Red Grange, the Iceman, Helped Make the NFL Cool while Showing College Athletes How to Turn Pro
By Mark Schipper
THE ICEMAN GOES PRO
Barely five minutes after the gun sounded that cold November day in Columbus, the brightest comet that ever burned across the college football sky confirmed reports that had scandalized his senior season. Red Grange of Illinois, known equally well by his nicknames of the Wheaton Iceman and Galloping Ghost, was turning pro, effective immediately.
Within a day Grange’s agent, the now-famous Charlie ‘Cash-N-Carry’ Pyle, told newspapers an agreement had been reached for Grange to join the Chicago Bears midseason. Grange and Pyle had quietly connected after the Iceman's junior year, spurning the rules of amateurism Grange was supposed to abide by, to begin plotting their future business partnership. That was how they were able to come to terms with the Bears so quickly—this plan had been in the works.
At the time Grange signed his deal the Chicago club was a floundering, six-year-old franchise run by a 30-year-old player-coach-general-manger named George Halas. Four-years earlier the Bears had relocated to the Big City from the farming and factory town of Decatur, Illinois, where they were called the Staleys after the food-starch processing company that paid the club's bills.
Several teams from the original American Professional Football Association, which had been renamed the National Football League three years earlier after prodding by Halas, were beginning to shift teams from the factory towns where they'd been founded to cities with bigger markets and better media coverage. The league was executing a conscious strategy to represent and sell its product more like Major League Baseball than the blue-collar gladiator tour most assumed it was.
The NFL in 1925 had the reputation of a second rate, back-circuit bloodsport, where rough men were paid a pittance to brutalize each other on the lord's day of rest. There were no redeeming values to the game anyone was willing vouch for in print, which was in stark contrast to its collegiate counterpart, sold as a general rule as a glorious, character-building game, where young, unpaid amateurs won honor and glory for their alma maters on idyllic autumn Saturdays.
Grange’s NFL contract, and the highly-subversive idea of it, had been in the works for around a year. Pyle, the agent, was a slick, country businessman who owned a series of movie theaters in and around Champaign, Illinois. He had neatly-combed salt and pepper hair beneath his fitted derby, wore a diamond stick in his tie, and carried a polished cane always. He was a shrewd impresario down to the black spats over his polished shoes, and he knew a big-business opportunity when he spotted one.
The already-legendary Grange was a collegiate junior, lounging at one of Pyle's theaters in Champaign, when the Country Shark had introduced himself. After handing Grange an unlimited-movie pass, telling him his theaters were open to him any time at no charge—an extra benefit that could have cost Grange both his amateur eligibility and reputation in the ultra-strict Big Ten—Pyle asked if he would be interested in pursuing big money in professional football once his eligibility expired at Illinois.
Grange, who regarded himself as nothing more or less than a skilled worker, was not ashamed to earn a paycheck in return for his performance and agreed to let Pyle represent him. It was the Golden Age of sport in America and business was booming. Baseball, golf, horse racing, boxing, and, perhaps most of all, college football, were huge spectacles attended by millions across the country and followed by many more in the erupting mass media marketplace. Pyle contacted the Bears to gauge their interest. Halas and his management team, who knew they needed collegiate heroes in order to legitimize their own league, lunged at the offer and had been hammering out details for the duration of Grange's senior season.
Just six days after playing his final college game in front 85,000 at the massive Horseshoe of Ohio Stadium, Grange strapped into his Bears uniform for the first time. While the attendance at Wrigley Field in Chicago had been 7,500 the game prior to Grange's arrival, 39,000 had filled the ballpark the next week, the largest crowd in the history of the NFL, to watch Grange and the Bears play the Chicago Cardinals to a scoreless tie on a frigid, snowy Thanksgiving afternoon.
The Grange-era of the NFL exploded onto the sporting scene and the league got its first taste of cultural legitimacy. Instantaneously the newspapers were covering the Bears as if the professional game . As a consequence of the NFL's immediate rule changes to appease the outraged universities, Grange became the last athlete to compete both in a college and professional football game in the same season.
