1924 Seventy-five Years Ago

PrintPrintEmailEmail

On October 18 the University of Illinois inaugurated its brand-new football stadium with a contest against its archrival, Michigan, which was undefeated over the last three seasons. The game started well for Illinois as the halfback Harold (“Red”) Grange returned the opening kickoff ninety-five yards for a touchdown.

In those days a team that was scored upon often chose to kick off instead of receiving, the idea being to bottle up the opponents in their own end (the ball was kicked from the fifty-yard line). The visiting Wolverines elected this option, and this time they managed to tackle Grange at the Illinois twenty. The Illini quickly punted, but a short time later they recovered a Michigan fumble at their own thirty-three. From there Grange ran sixty-seven yards from scrimmage for his second touchdown.

Again Michigan kicked off, this time securing a touchback. On second down Grange proved himself mortal by gaining only five yards, and the Wolverines could cautiously hope that they had the situation under control. The illusion did not last long. An exchange of punts gave Illinois the ball at its own forty-four, and two plays later Grange ran fifty-six yards for touchdown number three. And he wasn’t finished. Another Michigan kickoff resulted in another touchback, and the Wolverines fumbled away Illinois’s ensuing punt. To no one’s surprise, Grange got the ball once again and scampered forty-four yards for his fourth touchdown, making the score 27 to 0.

With the game only twelve minutes old, Illinois’s coach, Bob Zuppke, gave the shell-shocked Wolverines a break by benching Grange. He returned in the second half with less spectacular results, though he did score his fifth touchdown on a twelve-yard run and pass eighteen yards for a sixth. The final score was Illinois 39, Michigan 14—the most points any team had scored against Michigan since the turn of the century. By the next morning Red Grange’s twelve incredible minutes had made him the most famous football player in America.

On the same day, at the Polo Grounds in New York City, Notre Dame defeated Army 13-7 before a crowd of fifty-five thousand fans. The game was nowhere near as spectacular as the Illinois-Michigan contest, yet today it is just as well known. The reason is Grant-land Rice’s story, written for the next day’s New York Herald Tribune , which began with the most famous and perhaps most overwrought lead in the history of American sportswriting: “Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as Famine, Pestilence, Destruction, and Death. These are only aliases. Their real names are Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley, and Layden.”

The game was not nearly as one-sided as Rice’s lead suggests. The Horsemen’s vaunted heroics, which were mainly confined to the second and third quarters, yielded only two touchdowns. By comparison, in five previous Notre Dame-Army games since World War I, the Fighting Irish had averaged sixteen points despite a scoreless tie in 1922. But even though the game was far from apocalyptic, Rice had carried the embryo of the stirring lead in his head for a year, and he seems to have been determined to use it no matter what.

At the previous year’s Army-Notre Dame game, which the Irish won 13-0, two of the as yet unnamed Horsemen had finished a spectacular play by leaping over a kneeling Rice, who was watching on the sidelines. The shaken sportswriter remarked to his companion: “It’s worse than a cavalry charge. They’re like a wild horse stampede.” At some point during the ensuing year Rice apparently thought of the title of Vicente Blasco Ibâñez’s best-selling 1916 novel The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (a reference to the sixth chapter of the Book of Revelation), and something clicked.

Rice’s Herald Tribune story abandoned the Horsemen theme after its first few sentences, subsequently likening the Irish backfield to a cyclone. Nonetheless, the tag stuck, and the foursome were much more famous for being dubbed Horsemen than for their team’s undefeated season, which was capped with a Rose Bowl victory. And while sportswriters’ words usually perish as soon as it’s time to clean the birdcage, Rice’s grandiloquence has endured. Even six decades later, in 1986, the headlines on Jim Crowley’s obituaries inevitably described him as “Final Member of Four Horsemen.”