paul sann journalism, letters, writing


              July 1974:

By Paul Sann
    The legend had its beginnings in the little farming town of Wheaton, Illinois. There was a boy in the rickety 300-student high school in that suburb of Chicago who was something of a natural athlete. This boy, a refugee from Forksville, Pa., born on June 13, 1903, started collecting letters before the ink was dry on his first term paper in Wheaton. He collected 16 of them in four sports--baseball, basketball, track and football. Just a so-so pitcher, he was known best around the school as a guy who could run the 100 and the 220 and put that round ball in the hoop--except that in his junior year on the football squad he was piling up an average of five touchdowns per outing. The only game his high school team lost was when he got kicked in the head and had to be removed from the line-up.
    It follows that in his senior year college football coaches from all over the land would sit through long nights in Pullman cars--even in cattle cars if they had to--to come to see a kid like that with their own eyes. In those curtain-raising days of the Roaring Twenties, of course, the coaches didn't come bearing juicy scholarships and all the hidden treasures that would turn the nation's colleges into big-money football foundries in the decades to come. What they had on them in the way of negotiable currency and fringe benefits were glowing tales of the good clean life on the good clean campus of good old State U.
the galloping ghost     As it happened, all those long journeys on luke-warm coffee and stale ham-and-cheese sandwiches were wasted on the muscular, snake-hipped redhead who could do oh so many things on a football field: run, block, throw passes, play defense.
    For Harold Red Grange, who had to be pushed into high school by his even more muscular father, an ex-lumber camp foreman turned Wheaton police chief, there wasn't any question about the next step on the road to higher education. It was the University of Illinois--the Fightin' Illini, that is--at Champaign. Close to dad (Grange's mother died when he was 5) and his younger brother. Inexpensive, too. And, just incidentally, graced with the presence of a one-man football brain trust named Bob Zuppke. Indeed, the boy even knew the celebrated little Dutchman. With remarkable foresight, Zuppke had dropped in on him one day early in his senior year when he was competing in an interscholastic track meet out at the University. This is the way Red Grange told it, 37 years later, to W.C. Heinz, the sportswriter:
    "I'd just got through broad jumping when Zup came over. He said, 'Is your name Grainche?' That's the way he always pronounced my name. I said, 'Yes.' He said, 'Where are you going to college?' I said, 'I don't know.' He put his arms around my shoulders and he said, 'I hope here. You may have a chance to make the team here.'"
    Oh, yeah?
    The halfback from Wheaton had been building that strong body through four solid years of stiff athletic competition topped by strenuous summer labors hauling 100-pound blocks of ice for $37.50-a-week, but when that Spartan regime was over he stood just 5-feet-11 or so and barely made 170 with his clothes on. That next September--it was 1922--he peeked in on Coach Zuppke's first workout from the safe haven of the Illinois gym, saw some 300 hopefuls on the football field, and turned right around and went slinking back to his fraternity house. He thought there was just too much massed humanity, too much beef, out there. His fellow pledges in Zeta Psi had quite another view of it, naturally, and they had no trouble changing his mind. They just lined the Wheaton police chief's son against the wall and used paddles on him. The paddles, of course, would alter the whole course of college football and, within a scant four years, start professional football on the road to gold and glory.
    Mr. Zuppke, for his part, played it nice and cool. When Grange went back to the football field his Wheaton clippings were ignored and he was casually consigned to the seventh team. He had to win a wind sprint to make it, at that, and then it took him a whole week to go to the head of the class of the freshman squad. grange and zuppke From that point on, freshman football proved to be much less of an ordeal to Red Grange than those hard Zeta Psi paddles.
    The first time the Zuppke frosh tangled with the varsity they were edged by a skimpy two points, 21-19, with the elusive redhead scoring both TDs for his side on a 60-yard punt return and a somewhat shorter jaunt, but the first year men had no trouble avenging that embarrassing setback in game after game for the rest of the semester. Grange didn't do it all himself, by the way. He had some formidable help--Earl Britton, who would demolish tacklers for him and kick all the extra points in the next two seasons (and then play with him for a year on the Chicago Bears), and guys like Moon Baker, who switched to Northwestern and made All-America, and Frank Wickhorst, who took his wares to the U. S. Naval Academy and just as rapidly joined the All-American honor roll.
    Not exactly a slow starter himself, Grange also made All-America as a sophomore, off an all-winning record that showed 1,260 yards rushing and 12 TDs. In his unveiling that year, wearing a No. 77 that would never be worn by another Illinois player, Mr. Zuppke's prodigy checked in with scoring runs of 35, 65 and 12 yards. It was quite a notable romp, 24-7, because the enemy was the vaunted Nebraska Huskies who had beaten Knute Rockne's terrifying machine the year before and would go on to knock over Notre Dame's legendary "Four Horsemen" after a while. Try to imagine, if you can, a college football team that could roll over the fabled Four Horsemen of Knute Rockne but fail to contain the one horse in the little Zuppke stable.
    The Illinois season we're talking about, even with that stunning Nebraska upset, was just for warm ups.