COLLEGES' HYSTERICAL REACTION
What the colleges considered both revolutionary and ignominious was the fact Grange had not waited for his class to graduate in the spring of 1926 before turning pro. He had opted instead to sign his professional contract just hours after his amateur athletic eligibility had expired and to compete in his first professional game within the same week. For the college crowd this was an unacceptably close correlation between two games they wanted to separate by an impenetrable, insurmountable wall.
College players were supposed to be in school first, and competing in football second. This was considered a critical difference between the noble amateur and the disreputable professional. The colleges did not like their former athletes playing professionally, period. They had attended university to rise above violent physical toil, after all. But they absolutely did not want them leaving school early to take mercenary work as a gladiators. Grange, who had been on the cover of Time magazine a month before joining the Bears, and showcased as the ideal of American sporting youth for the preceding two years, was rebranded by the college crowd as a traitor to his own kind.
According to the Victorian ethic that prevailed at American universities for the first half of the twentieth century, a young person was expected to labor, humbly, and discipline himself to the long pursuit while waiting for material wealth and success to accumulate. College was the moral training ground for the noble career man. The accepted dogma regarding college football was that the game had to be entirely clear of commercialism for its special magic to work. Taking money to play football, even after graduation, could swirl back and corrupt the atmosphere of the collegiate game.
The fundamental goal amongst university administrators was that the college game never become a trade school for professional sport. Leaving college early to go pro touched off a moral panic.
“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 media and cultural reactions to Grange's decision to get paid for playing football bordered on the hysterical. Outlook, a major sporting magazine of the era, wrote a piece claiming college football needed to immediately “De-Grange” itself. The last name Grange was used as a verb meaning to exploit something for commercial gain. Outlook, ironically, did not give away that issue for free.
Fielding Yost, whose powerful Michigan team had been scorched by Grange the year before during one of the most legendary performances in the history of the sport, said, “I’d be glad to see Grange do anything except play professional football.”
Amos Alonzo Stagg, the former Yale All-American and championship-level coach at the University of Chicago, described professional football as a menace to personal character and national health. Stagg had spent time around professional athletes when he was a multi-sport star in New Haven in the 1880s. Forever afterward he believed professionals were a pack of drunken, godless, carousing loafers who occupied a permanent place at the bottom of the social order. And now here was the great Grange, who had competed against Stagg's teams in the Big Ten, about to abandon his college friends for the company of degenerates.
Ironically, the college crowd managed to ignore the fact Grange’s massive fame and commercial opportunities had come entirely as a result of playing college football, a game that in the Roaring Twenties had become not just a gargantuan national spectacle, but a big business as well. Somehow they were able to ignore the fact the wealth generated by collegiate football was paying for their entire athletic departments, their campus building projects, and the salaries of coaches who would later scorn their athletes for taking paychecks to compete on the other edge of the sidelines.
While academics and reformers had looked at the game with a jaundiced eye for decades, keeping up a steady chatter from at least the 1880s about the sport’s creeping commercialism, the big-football boom following World War I turned the sport into a full-scale commercial enterprise. Massive War Memorial stadiums, allowing for seventy and eighty-thousand ticketed fans, went up across the country as the sport expanded into a sacred and monetized right of autumn. The game's special pageantry would be covered to saturation levels by the mechanized mass-media of the day, building up another thriving marketplace on the shoulders of the sport.
Already by 1925 hundreds of American universities were counting on the cash hauls from football season to fund their operations for the rest of the year. But at the same time it remained critical to the universities, and a kind of gentlemen’s agreement within media, that the amateur nature of the athletes competing would be played up. That desire came from a decision, made during the sport's earliest infancy, to adopt the English concept of Amateurism, an upper-class ideal established at Oxford and Cambridge Universities that regarded payment for performance as a perversion of sport. College football would be staged on campus as a depiction of the nation’s highest ideals of competition for its own sake. Paying players to perform was considered a polluting agent in that perfect world.
