The spirit of an age: the Galloping Ghost

Paul Greenberg

February 01, 1991|By Paul Greenberg

FOOTBALL WAS a sport back in the Roaring '20s, not yet an industry, and a 5-foot-10, 180-pound halfback was considered good-sized. Of course he seemed a lot smaller if you were trying to catch him. Grantland Rice, an immortal in a different field, summed up the way this haunt ran:

"A streak of fire, a breath of flame. Eluding all who reach and clutch. A gray ghost thrown into the game. A rubber bounding, blasting soul. Whose destination is the goal. Red Grange of Illinois." They ran like that in the '20s and, perhaps of equal aesthetic interest, they wrote like that -- and could get away with it. It must have been the influence of radio, and its legitimization of short, staccato bursts of verse. Now prose imitates television and you can see the decline in quality. Maybe sports writing needs a Red Grange for inspiration; it was Grantland Rice who dubbed him the Galloping Ghost.

The news that Red Grange has died at 87 marks the end of a company that made a decade roar: Babe Ruth, the quintessential sports hero, and Lou Gehrig of the incomparable 1927 Yankees; Jack Dempsey, the Manassa Mauler; Bobby Jones on the links; Bill Tilden and Helen Wills Moody on the court; Earle Sande at the track; Knute Rockne and his Four Horsemen; and of course Man o' War. The heroes weren't confined to homo sapiens, loosely called.

It was definitely the Jazz Age; neither player nor broadcaster could get away with that kind of performance today. The world was young then, and there were giants in the earth. Walter Johnson still pitched for the Senators. The war was over, Freud was new rather than passe, James Branch Cabell was thought quite indecent, and an antique Ty Cobb was still spiking second basemen. There was a New Woman again, this time with the vote, and Rudy Vallee confused the ukulele with a musical instrument.

Red Grange wasn't just a name, but part of the amateur spirit of that more innocent era and binge. Americans were as unaccustomed to professionalism as we were to world power. Harold "Red" Grange didn't have a football scholarship when he arrived at the University of Illinois from Wheaton in 1922. "Heavens, no," he would recall in an interview 60 years later. "Everybody paid their own way. I never got a dime to go to school. I majored in business. Took a business course and economics, history, analytical geometry. I had all kinds of trigonometry. Just because I played football, doesn't mean I was dumb."

The statistics still impress: In 20 games over three seasons for the Illlini, he scored 31 touchdowns and racked up 3,637 yards. But the numbers scarcely capture the fluid certainty that was the Wheaton Iceman breaking out of the knotted mortals vainly flailing away at his brief presence. "He did have the wraithlike quality," Shirley Povich wrote in a final tribute in the Washington Post, "an ethereal figure seemingly immune to grasp. Grange didn't have to bother much about breaking tackles. He never offered a substantive piece of his anatomy, thanks to his change of pace. En route to the goal line, he had ideas other than running into tacklers."

The game that still stands out from all others in the Grange legend was played Oct. 18, 1924. That was the day they dedicated the brand new Illinois stadium. Undefeated Michigan, the favorite, against undefeated Illinois. The two teams had tied for the Big Ten championship without playing one another the year before. It was Homecoming. The sportswriters converging on the game had more big names than the teams on the field.

Red Grange returned the opening kick-off for a 95-yard touchdown run and improved from there. In the first 12 minutes, he scored with three more runs of 67, 56 and 44 yards. The apparition returned in the third quarter to score again on a 15-yard jaunt around right end, and in the final quarter varied the routine by throwing a touchdown pass. Amos Alonzo Stagg, who saw a lot of football in his legendary coaching career, called it "the most spectacular single-handed performance ever made in a major game."

College football wouldn't become a major investment until the end of the '20s, when gate receipts began to run $21 million a season. Red Grange turned professional after the last game of the 1925 season, but he never turned callous. He retired after a pre-season game in 1935 when a lumbering lineman caught him from behind. It was time.

In the last years of his retirement, first from football and then from business, he took up serious loafing. He would look at the joggers who occasionally passed his Florida home and wonder. "I think they're crazy," he once confided to one of the sportswriters who still sought him out for inspiration. "If you have a car, why run?" Red Grange was not of this decade, or maybe of this era. To think on him is to see the jumpy black-and-white film again, to sense the adulation and liberation of another time, and to remember uncaptured grace.

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