If you’re smart, you’ll run

Some sporting figures just endure for generations. A hundred years after he played, if you ask who the greatest baseball player who ever lived was, you’ll probably hear a mention of Babe Ruth. If you ask about the greatest track star, someone will likely put forth Jesse Owens. In Illinois, although there are a great many candidates, if you are looking for the name of the greatest football star, you’re sure to hear about Red Grange.

A legend at the University of Illinois a century ago, and then in the early days of the Chicago Bears, Red Grange earned the nickname “the Galloping Ghost” for his ability to elude the grasp of defenders who might as well have been grabbing at thin air.

With a shock of red hair, it wasn’t hard to come up with a nickname for Harold Edward Grange shortly after his birth in Pennsylvania on June 13, 1903. Red Grange moved fast his entire life, and he didn’t waste any time getting to Illinois, either. The future legend moved with his widower father to Wheaton at age 5 and quickly started defying expectations.

At a young age a doctor warned Grange to avoid athletics because of a heart tremor. Grange ignored him, and soon lettered in baseball, basketball and track at Wheaton High School. But if he mastered those sports, he absolutely dominated in football. In his four years of high school Grange scored 75 touchdowns and led his team to an undefeated season as a junior. In his senior year, Wheaton lost only one game: a matchup with an Ohio school in which Grange was hit so hard that he was knocked unconscious for two days. College recruiters were eager to meet him, including University of Illinois coach Robert Zuppke, and in 1922 he suited up for the orange and blue.

Grange was an immediate sensation in Urbana. In his first collegiate game he streaked past Nebraska’s defense for three touchdowns. His second season saw Illinois win the national championship, capping off an undefeated season. The next year in the opening game of the university’s new Memorial Stadium he dismantled the Michigan Wolverines and their 20-game winning streak, scoring six touchdowns (one of them a 95-yard kickoff return) and running for 402 yards. It was around this time that the famous sportswriter Grantland Rice wrote of Grange:

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!

Rice was crediting with giving Grange the nickname “The Galloping Ghost” after seeing Grange elude defenders again and again, but Grange had a different recollection, ascribing the moniker to Chicago American sportswriter Warren Brown.

Grange’s national fame reached such a level that following his third consecutive selection as an All-American halfback, he appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1925.

With graduation on the horizon, Grange might have begun looking for a career, (something beyond his summer job delivering ice) but he didn’t have to look far. He was approached by another Illinois sports legend; “Papa Bear” himself, George Halas; about joining a team in the fledgling world of professional football.

Grange played his final game for Illinois on November 21, 1925. He signed with the Bears on November 22, and took the field for the first time as a professional football player on November 26, Thanksgiving Day. The next season, the league adopted the “Red Grange Rule,” forbidding this practice. Grange became the last athlete to play in both college and the NFL in the same season.

In his first game as a member of the Bears, the team drew 36,000 spectators to Wrigley Field (then called Cubs Park), for a game with the Cardinals that ended in a scoreless tie. A week later in New York, 70,000 people came to the Polo Grounds to see the Galloping Ghost with their own eyes. Eager to leverage Grange’s fame into a boost for the league as a whole, Halas and his partners organized a coast-to-coast barnstorming football tour through January and February 1926, with Grange as its centerpiece.

Barnstorming players sometimes earned around $100 for each game, but Red Grange was no ordinary player. By now his reputation had spread far and wide, and fans flocked to witness the Galloping Ghost. After 19 weeks, he had collected more than $100,000 in earnings, and started the progression of the Chicago Bears from a start-up organization to the Monsters of the Midway.

He was even the subject of a draft to run for Congress from Illinois in 1926. Grange politely declined.

Grange was once asked if he had a particular philosophy regarding football. He had a simple response: “If you have the football and 11 guys are after you, if you’re smart, you’ll run.”

Joe Zeller tries to tackle Red Grange during practice. 
And run he did, scoring 32 touchdowns, most of them for the Bears over an eight-season professional career. Grange left the Bears for a rival league in 1927, but after a severe knee injury he returned to Chicago. Without the same dashing speed as he had before the injury, Grange became a defensive back, and made a crucial game-saving tackle to help secure the Bears’ 1933 NFL championship.

When Halls of Fame were established for college football in 1951 and professional football in 1963, Red Grange was selected to the inaugural class of each. Grange was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the same year as Halas and another Bears great, Grange’s teammate in the late years of his career, Bronco Nagurski. Two years later another Illinois star, Dick Butkus, would follow Grange’s path from Urbana to Chicago, one of more than 50 University of Illinois players who have gone on to play for the Bears.

Red Grange died in 1991 at the age of 87. Though he was gone, he was not forgotten by the sport he helped launch into the powerhouse it is today. When the Football Writers Association of America put together its all-time All-America team in honor of the sport’s 100th anniversary, Grange was the only unanimous selection.

The Big Ten Network chose the Galloping Ghost as the conference’s greatest icon, and the University of Illinois commissioned a statue in his honor in 2009. His uniform number, 77, was retired by the university, and in 2017 he was named to the inaugural class of the University of Illinois Athletics Hall of Fame, along with two coaches he helped catapult to stardom, Halas and Zuppke. His hometown of Wheaton remembered their local star by naming the football field at Warrenville South High School for him and nicknaming the team the Red Grange Tigers.

In 2008 ESPN named Red Grange the greatest college football player of all time.