Harold “Red” Grange

The fledgling football world was hit by a meteor from the University of Illinois named Harold Grange. Grange was football’s first superstar. He had a flair for bringing  huge numbers of fans to games wherever he played. It is hard to articulate the benefits of his play. Grange brought excitement to professional football. Certainly, Grange brought football into the national limelight with his abilities that were elite. Grange who worked as an ice man during his summers in Wheaton, Illinois was big news.

When the Illini played Michigan in 1924, Grange scored four touchdowns in the first 12 minutes of the game. He ran back the opening kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown, and scored three more touchdowns on runs totaling 167 yards. Later in the game, Grange scored another touchdown on an 11-yard run and passed for a sixth score to give Illinois a 39-14 that put an end to a Michigan 20-game unbeaten streak. Totals for the day were 402 yards — including 212 rushing, 64 passing and 126 on kickoffs. His play became a national story–Grange was on the cover of Time Magazine October 4, 1925–two years before Knute Rockne would grace the cover in 1927.

Theater owner and promoter C. C. Pyle approached the Chicago Bears owner George Halas and convinced Halas to sign Grange after the college season. Grange had just finished his junior year so he was leaving school early employing Pyle to represent his professional interests. Pyle was a tough negotiator whose nickname “Cash and Carry” seemed appropriate. Halas agreed to unprecedented terms for Grange’s services. Perhaps taking a clue from baseball’s highly successful barnstorming tours, Halas created an ambitious schedule that included both NFL and exhibition games that would put Grange in the spotlight and help lift professional football out of the doldrums.

Beginning on Thanksgiving Day, Grange suited up as a Chicago Bear and attendance exploded to 39,000 fans at Cubs Park. The Bears and Grange would continue to play until mid-February under grueling schedule that left the players totally exhausted, but was credited with saving the game financially. In one game out east, a crowd of 65,000 showed up at the Polo Grounds to see the Bears defeat the Giants 19-7. That game not only helped the Bears, some say it saved the Giants franchise.

It was reported that the deal that C.C. Pyle concocted for Grange paid handsomely–some say it was a $100,000 contract; others put the total value of the deal in the area of $250,000. Regardless, it was huge money for Grange.

Pyle would move on to established his own league, the American Football League, which featured Grange, but failed due to lack of attendance outside of the New York team games. In 1927, the NFL awarded Pyle the NY Yankee football franchise, but that failed as well and a few years later Grange signed another lucrative contract with the Bears. Grange was never the same however, having injured his knee playing for Pyle in New York. He would however adjust and become a very good defensive back whom the Bears loved.

Many football writers say that without Grange, professional football would have collapsed. Others suggest that was not the case, but certainly he brought a great deal of attention to the game. He helped increase the gate especially in 1925 and he certainly showed just how exciting the game could be for spectators.

Red Grange was born in Forksville, Pennsylvania,  where his father worked in lumbering. The family moved to Wheaton, Illinois, sometime after the death of his mother. There Grange’s father became Chief of Police. Grange played in many sports at Wheaton High School. With world-class speed, great natural moves, and athleticism, he was difficult to catch. Grange moved onto the University of Illinois and then the Bears. He played in 1925, 1929-1934 for the Bears. In 1926-1927, he played for Pyle’s New York Yankees team. After his playing career, Grange went on assist Halas as a Bears coach. Later he would go on to broadcasting, announcing games.

Red Grange was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in its inaugural Class of 1963. Grange received many honors and awards. He was recently named to the list of Top Bears of All Time.

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