Red Grange, the Iceman, Did His Best to Make the NFL Cool while Setting Athletes Free
By Mark Schipper
THE ICEMAN GOES PRO
Barely five minutes after the gun had fired ending his final game in November of 1925, the brightest star in the history of college football confirmed the scandalous rumors that had swirled around him throughout his senior season. Red Grange of Illinois, often called the Wheaton Iceman, was going pro.
Within a day Grange’s agent, Charlie ‘Cash-N-Carry’ Pyle, had signed him to a contract with the Chicago Bears. The Bears were a struggling, six-year-old franchise run by a 30-year-old player-coach-general-manger named George Halas. They had moved four-years earlier to the big city from the farming and factory town of Decatur, where they had been known as the Staleys after the food-starch processing company that sponsored them.
Several teams from the original American Professional Football Association, renamed the National Football League three years earlier, were beginning to relocate from the industrial towns where they were founded to metropolises with bigger markets and better media coverage. The NFL in 1925 was regarded, if it was thought about at all, as a rinky-dink, slipshod operation, where rough men were paid a pittance to brutalize each other on Sunday afternoons. There were no redeeming values to the enterprise that anyone was willing vouch for in print.
But the league was hatching plans to put its product in cities people could locate on a map, representing themselves more like Major League Baseball than the brawling, back-alley circuit everyone assumed they were. The NFL, unlike the nationally-covered collegiate game, was a hyperlocal operation, indifferently reported on by city newspapers, and rarely in the national news save for some kind of ugly scandal that further tarnished its already-fouled reputation. While the college game was covered like a royal pageant staged in Camelot, the professional game was painted like a bloody scrum on the far side of the River Styx.
Grange’s NFL contract, and the subversive idea of it, had been in the works since before his senior season began and kept under wraps throughout the fall. Pyle, his agent, was a movie theater owner in and around Champaign, Illinois. A slick, country businessman, Pyle had salt and pepper hair beneath his fitted derby hat, carried a polished cane, wore a diamond stick in his tie, and kept black spats over his shiny shoes. He was a shrewd impresario making a living in rural Illinois and knew a big business opportunity when he saw one.
Pyle had approached the already-legendary Grange, a college junior known across the United States as the Galloping Ghost, after the youth had attended a movie at one of his theaters. After handing Grange an unlimited-movie pass, an extra benefit that would have cost Grange his amateur eligibility in a later era, Pyle asked if he would be interested in making big money in professional football once his school days had ended.
It was the Golden Era of sports in America and business was booming. Grange unashamedly wanted a piece of the action in return for his special talent and agreed to let Pyle, who had a plan, represent him. Pyle contacted the Bears to gauge their interest. Halas and his club were on the hook from the beginning.
Just six days after playing his final college game, the largest crowd in the history of the small-time NFL mashed into Wrigley Field to watch Grange and the Bears play the Chicago Cardinals to a 0-0 tie on a frigid, snowy Thanksgiving afternoon. The attendance at the Bears game prior to Grange’s arrival had been 7,500. The number for his first outing was a standing-room only crowd of 39,000.
The Grange-era of the NFL had begun and the league got its first-ever taste of legitimacy. Suddenly the newspapers covered the Bears as if there was something there worth watching. Grange, as a consequence of the immediate rule changes the NFL made to appease the irate colleges, would become the last athlete to play in both a college and professional game in the same season.
COLLEGES' HYSTERICAL REACTION
Grange’s decision to turn pro immediately after his eligibility expired, but before his class graduated in the spring of 1926, was considered both revolutionary and scandalous. Grange, who was on the cover of Time magazine a month before joining the Bears, and who had been showcased as the flower of American sporting youth, was turned into a traitor to his own kind.
In the Victorian ethic that prevailed at American universities, a young person was expected to labor, humbly, and discipline himself to a long career while patiently awaiting success. The idea that college football had to be pure and entirely clear of commercialism for its special magic to work was the accepted dogma. Taking money to play the sport, even after finishing with college, could swirl back and befoul the atmosphere of the collegiate game.
