Rich Cohen

Mercury’s Ghost

Harold “Red” Grange was the first pro football star. He was also the first pro football burnout.

Discussed: Educational Films with Dreamlike Qualities, Tenement Games, Sports in the Jazz Age, The Burgeoning NFL, Poetry as a Last Resort of the Sportswriter, Taking the Money, Advice from Babe Ruth, Dancing with Mary Pickford, The Boston Bulldogs, Early Adopters of the Broken-Field Ramble, Picasso in Phases, Conspiring with the Enemy, Cecil Irvin’s Unremarkable Speed, Depressing Celebrity Restaurants, The Golden Rule

Years later, when he was living in Upstate New York, the sports writer W. C. Heinz recalled his first vision of Red Grange. It was in a dank auditorium at school, where kids paid ten cents to see movies. The projector whirred. There was music. The screen filled with light and there was the Galloping Ghost, a University of Illinois halfback, so named because whenever a player tried to tackle him, he was gone.

It was one of the first films Heinz had ever seen, so for him it took on the aspect of a dream: Red Grange camps under a kickoff, waiting for the football, then he’s got it and heads upfield. He cuts as he runs—slowing, feinting, speeding up, dodging tackler after tackler. The camera moves close, a leather helmet framing Red’s cheeks and eyes. Even as an adolescent he had a serious, workingman’s face. He cruises by the last defender, lowers his shoulder, and runs at the camera.

The first book I remember really loving was The Red Grange Story: The Autobiography of the Galloping Ghost. It was less the words that captured me than the pictures, black-and-white shots that chronicled each step in his legendary career: Red as a young man in a Chicago suburb; Red at the University of Illinois; Red as a pro in a leather helmet; Red in a snap-brim cap and a floor-length raccoon coat that portended the fur coat of the great Joe Namath. Those images suggested an antique era, the nightlife of another country. How big was he? The morning after Garland Grange caught a touchdown for the Bears, the Chicago Tribune ran the headline: RED GRANGE’S BROTHER BEATS GIANTS ON A PASS.

Red Grange, America’s first pro football star, was born in ‌western Pennsylvania in 1903, in an Appalachian town where his father was a lumberjack, a brawny man in flannel. When Red was nine, his mother died. The family moved to Wheaton, Illinois. Red’s father became a police officer—the only police officer in Wheaton. The demands of the position meant that Red was without supervision a lot of the time. His afternoons were spent in the street, running among clothesline tenements, getting his first taste. “It wasn’t football we played, but something like it,” he said. “We called it, ‘Run sheep, run.’ There would be two or three guys in the middle of a field, tacklers, and a goal at either end; the goals were sidewalks. All of us would line up on one goal and on the signal run to the other. If you were tackled, you’d have to stay out in the middle and become a tackler.”

Grange persisted, round after round. Even then, he was maddeningly elusive. Most athletes blossom in adolescence, after they’ve grown. A precious few are good when they’re small: Gretzky, DiMaggio, Grange—the aristocrats, the naturals. It’s not about power with them—it’s about vision. They see things others miss: how a play is unfolding, what it will look like in a moment, and the moment after that, and the moment after that.

Grange arrived on the U. of I. campus in Champaign-Urbana in the fall of 1922, carrying, according to Heinz, “a battered secondhand trunk, one suit, a couple of pairs of trousers and a sweater.” He pledged Zeta Psi, and tried out for football. He did not play much freshman year, but word still spread. Even in practice, you could not keep your eyes off of him: the way he moved. Robert Zuppke, a legendary Illinois coach—he coached Hemingway at Oak Park High School—was dazzled. “Red had that indefinable something that the hunted animal has,” the coach explained, “the uncanny timing and the big brown eyes of a royal buck.”

Red came into full power junior year. That’s when he made the runs that remain his legacy. On many afternoons, he rushed over two hundred yards, triple what his closest competitors were doing. And it was not just the yards, nor the points he scored. It was the way he looked doing it. He was the first modern football player, the first great broken-field runner. In the past, the standouts had been power backs like the disgraced Indian Jim Thorpe. They bulled over you. Grange went through or around. No one taught him. It was instinct, what he had learned racing between the brownstones. For a defender, it was maddening. It was the dawn of the Jazz Age, and Grange connected to that spirit. He played out like music, a horn soaring above a dirty scrim of bullies.

