By far the most famous Illinoisan of the 1920s was not a gangster, businessman, politician, or entertainer. He was a varsity halfback on the University of Illinois football team who was known by different monikers across the country such as "The Galloping Ghost" and "The Wheaton Ice Man." For three seasons from 1923 to 1925, millions of Americans followed his weekly exploits on radio and in newsreels. He was just a college senior when his picture at right appeared on the cover of Time Magazine on October 25, 1925. Three-time All-American Harold "Red" Grange of Illinois was one of the greatest American football players of all time. Red is listed on every All-Century team that has been devised by any sports news organization including the ESPN All-20th Century Team. He is often ranked number one of the one hundred best all-time players.
Red Grange was born to a poor family in Forksville, Pennsylvania on June 13, 1903. His mother died when he was five and the father moved the family to Wheaton, Illinois where is father's family lived. Red and his father and two brothers had to stay with various relatives in Wheaton until they could afford a place of their own when his father got a small salary as a police officer. The Grange boys played football on vacant lots and basketball in converted barns. When a local Boy Scout troop formed a league, the boys could play basketball at the Wheaton College gymnasium. Sports were a passion for Red in spite of the fact that his doctor said he had a heart murmur. Red said that at Wheaton High School he had no money for dates nor for the proper clothes. He also worked after school and during summers delivering heavy blocks of ice to homes and businesses and that job accounts for another nick name, "The Wheaton Ice Man." But the job built up his muscles and he did excel in high school sports. He lettered in football, baseball, track, and basketball. During his senior year at Wheaton High School, Red scored 36 touchdowns as Wheaton won every football game but one in the fall of 1921.
In the fall of 1922, Red was a freshman at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana where he pledged Zeta Psi fraternity. At 5', 11" and 175 pounds, he was small in size relative to other team members. But Red still made first string on the football team in his first year. In his very first game, Red scored three touchdowns against Nebraska. In his sophomore year in 1923, Red ran for 723 yards and scored twelve touchdowns, leading the University of Illinois to an undefeated season and the national championship as determined by a consensus of sportswriters. Radio announcers across the nation started calling Red "The Galloping Ghost" during his junior year after a legendary game on Oct. 18, 1924 against the reigning football powerhouse team at the University of Michigan. Red scored an unbelievable four touchdowns against Michigan in the first quarter. He returned the opening kick off 95 yards for a touchdown. Then in the next 12 minutes, Red ran another 167 yards and scored three more touchdowns. It was an an absolutely incredible feat in view of the fact that Michigan had only given up four touchdowns to all the teams they played in their previous twenty games. In a game in 1925 against the University of Pennsylvania, Red ran 363 yards for an upset win.
After his last game as a senior for Illinois, Red Grange signed a contract with player/manager George Halas to play professional football with the Chicago Bears of the new National Football League. Halas, Red Grange, and Bronco Nagurski attracted huge numbers of fans to professional games and brought in the money to launch pro ball not just for the Bears but for the league. More than 65,000 came to see Red play the New York Giants football team at the Polo Grounds in New York and that gate probably saved the Giant franchise from bankrupcy. Red finally retired from football in 1934. He later worked different jobs as a motivational speaker and sports announcer. He married an airline hostess in 1941 but the couple had no children. In 1969, Red was the only unanimous choice of the Football Writers Association of America for their all-time All-American team. Red was also named to the pro football and college football Hall of Fame.
Sports writer and commentator Chris Berman once told this story on the ESPN SportCentury program about a famous interview he wrote up in 1978.
"I was interviewing George Halas and I asked him who is the greatest running back you ever saw. And he said, 'That would be Red Grange.' And I asked him if Grange was playing today, how many yards do you think he'd gain. And he said, 'About 750, maybe 800 yards.' And I said, 'Well, 800 yards is just okay.' He sat up in his chair and he said, 'Son, you must remember one thing. Red Grange is 75 years old.' "
Some of the honors that have recognized the play of Red Grange have included:
- College Football Hall of Fame - 1951
- Pro Football Hall of Fame - 1963
- All-America - 1923, 1924, 1925
- First Chicago Tribune Silver Football Award Winner as the Big Ten MVP - 1924
- Walter Camp All-Century Team - 1989
- Illinois All-Century Team - 1990
- No. 77 Illinois jersey retired - 1925
Harold "Red" Grange, the young man from Wheaton whose doctor said he had a heart murmur, died on January 28, 1991 at the age of 87.