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The Galloping Ghost: Red Grange, an American Football Legend
The Galloping Ghost: Red Grange, an American Football Legend
Gary Andrew Poole
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008
336 pp., $25.00

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Reviewed by Jason Byassee


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Halas then coached, owned, and played for the Bears. He'd even designed their uniforms—blue for his navy service, orange a tip of the hat to his own playing days with the Illini. The team was a few rainouts away from extinction. His players all had day jobs to go along with their pittance of an NFL salary, working in Indiana's rock quarries or as high school coaches. They normally made $10 per practice and $100 per game from the Bears. Grange took in $12,000 for his debut. Halas could afford it, since Grange filled stadiums that had languished empty before.

And he wouldn't just fill them in Chicago. Pyle, with his bankable star, launched a barnstorming tour throughout the US to showcase the NFL's first marquee name. The Bears played nine games in 17 days. At one point they played three in three days in three different cities. They were making money hand over fist, and not only for themselves—their game in New York has been remembered as the one that saved the Giants' franchise, so many tickets were sold. Pyle pushed Grange to play 19 games in 67 days. And no wonder—he and Grange pulled down 300 grand apiece for the barnstorming tour—$3.42 million in today's dollars. They lost it just as fast. When the owners of the NFL wouldn't give in to Pyle's demands for more money and exposure for Grange, he took his star and started his own league. It lasted a year. Their money was gone.

So too was Grange's athletic prowess. He'd been used to a seven-game college schedule before playing almost twice that in two months. He would show flashes of his athletic brilliance the rest of his life—the nurses at the retirement home at which he died in 1991 claimed to see it themselves. Halas took Grange back as a Chicago Bear, where he played for some years more. But Red Grange would never dominate the game again.

Poole is blessedly non-preachy about the lessons of the Grange story. He could have said a great deal more. If agents are not as powerful on the field now as Pyle was—effectively coaching the team while Halas sat by during the barnstorming tour—they're far more prominent in other ways. There is not an NFL second stringer today who doesn't pull down seven figures. Poole could've waxed on about the tragedy of wearing out a prize horse by racing him so often. He could have said more about what he calls in one place the "holiness" of seeing such athletic achievement in person. He doesn't, and the book's understatement makes it better than most sports volumes.

I used to live in Wheaton. When I'd show friends the town I'd tick off its famous sons—the Belushi brothers, the guy they named the Hubble telescope for, Bob Woodward. I'd seen that a local football field was named for Red Grange. Who was he, though? Great nickname, but I knew none of his story. Now I do—and thanks to Poole, I understand America a little better. We've always loved pageantry, violence, athletic prowess, sex (the elder Grange teases Joe Namath for acting like football players had just discovered the ladies), a pinch of religion and shameless promotion, in equal parts. Poole's book shows just how far back that intoxicating cocktail goes.

Jason Byassee is director of the Center for Theology, Writing & Media at Duke Divinity School.

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