“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 by the elitist universities to be such a tawdry affair that to move from their autumn idyll to the grimy realm of pro ball was like leaving El Dorado to sign on as a stevedore at the world's seediest port. What few at the universities were willing to acknowledge was that the job at the docks offered an honest pay check for a day's work, which a blue-collar athlete like Grange, who hauled ice during the summer back home in Wheaton, Illinois to earn folding money, happened to appreciate.
“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 Big Ten Conference title and the mythical 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 his senior season, both the president of the university and athletic director at Illinois, in league with the publisher of the Chicago Herald and Examiner, made Grange a desperate offer. The group had gone in person to the Grange family house in Wheaton, one-hundred fifty miles to the north, with a check made out for $5,000 dollars. They offered it to Grange and said there was 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.
The college men had a dread fear of humiliation in front of their peers if a superstar football player left school for the professional game before his class had graduated. The jaw-dropping irony of paying a young, able-bodied man not to work for the sole 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. The Grange family politely declined their offer.
Coach Zuppke later 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 of his senior banquet.
“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, who had enjoyed a meaningful relationship as a coach and player, became estranged for a period of years. The pair would reconcile down the road and become good friends as adults and professional colleagues. Grange, for his end of it, never felt any guilt about what he had done. He was more than just a talented, 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 in which he played. Grange was competing in a sport that mesmerized the country at the exact moment the media industry had perfected both its distribution system and its skill for mythologizing big-time sport.
While radio was broadcasting games live to millions of people by 1922, hundreds of daily newspapers were covering the sport in granular detail. The telegraph made coast-to-coast wire coverage 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. In the same decade Ernest Hemingway became the most-famous writer on earth, in large part due to media coverage of his adventures on land and sea, American sports stars Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, and Bobby Jones became known across the planet for their athletic triumphs. Grange entered the pantheon with all these men because of his schoolboy football days at Illinois.
After being named All-American on the Illini’s undefeated 1923 co-national-title team, Grange returned in 1924 as a junior and made himself into an immortal. Like all the legendary performers, Grange helped himself through a knack for being at his best on the biggest stages. His greatest single performance, and one of the most-famous in college-football history, came middle October at a home-contest against the mighty Michigan Wolverines.
Several selectors had split the 1923 national championship between Illinois and Michigan after the two undefeated Big Ten teams had not met during the regular season. The Wolverines marched into the Illinois matchup in 1924 on the crest of a 20-game unbeaten streak, determined to prove which program was best, with their former championship coach, and now athletic director, Fielding Yost telling the press that Michigan was going to put an end to the rolling celebration of Red Grange.
Illinois had picked the Michigan game for the dedication ceremony of their one-year old Memorial Stadium, a massive stone monument named to honor Illinois alumni and students dead or missing after World War I. A sellout crowd of 67,000 filled the stadium early to partake in the pre-game pageantry and entertainment surrounding the dedication. Not only was every seat filled, but overflow spectators were sat on staircases and up along the parapets as the stately, twin-decked stadium began to pulsate with energy as Michigan kicked off to start the game.
With the newsreel cameras on the balconies whirring Grange gracefully fielded the opening kickoff and returned it ninety-five yards for a touchdown. The big thundering crowd lost its mind in a mass ecstasy around him. Over the next twelve minutes of game time Grange scored on comet-like touchdown arcs 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 over the two preceding seasons in their entirety.
In an era of single-platoon football Grange, after intercepting two Michigan passes on defense, had exhausted himself and went to the bench to rest for the entire second quarter. He returned in the second half and immediately scored again on an eleven-yard touchdown run. He finished his day by throwing a touchdown pass to cap 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 incandescent nature of the performance spread to every corner of the country. Newsreels showed the highlights for weeks while newspapers from sea to shining sea ran coverage and analysis and descriptions. Grantland Rice, the unquestioned King of American sports writing during that era, 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 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 and during summers home from college. Grange credited that job for giving him enough core strength to play high-level football at 5-feet 11-inches and 185 pounds.
