Last hero of golden age, Red Grange dies of pneumonia at 87

January 29, 1991|By Gerald Eskenazi | Gerald Eskenazi,New York Times News Service

Harold "Red" Grange, whose dramatic exploits as a football running back for the University of Illinois and the Chicago Bears more than 60 years ago made him an idol of his age and a legend to later generations, died yesterday at Lake Wales (Fla.) Hospital. He was 87.

His wife of 49 years, Margaret, who is his only survivor, said Grange's death was due to complications from pneumonia. He had been hospitalized since July.

With his flaming hair and his many notable achievements on the football field -- some so spectacular they still read like fiction -- RedGrange fit easily into that group of superstars that helped elevate the 1920s into a golden age of sports in the United States.

He survived all the other larger-than-life heroes of that decade: Babe Ruth, Bill Tilden, Johnny Weissmuller, Jack Dempsey and Bobby Jones.

Grange became a charter member of the Professional Football Hall of Fame in 1963, and was also a member of the National Football Foundation's College Football Hall of Fame.

The Grange legend flowered one afternoon in 1924, when Illinois was facing undefeated Michigan on dedication day for Illinois Memorial Stadium, and 66,609 fans turned out.

While many people were still finding their seats, Grange took the opening kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown. Then, on the Illini's first play from scrimmage, he broke through for a 67-yard touchdown. He followed that with touchdown runs of 54 yards and 44 yards. He rushed for 265 yards and four touchdowns in the first 12 minutes of the game.

He went off the field to rest for five minutes. Soon after, he scored his fifth touchdown on a 13-yard run. He also threw a 20-yard scoring pass in the fourth quarter, as Illinois won, 39-14. In 41 minutes of play, he was responsible for 402 yards of offense, including 64 as a passer.

He was a three-time All-America, known as the Galloping Ghost for his elusive yet barreling running style, continually producing games that seemingly could not be topped.

Grange's collegiate career mark of 2,071 yards rushing over three seasons was bettered several times by other Illini runners, but he accomplished that figure with only 388 carries -- an average of 5.3 yards.

The last of his many records at Illinois, 31 career touchdowns, was broken last year when Howard Griffih ended his Illini career with 33. Grange also threw six scoring passes.

Grange's collegiate exploits suddenly ended in November 1925, when he was persuaded to join the Chicago Bears on Thanksgiving Day to begin a remarkable tour that helped lift pro football into the American consciousness. His abrupt shift also had a long-lasting effect on the relationship between colleges and the National Football League.

The Bears were owned and coached by George Halas, a former Illinois player. Coach Bob Zuppke of Illinois, angered by Halas' hiring Grange, told the Bears coach that such actions could jeopardize the college game. Halas came to agree with Zuppke, and although Grange stayed on the Chicago team, Halas eventually persuaded the NFL to adopt a draft of collegians and not to take any of them before their class graduated.

Grange's debut professional tour started with eight games in 12 days, and by the time it ended, in February 1926, he had earned $100,000. But more important than his earnings was the fact that he almost instantly gave the NFL the credibility it had lacked in its first five years.

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