“Pro football is inferior to the college brand, not in skill but in spirit,” read an editorial in the Chicago Tribune just a month before Grange’s final game. “It is the difference between the patriot and the mercenary in warfare.”
Some of the reactions to Grange around the country bordered on the hysterical. Outlook, a major sporting magazine, wrote a piece claiming college football needed to “De-Grange” itself. The last name Grange was used in the piece as a verb meaning to exploit something for commercial gain.
Fielding Yost, whose powerful Michigan team had been scorched by Grange the year before in a game that still lives in infamy, said, “I’d be glad to see Grange do anything except play professional football.”
Amos Alonzo Stagg, the former Yale All American and then championship-level coach at the University of Chicago, described professional football as nothing less than a menace to personal character and national health. Stagg claimed to have been around professional athletes when he was a star multi-sport athlete at Yale. Forever after he believed professional athletes were a pack of drunken, godless loafers and carousers who belonged at the bottom of the social order. Now Grange was about to abandon his college friends and join them.
Ironically, the college set managed to ignore the fact that Grange’s massive fame and commercial opportunities had come entirely from playing college football, a game that in the roaring twenties had become not just a gargantuan national spectacle, but a big business in its own right.
While academics and reformers had looked at the game with a jaundiced eye for decades, keeping up a steady chatter about the sport’s creeping commercialization, the big-football boom following World War I had made the sport explicitly for profit. Massive War-Memorial stadiums went up across the country as the sport grew into a sacred and monetized right of autumn, covered to saturation levels and sold everywhere by the mechanized mass-media of the day.
Already by 1925 hundreds of American universities were counting on the big-cash revenue from the football season to fund their operations. But it was critical to these universities, and a kind of gentlemen’s agreement within the media, that the amateur nature of the athletes competing would be played up. College football was staged on Saturdays in the fall as a representation of the nation’s highest ideals of competition. Money did not have anything to do with it, so said the colleges.
“We must have an amateur ideal,” said Bob Zuppke, Grange’s coach at Illinois, in a typical description. “If a man plays for himself alone he can’t be happy. If he plays for the spirit of the school in the true sense, nothing can make him more truly a man."
Professional football, on the other hand, was considered so tawdry that to move from the college game to the dismal grind of pro football was like leaving El Dorado to take a job down at the docks. What few talked about was that the job at the docks offered a steady pay check for the work, which a blue-collar athlete like Grange, who hauled ice in the summer for spending money, happened to like. But the most fundamental and unspoken fear amongst colleges was that professional football would become more popular than the college game and divert their revenue streams away from campus.
“I took quite a beating in the press and from different schools for joining pro football,” Grange said years later. “Probably I would have been more popular with the colleges if I had joined Capone’s mob in Chicago rather than the Bears.”
Coach Zuppke had recruited Grange to play for the Illini and, leaning heavily on his star runner, led the school to both the 1923 Western Conference title and national championship. Zuppke the adult, had taken personal ownership of the boy, Grange’s, accomplishments, which was what coaches did at that time. Zuppke considered the Iceman, a three-time All American, his own personal masterpiece.
“Grange has no right to capitalize on his athletic fame,” said Zuppke during the crisis. “His fame belongs to Illinois, not him.”
When rumors began to swirl that Grange was thinking of going pro after the season, both the president and athletic director at Illinois, in league with the publisher of the Chicago Herald and Examiner, made Grange a desperate offer. The group went in person to the Grange-family house in Wheaton, Illinois carrying a check for $5,000 dollars. They offered it to Grange and said he had a no-work job waiting at the newspaper if he agreed to stay in school until his class had graduated. Then, he could do what he pleased.
These men had a terrible fear of being humiliated in front of their collegiate peers by having a superstar football player leave for the pros before his class had graduated. The irony of paying a young man not to work for the purpose of protecting the illusion of amateur purity, rather than blessing him in his quest to earn an honest living at his tradecraft, was lost on the group.
Coach Zuppke took a parting shot at Grange during the team’s end-of-season banquet. After calling out his former star by name, Zuppke said he didn’t want any more “hundred-thousand-dollar football players at Illinois.”
Grange, who had been playing professional football for several weeks at that point, got up and walked out.