The next year was 1925, both Grange’s senior season and what became his third straight All-American campaign. While the Illini struggled, starting the year at 1-3, they had a major opportunity late in the autumn against the Penn Quakers at Franklin Field in Philadelphia.
The 1920s was a transformative decade for college football. One of the most critical shifts occurred when the game’s power-center moved out of the Northeast for the first times since 1869, shifting its mass to the Midwest and South. But many sportswriters, the most powerful of which worked in Eastern cities like New York and Philadelphia, tended to favor the older game in their backyard, often refusing to acknowledge teams outside the region as anything other than second rate.
Illinois and Grange traveled to Philadelphia to meet the powerful Quakers. According to the sporting press Penn was the pride of the East that season and ready to throttle the pretenders from the Midwest. With 60,000 people at the already-venerable Franklin Field, on a cold and muddy Halloween Saturday, Grange went ballistic again, compiling 363 total yards in the slop and scoring touchdowns from fifty-six, twenty, and thirteen-yards out. Illinois clobbered the best the East had to offer, 24-2, as word of Grange’s pyrotechnics again went hurtling 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 Western Front, essentially folded on the 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, launched into ecstasies describing what he had seen. “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 Grange had a flair for the spectacular. In three seasons and 20 games of college football he had 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 fewer than twenty yards. Grange was a transcendent 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 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 peaked, and use it to showcase the burgeoning professional game around the country. That was how small-time the NFL was in 1925 and 1926. It was a league more-than willing to extinguish the health of its new star if it meant a chance at a 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 later 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 for two straight months. Grange’s incredible contract secured him both a large fee for every game plus a percentage of the house gate for his participation. 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, Cash-and-Carry Pyle, signed Grange to multiple product endorsement deals and held numerous autograph signings for an ala carte fee. Grange met president Calvin Coolidge for a photo opportunity during the tour and a gaggle of 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. But even a decade after Grange finished his college career, and despite all he did to boost the NFL’s reputation, the stigma was still on the professional game. The collegiate attitude toward amateurism and the sport of football was holding the line.
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 winners, Larry Kelley of Yale and Davey O’Brien of TCU, played a combined total of three professional seasons before moving on to prep-school teaching and a career in the FBI, respectively. The rest of the winners, Jay Berwanger, Clint Frank, and Nile Kinnick, never spent a day on a professional football team.
It wasn’t until the middle-forties, nearly twenty years after Grange had turned pro, that Heisman Trophy winners began 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 tried to buy an ownership stake in the Bears. When they were rejected, they created a new league to find out if Grange’s star wattage was enough to make it go. The NFL was so rickety at the time—no playoffs, no championship, no real structure—that forming a new league to try to beat them was not the insane plotting of a madman. 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. They could not make it work as a business proposition. 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.
Despite the serious knee injury, Grange had a last touch of magic before leaving the gridiron for good. In 1932 he caught the winning touchdown pass in the NFL’s first unofficial championship game. After the league approved the new post-season format, Grange then made the game-saving tackle at the first official NFL Championship in 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 indescribably large across several important areas. Immediately after jumping to the NFL, for example, the league colluded with the irate 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, ethical 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 creation in 1920. The sport would fade into the background again after Grange retired, while the college game would solidify its preeminence for another quarter of a century. But Grange’s career was both a premonition of the future and 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 stayed around football in various capacities for many years after retiring. He was interviewed hundreds of times 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 out of both an essential humility and a way to stay fit in an era before weight training was common. Known for his friendly personality and complete lack of pretentiousness, 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 commercial marketplaces for college athletes to profit from their accomplishments, the college game has changed forever. But we are still near enough the old ways that it's useful to look back at the absurd controversies over ‘amateur’ athletes earning 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 then what he had to do for himself.