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Shirley Povich Tribute

  Grange's Appellation Was No Exaggeration

By Shirley Povich
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, January 29, 1991; Page E01

At the University of Illinois, many years ago, they decided Oct. 18, 1924, would be a nice day to dedicate their new football stadium. In an appropriate manner, of course. In this matter they would be greatly assisted by their left halfback, Harold Grange. He would make it a day impossible to forget, and glorious to Illinois memory.

On that afternoon, Illinois' opposition was a proud Michigan team. And 12 fleeting minutes after the opening kickoff had blown up in their faces on a 95-yard runback by Grange, the Wolverines were a thunderstruck and destroyed team. The scoreboard at that point was reading: Illinois 27, Michigan 0. What had happened to Michigan?

Harold "Red" Grange was what had happened to 'em. All four of Illinois' rapid touchdowns were Grange's handiwork, and footwork. And as if those runs, all from long range, did not deliver enough impact, he would break away for a fifth score later in the 39-14 victory in his whirlwind rush into the record books and football immortality.

This was the Red Grange who was to become football's No. 1 celebrity. In his three years at Illinois he would have no competitors in the world of college football heroes. When the pros lusted for him, he signed with George Halas's Chicago Bears for the biggest contract ever attained by a pro, $100,000 plus a percentage of the gate, when $5,000 was considered a considerable wage in pro ranks.

Halas foresaw Grange as a huge box-office attraction and in this he was most accurate. The Bears broke crowd records in every city, and in an era when 10,000 was an average crowd, Bears vs. Giants packed 65,000 into New York's Polo Grounds. How did Grange fare as a competitor in the NFL? Four times in six years all-league. Swept into its Hall of Fame as a charter member.

What made Red Grange tick? Glad you ask. He was not the composite of all the great slam-bang running backs. Grange was his own man. Speed? He had it in the varying degrees that made suckers of all pursuers. He could turn it on as he liked, up-shifting when necessary. Deception? He'd give you a leg and take it back and leave you in the ruck, thief that he was. Perception? He knew when to reverse a field against those slowpokes who'd never catch him. Once he was captain of the Illinois track team.

It wasn't long before they'd be calling him the Galloping Ghost. He did have the wraithlike quality, an ethereal figure seemingly immune to the 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.

One of the joys of football is to hark back to that Oct. 18, 1924, and relive it up with Grange. Michigan's opening kickoff landed in his arms on the 5. Touchdown, Illinois. On his next carry, Grange took it in from 67 yards. Next time, 56 yards for his third touchdown. All of this required seven minutes. His fourth touchdown was a mere matter of reversing his field for 44 yards. His fifth touchdown covered 13 yards.

He didn't kick the extra points that day, but he held the ball for the kicker. And lest it be thought that Grange was a one-dimension who could merely run to goal lines, he threw six completed passes for the Illini that day, one for a touchdown. Now they speak admiringly of the ball carriers who have a 100-yard day. Against Michigan, Grange fled for gains totaling 402 yards, before Coach Bob Zuppke rested him much of the fourth quarter.

The next year, if there were any Eastern cynics unconvinced about Red Grange, they were disabused. Against unbeaten, untied Penn before 70,000 in Franklin Field, Grange scored from 56 yards first time he got the ball. A long runback of a Penn kickoff and two more touchdowns followed: 24-2, Illinois.

All of this while he scarcely weighed 180 pounds and stood a mere 5 feet 10. But, ha, players of that era were not the mastodons of modern pro football. A 200-pounder, even in the line, was a big man. Grange could make out nicely. At 180, he wasn't considered small.

It was the era when they called his kind swivel-hipped, one of the ultimate compliments. They were also described as broken-field runners. However, in that era they mostly had to put a move on the safety man who was also the quarterback who played safety ex-officio. Perhaps in this modern era of linebacker-rich 3-4 and zone defenses, Grange would have need of new tactics. The wisdom here is that he would have adapted. To be remembered is that he was one of the lions of the Golden Twenties: Ruth, Dempsey, Tilden, Jones and Red Grange.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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