“I thought his remarks were completely uncalled for,” said Grange. “I had done my very best during the three varsity seasons I played for him and now that my college football career was over I felt what I did from then on was my own affair.”
Grange and Zuppke would become estranged for a time, but later reconciled and become good friends as adults.
Grange, for his end of it, never felt any guilt about what he had done. He was more than just a gutsy athlete, he was an honest man.
“Early on I found out after entering college that an arts degree isn’t worth a dime in business,” Grange said. “I believe the public will be better satisfied with my honesty and good motives if I turn my efforts to that field in which I have been most useful.”
If timing is an art than Grange was the Swiss time piece of college football. While the Galloping Ghost was a supremely talented athlete, what gave his career its epic sweep was the historical moment he played in. Grange was competing in a sport that held a mesmerizing fascination for the country at the exact moment the media industry had perfected both its distribution system and its skill for creating quasi-mythical heroes.
While radio was broadcasting games to millions of people, hundreds of daily newspapers were covering the sport in granular detail. The telegraph made coast-to-coast wire coverage of big games almost instantaneous. Dozens of national magazines, weeklies and monthlies, featured stories and photo spreads on athletes, teams, and coaches, while newsreels with game footage rolled dozens of times a day in thousands of movie theaters across the country.
The 1920s, with the excitement of mass media brand new and broad-cultural cynicism decades away, many new stars were minted, from Hollywood movie idols to politicians and artists. In the same decade that Ernest Hemingway became the most-famous American writer, in large part due to massive media coverage of his adventures, American sports stars Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, and Bobby Jones became known across the planet for their athletic triumphs. Grange entered the pantheon with these men because of his schoolboy days at Illinois.
Grange, like all star performers, had a knack for being at his best in the biggest moments. After being named All-American on the Illini’s undefeated 1923 national-title team, Grange returned in 1924 as a junior and made himself into an immortal. His most legendary game, and one of the most-famous performances in college-football history, came in middle October at a home-contest against the mighty Michigan Wolverines.
Several selectors had split the 1923 national championship between Chicago and Michigan after the two undefeated Big Ten teams did not meet during the regular season. The Wolverines marched into the Illinois matchup the following year on the crest of a 20-game unbeaten streak, with their former championship coach, and now athletic director, Fielding Yost telling the press that Michigan was going to put an end to all this Red Grange talk.
Illinois had picked the Michigan game for the dedication ceremony of their one-year old Memorial Stadium, a massive stone monument dedicated to the Illinois alumni and students who were dead or missing following World War I. A sellout crowd of 67,000 arrived early to participate in the colorful pre-game pageantry and rollicking celebrations. Every seat was filled and the atmosphere within the stately, two-tiered stadium was pulsating with energy when Michigan kicked off to Illinois to start the game.
Grange proceeded to return that kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown as the thundering crowd lost its mind in a mass ecstasy. Over the next 12 minutes of game time Grange would score on comet-like touchdown runs of sixty-seven, fifty-six, and forty-four yards. Four touchdowns in 12 minutes, the shortest of them from forty-four yards out, against a defense that had surrendered four touchdowns in the entire two preceding seasons.
In the era of single-platoon football Grange, after intercepting two Michigan passes on defense, had exhausted himself and went to the bench for the entire second quarter. He returned in the second half and immediately score again on an eleven-yard touchdown run. He finished his day by throwing a touchdown pass to cap off an Illinois blowout victory.
Grange was personally responsible for six touchdowns and compiled 402 yards of offense against the best defense in the sport, rushing for 202, passing for 64, and collecting the final 126 on kickoff returns. The legend of this game spread instantly to every corner of the country. Newsreels showed the performance for weeks while newspapers from sea to shining sea ran coverage and analysis of the performance. Grantland Rice, the king of American sports writing at the time, was moved to compose a poem about the young prince of college football.
“A streak of fire, a breath of flame
Eluding all who reach and clutch;
A gray ghost thrown into the game
That rival hands may never touch;
A rubber bounding blasting soul
Whose destination is the goal—Red Grange of Illinois!”
