The Galloping Ghost: Red Grange, an American Football Legend
Gary Andrew Poole
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008
336 pp., $25.00
Reviewed by Jason Byassee
How We Got to Superbowl Sunday
If you want to know what America is like, just flip on a game in the National Football League.
They start with an odd mash of pageantry. Nashville celebs like Hank Williams, Jr., or Faith Hill betray country music's real greatness—heartbreak—to grind out an impossibly chipper musical intro. Cheerleaders bounce in uniforms that show a genius for growing smaller each year. Players kneel for prayer at the 50-yardline while banners in the crowd offer evangelistic outreach. Fighter jets streak overhead. It's all a glimpse of the USA: celebrity, sex, religion, patriotism, violence. President Bush himself a few years ago found time amidst fighting terror and a tanking economy (and presumably a few other important things) to introduce a Monday Night game with an homage to the troops, the Almighty, and the violence to come, drawling where Hank usually croons, "Are you ready for some football?"
Obviously enough, it was not always thus. But how did it come to be?
Gary Andrew Poole provides an answer with The Galloping Ghost: Red Grange, An American Football Legend. He chronicles not only the career of the red-headed Illinoisian, but of a certain C. C. Pyle, a huckster who served as Red's promoter. The pair managed to transform the fledgling NFL's image from that of a disreputable (and worse, unprofitable) gang of thugs into a national pastime on par with boxing and baseball at the time and far beyond all competitors now.
Not long before Red's reign in the 1920's, William Randolph Hearst had quadrupled the size of his papers' sports pages. Lucky for Grange & Pyle, it was an age of florid sportswriting. The great Grantland Rice gave Grange the pitch-perfect nickname from which Poole takes his title. Another scribe opined that Grange was "three or four men and a horse rolled into one for football purposes. He is Jack Dempsey, Babe Ruth, Al Jolson, Paavo Nurmi and Man o'War. Put them together they spell Grange." A third offered a coaching suggestion for how to beat Grange's Fighting Illini: "The only way to stop him is to use shotguns, lassoes, and hand grenades, and then forfeit the game."
Poole tells Grange's Horatio Alger story well. His father was the only policeman in Wheaton, Illinois. Red spent his high school summers as the town's iceman—delivering 75-pound blocks to farmsteads was the perfect pre-weightlifting way to burnish his muscular frame. He also played football in the town's orchard, once coming home with two vertebrae knocked out of place. And don't you know that every element of the backstory came into the legend? Red listed his profession as "iceman" on official forms even as he built his father a mansion and returned to town wearing raccoon-skin coats.
We think of football as a violent game now, though players can hardly come near one another's helmets today, and had better not blow a kiss to an opposing quarterback lest they be penalized. In Grange's day only leather helmets protected players' brains, and pads were just sponges sewn into clothes. Punching and kicking and biting would go unpenalized. Coaches ridiculed the injured. Poole estimates that during Grange's greatest season he had ten concussions. As a pro he played through a lacerated bladder in one game, and remade himself into a serviceable (if no longer dominant) defensive player after a catastrophic knee injury. Part of greatness then was simply having almost superhuman tolerance for pain.
Grange's fame was made long before the anticlimax of his NFL career. Football was then a game of dog-piles that would make "three yards and a cloud of dust" sound like a big gainer. Grange seems to have pioneered the novel idea of running around said piles. So in an age when halfbacks would call 60 yards a big day, Grange regularly ran for over two hundred. He'd pass for another hundred. And he had a penchant for showing up big in big games. Illinois' annual grudge match with Michigan came one year when the Big Blue had given up four touchdowns in the previous two years. In that game Grange picked up four touchdowns in twelve minutes. He had six for the day, racking up 402 yards while completing six passes for 64 more. In another huge game Red made his first appearance on the East Coast, where the media élite could see him in person, and torched national title-contender Penn for 363 yards. With exploits like these, multiplied by four years, it's little wonder that in 1969, he was voted the only unanimous All-American for the first 100 years of football.
With fame came Pyle, the pioneering sports agent, who convinced the legendary George Halas and the Chicago Bears to sign Grange. Just for signing a pro contract Illinois' coach publicly mocked Grange, and U of I fans boycotted Pyles' other businesses—such was pro football's ill regard. That would change as Grange filled stadiums and other players saw his paydays.