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Football: Bowl Season, the NFL and the Galloping Ghost

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A football player runs past a defender with a huge crowd in the stadium watching
Red Grange turns the corner in the 1925 Illinois vs Michigan game. Prints and Photographs Division.

This is a guest post by Susan Reyburn is a writer-editor in the Publishing Office. She is the author of “Football Nation.

As college football bowl games are about to get underway, with the NFL playoffs starting in a a few weeks, the specter of Red Grange — the Galloping Ghost — looms above the sport’s history, a legend of days gone by. Grange starred for the University of Illinois in the mid-1920s and brought respectability to the sketchy professional sport. He lives on in many ways, but vividly so in photographs from the Library’s collections. You can find them in our Free to Use and Reuse collections, which are copyright-free and are yours to use as you like.

During the Golden Age of Sports, baseball, boxing, horse racing and college football reigned supreme, and Grange, whose shifty moves left would-be tacklers holding nothing but air as he vanished into the end zone, was a household name with the likes of Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey and Man o’ War. If anyone could compel college football fans to give the precarious National Football League a second look, it was the flame-haired Grange. Despite his fame, he was a relentlessly humble man from a modest background — he delivered ice to put himself through college — but whose on-field exploits made him an icon.

In the late fall, especially after baseball season, college football teams dominated the sports pages and drew huge crowds. But at the professional level, the nascent NFL (founded in 1920) struggled to sign college stars, fielded teams that regularly folded and was regarded by sportsmen as disorganized, if not a bit shady.

When Grange signed with the Chicago Bears in 1925 and played his first pro game just five days after his last collegiate contest, those closest to him objected.

“My [college] coach, Bob Zuppke, didn’t talk to me for four years,” Grange later said. “My father wasn’t happy about it. All of my friends looked upon me as if I was a traitor or something, as if I had done something terrible.”

Grange turned out to be exactly what the NFL needed and wanted: He filled stadiums, gave the pro game a sense of legitimacy and showed that with the right personnel in place, the league could be a profitable venture. As the first vital link between the college and pro games, Grange has a place in football history like no other.

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Comments (2)

  1. Very interesting! I love football but had never heard this!

  2. I remember watching Red Grange do the “color” for nationally broadcast NCAA football games in the 1950s with sportscaster Lindsey Nelson, who did the play-by-play. My memory as a 10-13-year-old is that Mr. Grange was not a great sports analyst, but Mr. Nelson was a memorable broadcaster.

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