Warren Brown, a sportswriter for the Chicago American, nicknamed Grange the “Galloping Ghost” in his postgame column, a moniker that has stuck to Grange for all time. His original nickname, the Wheaton Iceman, had come from his hometown of Wheaton, Illinois, and the ice truck he worked on as a teenager. Grange credited that job for giving him enough core strength to play major college and professional football at 5-feet 11-inches and 185 pounds.
The next year, 1925, was Grange’s senior season and his third All-American campaign. While the Illini struggled, starting the season 1-3, they had a major opportunity late in the year against the Penn Quakers at Franklin Field in Philadelphia.
The 1920s was a transformative decade for college football, and one of the most-critical shifts was in the game’s power-center moving from the Northeast, for the first times since 1869, to the Midwest and South. But many sportswriters, the most powerful of them working in cities like New York and Philadelphia, tended to favor the older game in the east, often refusing to acknowledge teams outside the region as anything other than second rate.
Illinois and Grange traveled to Philadelphia, where the sporting press told them the best team in the east was waiting to throttle them. With 60,000 people in attendance on a cold and muddy Halloween Saturday, Grange went ballistic once again, compiling 363 total yards in the slop and scoring touchdowns from fifty-six, twenty, and thirteen-yards out. Illinois clobbered the best team in the east, 24-2, and word of Grange’s pyrotechnics again spread to every corner of the land.
Laurence Stallings, a famous columnist for the New York World, a man who had covered World War I at the front, essentially folded on his assignment, saying, “This story’s too big for me. I can’t write it.”
The massively popular short-story writer, Damon Runyon, who had been at the game as a free-lance correspondent, went into ecstasies describing what he saw. “This man Grange of Illinois is 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 all together. They spell Grange.”
There was no denying that Grange had a special gift for the spectacular. In three seasons and 20 games of college football he scored 31 total touchdowns, at least one in every game except one. Sixteen of those scores came from more-than twenty yards out, while nine were from more than fifty, leaving only six touchdowns that covered less than twenty yards. Grange was a great player, without question, but the course of his career at Illinois was as much a revelation of the immense power of the new-media machine as it was the apotheosis of a football god.
Grange, for his part, was always extremely humble about what he’d done and the attention it brought him.
“They built my accomplishments way out of proportion,” Grange said, looking back. “I never got the idea that I was a tremendous big shot. I could carry a football well, but there are a lot of doctors and teachers and engineers who could do their thing better than I did mine.”
When Grange jumped to the NFL, playing in his first pro game less than a week after his final college game, the Bears quickly scheduled ten contests over eighteen days to show off their new star. The club’s shameless intention was to make a monster pile of cash while Grange’s Q-rating was at its peak, and to showcase the burgeoning professional game around the country.
That was how small-time the NFL truly was in 1925 and 1926. It was a league more-than willing to kill its new star athlete if it meant a chance at a serious cash stake and a season-long run of positive publicity.
“When I came to pro football in the twenties, it was really a nothing game,” Grange said.
The national barnstorming tour meant Grange played 19 games in 17 cities over 67 days. The brass tacks worked out to a professional-football game every three-and-a-half days, on average. Grange’s contract secured him a big fee for every game plus a percentage of the house gate for his trouble. At a time when players made around $100 a game, Grange collected in the neighborhood of $125,000 in that first season alone, nearly $2 million in today’s dollars.
His agent, C.C. Pyle, signed Grange to multiple product endorsement deals and held numerous autograph signings for cash. Grange met the president of the United States on the tour and the media followed his NFL club around the country. Almost instantly Grange was the richest football player in the history of the United States.
All of these money-making gambits, which played out in the press like episodes of a soap opera, were looked on with horror by the college set. Even a decade after Grange left college, and despite all he did to boost the NFL’s reputation, the stigma was still on professional football. The Heisman Trophy, for example, was first awarded ten years after Grange finished his college career. From 1935 through 1939, the first five winners of the country’s most-prestigious football honor, chose business or other careers over professional football.
