Long gainer Grange's TD runs allowed fledgling NFL to reach end zone of respectability

John Steadman

January 29, 1991|By John Steadman

INDIAN LAKE ESTATES, Fla. -- From the "Golden Age of Sport," born of the "Roaring '20s," five personalities transcended all others: Babe Ruth in baseball, Jack Dempsey in boxing, Bill Tilden in tennis, Bobby Jones in golf and Red Grange in football. Now the last one has left us.

Harold "Red" Grange, 87, died yesterday of complications from pneumonia. He had been hospitalized since July.

As often happens with undefined mortality, a reporter was to have visited him last Friday at 3 p.m. His wife, Margaret or, as he called her, "Muggs," suggested, "I don't think it's a good idea. He had a terrible night and is on oxygen." Those wishes, disappointing to hear, were respected.

Grange built such prominence and adulation, after a glittering career at the University of Illinois, that he signed with the Chicago Bears and gave the then 6-year-old National Football League the credibility it lacked.

Welcomed at the White House by President Calvin Coolidge, along with coach George Halas, he was both pleased and astounded. Coolidge, who didn't know much about football, said, "Glad to meet you young gentlemen. I've always enjoyed animal acts."

They were too polite to correct him and restrained their laughter. Grange often said playing football as a pro was "then about as socially acceptable as going off to join the Al Capone Gang."

A member of both the College Football Hall of Fame and the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the performance that projected him to the attention of the nation came when, within the opening 12 minutes against Michigan, he ran for touchdowns of 95, 65, 54 and 48 yards. Still later in the game he scored on a 15-yard run and passed for a sixth touchdown.

He was an old-fashioned hero, pleased to be recognized and willing to exchange pleasantries when stopped by strangers in public. There wasn't anything vain about him yet he was aware of his role and felt obligated to fill a certain personal responsibility.

We once told him that since he was living in a quiet, somewhat remote part of central Florida it would seem he must have a lot of time for golf. "No," he answered, "hitting a golf ball is as boring VTC as kicking an extra point. I'd like it a lot better if after swinging at a golf ball I had to avoid a tackler."

Grange carried two distinctive nicknames, "The Galloping Ghost" and "The Wheaton Ice Man." He worked as a youngster for the Luke Thompson Ice Co., in his native Wheaton, Ill., where his father was chief of police.

"Carrying ice made me strong and helped my wind," he once told us. "It also enabled me to develop strength for a good stiff-arm. My running style, whatever it was, came naturally. You can't create that. It's something you get from God. But no runner can make a go of it without blocking."

At Wheaton High School, he scored 74 touchdowns and 82 extra points in three years. Entering Illinois, where he brought fame to jersey No. 77, Grange set records without benefit of an athletic scholarship.

He paid his own tuition with money he earned carrying ice, along with what his father gave toward his education. From a football perspective, he called Bronko Nagurski, a Bears teammate, the "greatest offensive and defensive player I ever watched, and I have seen a lot of them over the years."

For a further insight into Grange, he talked about Claude "Buddy" Young, who followed him, two decades later, to Illinois. There were whispers the university didn't want Young to break Grange's marks because he was black.

But Young, who died in a car crash six years ago, debunked it and said he had ample opportunity but didn't produce. Now to Grange on the issue:

"There was never a nicer guy. I adored Buddy. There was a false story that the university didn't want Buddy to break my records. Buddy said it wasn't true. I believe that, too. Illinois never had a better player than Young. I would have loved to have seen him break my records."

Grange, likewise, had deep admiration for John Unitas, the premier pro quarterback. "He could have played any time, any place and for any team. In our day, you had to play both ways

but I believe John could have done that, too." When Red made an appearance in the East to play Pennsylvania, the New York World newspaper engaged Laurence Stallings, author of "What Price Glory," to cover the game.

Stallings watched as Grange scored on runs of 65, 45 and 35 yards in rain and mud. In the press box, Stallings closed his typewriter and uttered, "The story's too big for me. I can't write it."

Harold "Red" Grange . . . an American phenomenon, who, it was once said, contributed as much to making football the popular, respected game it is as Charles Lindbergh did for aviation.

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