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Red Grange vs. the Nebraska Cornhuskers

Monday, April 2, 2012

The 1920s have been called the Golden Age of American Sports. Jack Dempsey in boxing, Bobby Jones in golf, Bill Tilden in tennis, Babe Ruth in baseball -- each dominated his sport and in the process they became folk heroes, and eventually legends in the sports world. Collectively, they began the popularization of Sports in America to an exalted level, which continues to this day. In football Red Grange elevated football, first on the college level, and when he turned pro after his last college game, he is credited with legitimizing professional football. In doing so became the poster boy of Sports in America.

Grange was born in Pennsylvania in 1903. At age three his mother died and his father moved the family to Wheaton Illinois, to become (eventually) Chief of Police. At Wheaten High School, Red excelled in sports -- all sports, earning 16 letters in four sports -- basketball, football, baseball, and track. In football he scored an amazing 75 touchdowns during his four years, and led Wheaten to an undefeated season in his junior year. It was doubtful that Grange would ever play football, or any competitive sport. At an early age he was diagnosed with a heart defect and advised to avoid stress of any kind. Obviously that diagnosis proved incorrect.

In high school, to help earn money for the family, Red worked summers, delivering ice. The job eased the family's financial problems and Grange attributed the strenuous demands of the job (carrying ice blocks of 25-100 pounds up three flights of steps) as a key factor in developing his muscles for the demands of football, leading to his nickname of "The Wheaton Ice Man."

Even though he had had a great deal of success in football, when he enrolled at the University of Illinois he felt that he was too small (5'11," 175), and too slow to make the football varsity squad, so he had planned to make basketball his college sport. Members of his fraternity (using paddles to his backside) finally persuaded him to go out for football.

Football was a good choice for Grange. In that day freshmen were not eligible for varsity competition, and for the 1922 season Grange contented himself with giving the varsity fits. Coach Bob Zuppke could have used Grange's services, as the '22 season was a "disaster."

Things changed drastically for Coach Zuppke and Illinois in 1923, with Grange in the lineup. The Illini went undefeated in 1923 and claimed a National Championship, thanks largely to sophomore, Red Grange, who was named to the All American team. For the 1923 season Grange rushed for over 700 yards and scored 12 touchdowns, tops in the Big 10. Unfortunately, three of those touchdowns came in his first varsity game---against the Nebraska Cornhuskers, under NU Coach Fred "Snap-it-up" Dawson. (Note Fred Dawson, 1884-1965, was a native of Massachusetts and played football for Princeton U. He was the head football coach at Princeton, Columbia, Nebraska, Denver U., and U. of Virginia, from 1918-1933, compiling a 52-45-10 record at these schools, 27-7-2 at Nebraska (1921-1924). Poor health forced him out of football, after which he became an Industrial Psychologist and a well-known and popular public speaker. He died at an Omaha hospital in 1965.)

Grange proved to be a fellow who inspired sports writers to wax poetic. Grantland Rice, " Dean of American Sports Writers" wrote about Grange in the New York Herald Tribune:

"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!"

About this same time a Chicago sportswriter, Warren Brown, christened Red Grange with the nickname that stuck with him for the rest of his life, "The Galloping Ghost".

In 1924 Red Grange really hit his stride as a running back. Grange (No. 77) was lifted to legendary status in the Michigan game. Michigan had not been beaten in 20 games and the sportswriters were predicting a National Championship for the Wolverines. Apparently Grange did not read the papers. All he did was:

1. Run the opening kickoff back 95 yards for a touchdown

2. Score four touchdowns, racking up 263 yards, in the first quarter! and

3. Pass for yet another touchdown in the fourth quarter, on the way to a 39-14 Illini victory.

The 1924 Nebraska game, played in the new Memorial Stadium, was a defensive gem. Nebraska was led by the Superior (Nebraska) Superman, Ed Weir, who dogged Red Grange all afternoon, and held him without a touchdown for the first time in his career. But the trouble was that Nebraska could not score either, and the Illini left Lincoln with a 9-6 victory. Even though Grange was injured mid-season he was again named to the All America team.

In 1925 Nebraska was led by new coach, Elmer Ernest (Ernie) Bearg. Bearg had previously coached at Illinois, as Zuppke's top assistant, and had coached Grange at Illinois. Bearg readily recognized that the Husker team he had inherited had to be built around its star, Ed Weir, a tackle on offense, who occasionally carried the ball. Bearg spent most of the pre-season moving players to various new positions, all with the goal of stopping Red Grange. "Stop Grange and you stop Illinois," he exhorted the team. The team listened.

Ed Weir was listed as left tackle on defense, but would line up a yard or so behind the line of scrimmage and with an unusually quick first step, charge across the line and into the opposing backfield ("red dogging"). Often enough he was able to reach Grange before he had a chance to get started. That day the Cornhuskers held Grange to 62 yards rushing on 22 carries. Weir recovered a fumble that day and was credited with tackling ball carriers for 14 yards losses.

Reporting on the game that day, the Associated Press wrote, "Grange left the game in the fourth quarter broken and crushed. As the Illini star walked to the sideline, covered with mud from head to foot, tears gathered in his eyes and he fell into the waiting arms of his comrades." The Huskers won that game 14-0, holding Grange without a TD for the second straight year.

The highlight of Grange's 1925 season had to be the Penn U game. For the 2nd year in a row Illinois was facing a team with National Championship aspirations. Illinois was a decided underdog. But Grange was at his best. He rushed for 237 yards, through deep mud and scored three touchdowns. In all, he accounted for 363 total yards, and the Illini team came away with a 24-2 victory. For the 3rd straight year Grange was named to the All America Team.

As outstanding as Red Grange was during his college career, it was with the pros that he is best remembered. Immediately after his last collegiate game he announced that he was accepting a pro contract with the Chicago Bears, coached by the legendary George Halas. In a time when pro players regularly earned $20-$100 a game, Grange was guaranteed $100,000, beginning with a 19-game barnstorming tour. Everywhere they played they drew record crowds. The NY Giants, who regularly played for hundreds, or low thousands of fans drew some 73,000 at the Polo Grounds, helping to save the Giants' franchise.

Grange played football until 1934, ending his career, after numerous injuries, mostly as a defensive back. But at his best, he was perhaps the greatest football player to have played the game.

Years later George Halas, Grange's old coach, was asked about Grange in an interview, namely about his gaining 700 yards in a season. The reporter asked Halas, "How many yards do you suppose he would he make today?" "Oh, about 700," was the reply. The reporter was incredulous. Halas continued, "You must remember that today Grange would be 75 years old!"

In spite of Grange's many personal honors in football, he was the ultimate team player. When asked, shortly before his death in 1991, to name his greatest honor in football, Grange replied without hesitation, "When I held the ball for Jack Manders' winning field goal in the NFL Championship against the New York Giants in 1933."

Source: "NU Football Legacy" by Mike Babcock, and various Internet sites.


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Walt Sehnert
Days Gone By