Two Heisman winners, Larry Kelley of Yale and Davey O’Brien of TCU, played a grand total of three professional seasons between them before moving into prep-school teaching and a career in the FBI, respectively. The rest of the winners, Jay Berwanger, Clint Frank, and Nile Kinnick, never even tried pro football. Kinnick, the 1939 winner, had gone on to law school before joining the Navy as a pilot at the outset of World War II. He was killed during a training flight in the Caribbean in 1942.
It wasn’t until the middle-forties, nearly twenty years after Grange had turned pro, that Heisman Trophy winners started testing themselves in the pro game as a matter of course. It wasn't until the 1950s that Heisman winners were expected to try to become stars in the professional game as well.
After a year in the NFL, Grange and Pyle had tried to buy an ownership stake in the Bears. When they were rejected, they created a brand new professional football league to see if Grange’s star wattage could carry it to success. The NFL was so rickety at the time—no playoffs, no championship, no real structure—that forming a new league was definitely not a crazy plan. After securing nine franchises and naming the new venture the American Football League, Grange took his spot as the star player on the New York Yankees football team, with a five-year lease at Yankee Stadium.
That first version of the AFL played for a full season, went on a barnstorming tour in the winter to drum up enthusiasm, and then folded. But the Yankees were picked up by the NFL and Grange continued his career, eventually returning to the Bears. A serious knee injury caused Grange to miss a full year of football and then reduced him to a solid but unspectacular player.
But Grange had a final bit of magic before leaving the gridiron for good. In back-to-back years he caught the game-winning touchdown pass in the NFL’s first unofficial championship game in 1932, then made the game-saving tackle in the inaugural NFL championship of 1933, preserving victory for Halas and the Bears. The investment in Grange had been a winner for everyone involved. For the rest of his life Halas would describe Grange as the Eternal Flame of professional football.
The Galloping Ghost’s impact on the sport had been massive. Immediately after jumping to the NFL, the league colluded with the colleges to institute the so-called Grange Rule in 1926. This regulation forbid NFL teams from signing any college football player before his class had graduated, helping universities hold on to their money-making property until full maturity, and allowing the NFL to bolster its reputation as a serious business, as opposed to the collection of cheap pimps the colleges made them out to be.
Grange’s professional career, which went from 1925 through 1933, marked the first serious and sustained coverage the NFL had received since its formation in 1920. It would fade into the background again after Grange retired, while the college game would solidify its preeminence for another quarter century. But Grange’s career was both a premonition of the future, and the the beginning of the NFL’s desultory ascent to the top of the American sporting scene.
It would be national television and the 1958 NFL championship overtime game between the New York Giants and Baltimore Colts that would put rocket fuel into the NFL’s rise, but Grange had been an early legend of the sport. For his contributions Grange was enshrined in the inaugural classes of both the college and professional football halls of fame.
Grange gave many interviews over the decades and never revealed any regrets about his decision to make money in professional football.
"I am not ashamed of a thing I've done. I think I showed plain common sense in cashing in on an asset after I have given everything I had to my university,” Grange said.
The Wheaton Iceman continued to haul ice in the off-season for many years in order to earn summer money and stay in shape. Known for his friendly personality and essential humility, Grange went on to a career as a television broadcaster and analyst of both the college and professional games.
Near the end of his playing days, writing columns with a man named George Dunscomb of the Saturday Evening Post, Grange attempted to explain the differences between college and professional football, and why the one seemed to have the advantage over the other.
“Football, collegiate or professional, is a branch of the show business,” Grange told Dunscomb. “In the professional game, however, we’ve lacked the props—that is, bands, organized cheering, mass meetings and football girls—which make college football a pageant."
While the new era of Name, Image, and Likeness, and the opening of marketplaces for college athletes to profit off of their accomplishments has changed the college game forever, it is still near enough to look back at the now-absurd controversies over ‘amateur’ athletes attempting to earn money. Every argument about what it means to stay in college, to play for the glory of the alma mater and the fame of the head coach, or what it means to accept compensation and professionalize, goes back to Red Grange, who did everything he could for his university, and what he had to do for himself.
Why did it take so long to figure this out? With apologies to all of those great collegians who were denied an opportunity to profit off of their own hard work, the answers are hard to believe.