their seats, he scored on a 67-yard run. Before the first quarter ended he shredded the vaunted Wolverines defense for 56- and 44-yard touchdown runs, becoming a national newsreel sensation with one of the most memorable performances in Big Ten history, all within a span of 12 minutes.

And he wasn’t finished. He ran 11 yards for a fifth touchdown in the third quarter and hooked up with Marion Leonard on a 20-yard TD pass for a sixth as Illinois rolled to a 39-14 victory. Grange finished the day with 402 yards of total offense: 212 rushing yards, 64 passing yards and 126 yards on kickoff returns. Writing in the Chicago Tribune, James Crusinberry called Grange’s effort “the greatest performance ever seen on an American gridiron.”

Grange would never duplicate it, but he came close in a game against Penn the following season, sloshing through thick mud for a career best 237 yards and three touchdowns in a 24-2 victory over the Quakers. He would finish his Illini career with 2,071 rushing yards (a 5.3 average), 575 passing yards and 253 receiving yards.

Numbers, though, don’t convey the spine-tingling excitement Grange brought to the field as a big-play threat: nine of his 31 touchdowns covered more than 50 yards and more than half–16–came on plays of 20 yards or longer. No wonder fellow Illini grad George Halas felt he had to have Grange for his fledgling National Football League.

Pro football hardly enjoyed “America’s Game” status in the ‘20s; true sportsman disdained it as unsavory and dishonorable, a refuge for disreputable renegades. “I’d have been more popular with the colleges if I’d joined Al Capone’s mob in Chicago,” Grange joked.

But he was just the ticket the struggling pro league needed to establish credibility. Grange signed with the Chicago Bears after the final game of his senior Illinois season, and Halas and promoter C.C. Pyle arranged a whirlwind barnstorming tour to showcase their new star: 19 games in 67 days from coast to coast. Pro football was on its way.

Grange, however, suffered the first of several knee injuries that would gradually diminish his speed and elusiveness. Over time he became better known for his play on defense. He was only 31 when he retired in 1934, remaining involved in the game as a broadcaster and prospering in business.

Grange was 87 when he died in 1991. The University of Illinois retired his No. 77 jersey; he and Dick Butkus (No. 50) are the only Illini football players so honored. He was a charter member of the College and Pro Football halls of fame and occupies a place alongside Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Bobby Jones and Bill Tilden as symbols of a magical era in sports.

Through it all he never lost his characteristic humility.

“I never got the idea that I was a tremendous big shot,” Grange said. “I could carry a football pretty well, but there were a lot of doctors and teachers and engineers who could do their thing better than I could.”

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