    You have to skip to Oct. 18, 1924, to come to the epic game that carried No. 77 to football's Mt. Everest and beyond and made the less discriminating fans forget that there ever were ball carriers like that Carlisle Indian, Jim Thorpe, and Notre Dame's ill-fated George Gipp. The other team that afternoon was Fielding (Hurry Up) Yost's Michigan, so good that Benny Friedman was the third-string quarterback, so good that it was rolling along on a 19-game win streak and shared a piece of the Big Ten championship with the hungry Zuppke troops, who happened to come out of the locker room bearing a scant 10-game streak of their own. The site was the new $1,700,000 Illinois Memorial Stadium at Urbana, bulging with 67,000 chilled spectators who would only have to wait a second or two to see the miracle begin to unfold.
    One story has it that the Wolverine captain, H.F. Stenger, directed the low opening kickoff to Red Grange to see if the kid was as good as his advance notices. Grange himself says the ball actually was headed for back Wally McIlwain but that he dropped by and gathered it in. Never mind. What matters is what happened in the flashing ten seconds that followed.
the galloping ghost     The one with the ball--No.77--started slowly in a straight line, waiting for the fearsome McIlwain to line up on his right and for quarterback Harry Hall to get to his left, with the trusty Earl Britton poised to lead the charge up front. Once all that was in place, the whiz kid from Wheaton turned on his specialty. They said he didn't have all that blinding speed, but there was a question whether he needed it. Twisting, turning, dodging, he had passed the onrushing wall of granite by the time he reached the Michigan 40. On the 20, in that patented knee-high full stride, he sidestepped the Michigan safety, Tod Rockwell, and it was over. Touchdown, 95 yards. Not a single enemy hand had been laid on the man in the blue jersey with the flaming orange leather helmet.
    The ball went up and back in the next four or five minutes before Zuppke's fired-up athletes got it on their own 33, and then No. 77 went to work again out of that special choreography designed for him by the Dutchman. Single-wing behind a split line with Grange at tailback 5-1/2 yards back so he wouldn't run over his own blockers. What could be simpler? The redhead took the pass from center and scampered around right end. Twist, turn, dodge, boom. Touchdown, 67 yards.
    In the next seven minutes, between fruitless Michigan excursions with the ball, Mr. Zuppke's favorite halfback blew by the bewildered Yost defenders on payoff runs two more times. The third TD was from 56 yards out and the fourth off a 44-yard sprint through the whole Wolverine team. Now the only rest the reformed all-state runner had enjoyed in all this time--262 yards worth--had come when he leaned briefly against the Michigan goal post after a couple of his lengthier exertions. Treated to a water break after the fourth touchdown, Grange addressed an SOS to the Illinois trainer, Matt Bullock: "I'm dog tired. You'd better tell Zup to get me out of here." And what happened when the kid got to the bench? Reaching back, Grange told W.C. Heinz that what Mr. Zuppke said to him was, "You should have had five touchdowns. You didn't cut right on that one play."
    How the huffing and puffing Grange managed to hear those less-than-charitable words from his flint-hearted mentor is something else. The ovation that roared and rumbled through the giant stadium when he was taken out--or rather, when he took himself out--not only ran right into the second quarter but held up the start of it for five minutes.
    The kindly Zuppke kept his wunderkind out of that quarter and Michigan outplayed Illinois, chalking up its first touchdown. The coach may have let Grange cool those piston-like legs too long, for in the third period, with the score 27-7, Grange did nothing more than circle right end to go 12 yards into the end zone, and in the last stanza all he did was rifle a 20-yard pass to M.R. grange stats Leonard for another six points.
    Let's see what the day's work added up to for the new superstar. On 21 carries, 402 yards (380 from scrimmage), more real estate than all of the Wolverine's opponents put together had managed to chew up on all those losing Saturdays in 1923. So it was five TDs lugging the ball and a sixth on that pitch to Leonard, part of a passing total of 64 yards. No extra points--Mr. Britton was on hand for that chore. Final score: Grange 38, Michigan 14.
    After that record-shattering outing, Red Grange wasn't just the Wheaton Iceman any more. To Grantland Rice, he was "a streak of fire, a breath of flame" and, forever and ever, "The Galloping Ghost." To Damon Runyon, he was "melody and symphony...crashing sound...poetry...brute force." It was only the beginning; the portable typewriters in the nation's press boxes would pour out that kind of torrid prose for months and years on end from that moment on--but 1924 was the time. In that year, Babe Ruth was enjoying what you might call one of his quieter summers with a paltry 46 home runs and Jack Dempsey was doing nothing but risking sure TKOs against the Hollywood cameras instead of defending his heavyweight crown in the ring. Even the exploits of Bobby Jones and Bill Tilden had to pale against the magic of Red Grange, for all the superlatives would be used up on No. 77. In the Golden Age of Sports that marked the Twenties, 1924 belonged to him alone; there was barely room for any others.
    All the rest would be prologue.
    The embarrassing venture into the Bunion Derby with C.C. (Cash-and-Carry) Pyle. The $1,000-a-minute years with Papa Halas and the Chicago Bears. The $35,000 game with Tim Mara's New York Football Giants. The costly gamble in the American Pro League with Pyle. The movies, night clubs, vaudeville. The insurance peddling days. The college football telecasts with Lindsey Nelson. The fortunes--a cool million in the first three years out of Illinois--won and lost.
    Fifty years later, in the Miami sun, Red Grange has it all to look back on, but wherever he looks he has to see the clear blue sky over the big new stadium in Urbana that day in October and hear 67,000 voices summoning him on to an absolutely indelible fame. It was the afternoon of his life. Nothing--and nobody--could ever take it away. Not the Babe. Not Jim Brown. Not Bill Russell. Not Muhammad Ali. Not even Hank Aaron. Nobody.

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