Red Grange was a dominant college football player and the first true star of the National Football League. In his book, The Galloping Ghost: An American Football Legend, Gary Andrew Poole profiles the man who was an American icon long before the NFL was the place where players went to become stars. Bill Littlefield shares his observations on the book.
Despite the inherently goofy nature of comparing football as it is played now with football as it was played almost a century ago, a case can probably be made that Red Grange was as dominant as any football player has ever been. Grange played his college ball at Illinois, where he enjoyed numerous glowing autumn afternoons. On one of those afternoons in 1924, he gained 402 yards and scored 5 touchdowns against Michigan. On another in 1925, he gained 363 yards and scored 3 touchdowns against Pennsylvania. He was also an exceptionally talented player on defense in the days when pro teams sometimes carried as few as sixteen players. Grange’s performances earned him national acclaim. Babe Ruth was among his admirers. The most celebrated sportswriters of the time traveled hundreds of miles to see Grange play and celebrate his achievements in florid prose and, occasionally, in verse. When he left school, Grange embarked on an exceedingly rocky pro career. He made an insanely ambitious barnstorming tour with the Chicago Bears, sometimes playing as many as four games in a week. According to Gary Andrew Poole, the author of The Galloping Ghost, Grange may have suffered as many as ten concussions during this debacle, and some who were familiar with his talents claimed that afterward he was never the same player, although the tour certainly helped make the pro game more popular. While he was still at Illinois, Grange fell under the influence of a notorious con artist named C.C. Pyle. Pyle manipulated Grange into the barnstorming tour and various other ill-considered adventures, among them the creation of a league that was supposed to rival the fledgling NFL, but that collapsed after one season.
Certainly The Galloping Ghost is – as the subtitle indicates – the story of “an American football legend.” It’s also the tale of a gifted and durable but somewhat dim young man who enriched promoters with his physical prowess and excited fans with his play without much concern for his own well-being. In that sense, at least, it’s a story as current as this weekend’s NFL games.
This program aired on December 11, 2008. The audio for this program is not available.