On the opening weekend of professional football in 2021, I look back. One of my recent reads is Red Grange, the Life and Legacy of the NFL’s first superstar, by football historian Chris Willis. This 2019 biography takes a fresh look at the first person to capitalize on his college and professional football prowess. It also sheds light on sports in society issues of the World War I era and beyond, many of which resonate today.
Grange first realized stardom when college football exceeded the professional game in popularity. In its infancy, the NFL had an uncertain future until Grange and others helped establish a foundation. Grange’s grueling post-college barnstorming tour across the country was unwelcome by his loved college coach, Illinois’ Robert Zuppke.
After Grange’s final collegiate game, Zuppke sat with Grange for an extended cab ride in Columbus, Ohio. “Keep away from professionalism and you’ll be another Walter Camp. Football isn’t a game to play for money,” Zuppke told Grange.
Grange’s reply: “You get paid for coaching, Zup, why should it be wrong for me to get paid for playing.” Grange considered Zuppke the greatest coach in the game. But Grange’s decision was made to continue his passion for football. “I wonder what Zuppke would do if somebody came along and offered him many thousands of dollars to go elsewhere and coach,” Grange said. “Suppose he were offered $20,000, as I have been guaranteed for one game in Florida. Would he turn that down to stick at Illinois?
“I’m not so dumb as a lot of people think I am. I not being fleeced by any promoter or going into anything with my eyes shut. I know just what I am doing, what I am getting, and what everyone else is getting. They are not playing me for a sucker, in any way at all. I am satisfied with the arrangement I have made, and I don’t see why anyone else should be worried about it.”
This was 1925. Known as the Galloping Ghost, Grange left Illinois in the late fall immediately after a stardom-filled college career for a series of games across the country in which his nationally recognized celebrity status was the cornerstone. The tour capitalized on Grange’s role as a football player while putting in place groundwork for other future opportunities, such as public speaking, movies, publishing articles, broadcasting and business. These career opportunities for athletes are taken for granted today.
Before the barnstorming tour, Grange returned to Champaign for the Illini football banquet. Said Grange of playing in the NFL: “That can’t compare with the pleasure of three years under coach Zuppke.”
The coach followed Grange to the microphone: “Remember, Harold, I have no fight with professional football, and if you choose to enter it, that is your business. But Grange is green, greener than when he first came here to Illinois. He must watch out for persons who will try to make their own fortunes out of his tact and his talent.
“Suppose he does get $60,000 for his professional football services? Will he be able to guard that from those who will seek to take it away from him? Wouldn’t he be better off, in the long run, if he took up some additional business and profited by it? He must remember that old saying of ‘easy come, easy go.’ But above all, he must be careful of his companions, his associates. He must not fall into the hands of yes men who are eager to use him for their own advantages.
“The Grange we know, and the Grange we have watched for three years, is a myth. As time goes by, those runs of his will grow in length with the telling. And soon they will be forgotten. Grange will pass on. He will be forgotten. I tell you that no other $100,000 player is going to be on one of my teams.”
Grange didn’t last in the audience through Zuppke’s message. He left for a career that put in place the foundation for modern football. The book follows the ups and downs of that journey, along with the relationships Grange had with his family, coaches like Zuppke and George Halas, business partners and other associates. Ultimately, the repaired relationship with Zuppke resulted in Grange writing a biography of his coach.
The Willis book unpacks other important relationships. When Grange’s father, a retired police chief in Wheaton, wasn’t awarded a pension, a bitter Grange promised never to return to his roots. That changed in 1974 when Grange, living in Florida, returned to Champaign for the 50th anniversary of his most famous game in which he scored six touchdowns in a 39-14 Illinois win over Michigan. The publisher of the Wheaton newspaper met with Grange in a hotel room. The publisher convinced Grange to return to Wheaton for a multi-day event. Four years later, Grange’s Wheaton homecoming became an enduring memory for many that cemented Grange’s place in Wheaton lore.
Born in Pennsylvania, Grange moved to Wheaton with his widowed father. Aside from the pension issue, Grange’s relationship with Wheaton is positive. The Grange summer routine was to work on an ice truck to earn money while physically preparing for football, earning him the nickname the Wheaton Iceman. After Grange and Wheaton repaired their relationship, Grange’s widow later kept the communication alive.
The book takes an important look back to a turning point for football led by Grange while raising important issues that remain relevant. It also helps people like me appreciate contributions of a fellow Illinoisan who was both humble yet determined.