In the summer, he delivered ice, carrying hundred-pound blocks up apartment-house stairs. It built his arms and legs and gave him a nickname: the Wheaton Ice Man. Reporters followed him, snapping pictures of the out-of-season jock grinning because he gets the joke. He was as handsome as a matinee idol. It was said that the women in town put on their best clothes when Red brought the ice.

As his fame grew, so did the crowds. Over sixty thousand fans jammed into the rickety stands. He ran for three hundred and sixty-three yards against the University of Pennsylvania. Against Michigan, he scored every time he touched the ball: a sixty-seven-yard run, a fifty-six-yard run, a forty-four-yard run. Coach Zuppke took him out after just twelve minutes. When he put him back in for one play in the fourth quarter—to quiet the fans—he scored again. By 1924, he was being classed with Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey—a triumvirate—one of the great sportsmen of the era.

When Illinois played at Northwestern, the game was moved to Wrigley Field—then called Cubs Park—because Dyche Stadium, in Evanston, couldn’t handle the crowd. After practicing on the field that morning, many of the Chicago Bears—the NFL was just in its second season—stuck around to watch the kid. He played nineteen minutes, ran for two hundred and forty-seven yards, and scored three times. After an away game, he was met at the train station in Champaign by thousands of students, who carried him two miles on their shoulders to the Zeta Psi house.

When the Illinois team traveled, it was accompanied by reporters, including the great sportswriters of the day: Grantland Rice, Damon Runyon, John O’Hara. It was these men who turned Red from a local celebrity into a national sensation. The nicknames fell like rain: the Will O’ the Wisp, the Titian Typhoon, the Sorrel-Thatched Meteor, the Red Rocket, the Fiery Comet, the Crimson Tornado, the Red Streak, the Fleet Phantom, the Illinois Cyclone, Mercury’s Ghost. He could make even the most cynical scribe lose his head. Damon Runyon said Grange’s “left arm is a rod of steel. When he shoots it out straight at the on-rushing opposition they bowl over like so many tenpins… Everywhere in the melee of mud-smeared players the golden yellow top piece of Grange stood out like the helmet of Navarre.” John O’Hara made Red leaving a game sound like Achilles exiting the blood-soaked field before Troy. “Grange nodded and then began his jog trot to the dressing room. All alone, the slow trot down the seventy-five yards to the exit, and there wasn’t a man or woman not standing in the whole stadium. And if I was any judge, there was not a dry eye. There he was, the boy who had come through when the chips were really down, dragging his blanket behind him, and it was wonderful.”

Grantland Rice resorted to poetry:

A streak of fire, a breath of flame,
Eluding all who reach and clutch
A gray ghost thrown in the game
That rival hands may never touch;
A rubber bounding, blasting soul,
Whose destination is the goal—
Red Grange of Illinois.

After home games, Grange ducked into a movie theater near campus. His most peaceful moments were spent watching westerns. The theater was owned by C. C. Pyle. His initials were said to stand for “Cash and Carry.” Grange and Pyle represent archetypes: Grange was the first football star, Pyle the first sports agent.

Pyle read the newspapers and understood the troubles facing George Halas and his football team, the Chicago Bears, as well as the NFL itself. The league was new, the talent marginal, the games brutish, the audiences small. Without a star, the Bears would fold, as a half dozen charter members of the league—the Moline Tractors, the Dayton Triangles, the Rochester Jeffersons—already had. Pyle saw a need and an answer to that need. The Bears could not sell out Cubs Park, their home field, but Red Grange could.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

To read the full piece, please purchase a copy of the magazine from The McSweeney’s Store.

Rich Cohen grew up on the North Shore of Chicago. He has written several books, including The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America's Banana King and Sweet and Low: A Family Story. His new book, Monsters: The 1985 Chicago Bears and the Wild Heart of Football, will be published this fall.

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