December 1974 | Volume 26, Issue 1
AN INTERVIEW WITH RED GRANGE
The powerful University of Michigan football team, undefeated in three years, was the decided favorite on October 18, 1924—the Saturday the University of Illinois invited sixty-five thousand paying fans to witness the dedication of its new Memorial Stadium at Champaign. The two teams had not met in 1923, when Illinois, also undefeated that season, shared the Big Ten Conference title with Michigan, and the pregame publicity contest had been raging for months. The Illini hopes centered on Number 77, a junior AilAmerican halfback named Harold “Red” Grange. “All Grange can do is run,” the Michigan student newspaper had declared, to which Illinois’ coach, Robert Zuppke, replied, “All Galli-Curci can do is sing.” What Grange did to Michigan that afternoon is still considered fry many observers to be the greatest single performance in the history of the American sport. He ran back the opening kickoff ninety-five yards for a touchdown. During the next ten minutes of the game he scored three more touchdowns. Returning to the field in the second half, Grange scored a fifth touchdown and passed for a sixth as Illinois stunned the Wolverines, 39-14. Henceforth Red Grange had a new nickname: the Galloping Ghost. In all he scored thirty-one touchdowns for Illinois, gained more than two miles during his three-year varsity career, and moved the colorful sportswriters of the 1920’$ to indulge in lyric poetry, as Grantland Rice did, to describe his athletic feats:
A streak of fire, a breath of flame, Eluding all who reach the clutch; A gray ghost thrown into the game That rival hands may never touch.
The day after his final college game in 1925 Grange became the sport’s first six-figure professional star when he signed to play for the Chicago Bears. Until then pro football had been a somewhat disreputable occupation, frowned upon as a trade for college graduates. The Galloping Ghost changed all that. Crowds of more than seventy thousand turned out to watch the nation’s most heralded football star perform, and the National Football League began attracting prominent coverage on the sports pages of the newspapers. A serious, knee injury in 1927 robbed Grange of his thrilling ability as an open-field runner, but he eventually became a defensive stalwart of the Bears and served as the team’s captain for several championship years before his retirement in /955. His never-equalled career totals—from high school through the professional ranks—include 2,566 points scored and 35,^29 yards gained, for an incredible average of 8.4 yards per carry. After three years as an assistant coach to the Bears’ owner and head coach, George Halos, Grange became a successful insurance salesman in Chicago. Until /95/, when he suffered a heart attack, he broadcast the Bears’ games on radio and television. He and his wife, Margaret, a former airline stewardess whom he married in 1941, now live at Indian Ijake Estates, Florida, where he recently talked with an American Heritage editor.
F ame is a difficult thing for young people to handle. Before you left college, you suddenly became perhaps the most famous All-American in the history of football. How did you cope with that ?
I guess probably I didn’t know any better, or maybe it was the way I was raised. My mother died when I was five years old, and my dad raised me and my brother, Garland. Dad was chief of police in Wheaton, Illinois, and around my dad you could never be a big shot, even if you wanted to be, because he wouldn’t stand for it. So you see I never had the idea that anybody, just because they could do certain things, should be any better than anyone else.
Having the Galloping Ghost as a son didn’t impress your father ?
It never bothered Dad very much. He took it with a grain of salt and never got excited much about it. We’re kind of an odd family, I guess. Things don’t impress us that much. I’m not impressed by too many people, and I don’t feel that I impress very many people. I think it’s a good way to live.
Did growing up as the son of a police chief present any special problems to you ?
I never tangled with him, if that’s what you mean. He had been the foreman of a crew of lumberjacks back in Forksville, Pennsylvania, where I was born [on June 13, 1903]. So he was plenty tough, and he wouldn’t stand for any monkey business. I remember one time as a freshman in high school, well, the seniors were having a party, and us freshmen got in a window and stole the ice cream. Boy, did my dad make me pay for that, about ten times over, and apologize, too. So we were brought up that way; and it’s kind of odd, too, because without a mother, who generally has the rule of the house, kids don’t generally turn out that well. My brother and I ran the household. I did the cooking, my brother did the shopping. We lived in a flat over one of the stores in the business section. That was the way it was, and we went all through grade school and high school that way, baching it, until I went down to the University of Illinois in 1922.
Did your father encourage you in athletics ?
We were all sports-minded. Dad encouraged my brother and me to go out for sports, and he backed us up i oo per cent. I don’t think Dad ever missed a football game—or a basketball game, for that matter. For many years he was the only man on the police force. There were a lot of Saturday afternoons when anybody could have robbed the bank.
Didn’t you have some sort of heart trouble as a child ?
When I was about six—it was just before we moved from Forksville to Wheaton—I got a stick and tried to polevault, and I ran the doggone stick into my ribs and busted a couple. The doctor who looked me over said I had a heart murmur, and he told my father that I should never get excited, and stay out of sports. Well, I couldn’t stay away from sports. I was wrapped up in them—football, baseball, basketball, track, everything. I’d sneak out and play anyway. Well, one time, I must have been eight or nine, I got a couple of vertebrae knocked out. It hurt so, I couldn’t sit down to eat. So I had to tell Dad. Well, he said, “I can’t stop it, so you might as well get in it and do the best you can,” and from then on he never stood in my way. Incidentally, that time he took me to another doctor, who couldn’t find any heart murmur or anything.
Would you describe yourself as a natural athlete ?
Well, I could run fairly well. I ran the 100 [yard dash] in high school in 9.8 [seconds]. Speed is something you’reborn with, and I had good balance, and, of course, I loved sports. At least I liked to play football. I didn’t like to practice. Running those signals, that was murder. I was lucky, though. My high-school and college coaches never tried to change my way of running. I’ve seen a lot of other coaches try to change a fellow’s style, and it hurt them because you can’t do things that don’t seem natural to you. But I almost didn’t get to run at all.
W hat happened ?
It was the summer before my junior year in high school, and I was working on an ice truck with one of my football teammates, Herman Otto. Our truck had a handle on the side, and I would take the ice in a house, and Otto would turn the truck around and slow down so I could jump on the side. We must have had a couple of tons of ice on, and when I went to take the handle, the handle pulled off, and I fell and couldn’t get my left leg out of the way. The back wheel of the truck ran over my leg about two inches above the knee. The doctor said if it had been two inches lower, he’d have had to cut my leg off. I was doggone lucky. You just have to figure that somebody’s looking out for you. I started working summers on the ice truck when I was a kid, and I kept it up for years, even after I became a professional football player. My dad, he was always of the opinion that hard work never hurt anyone. And it was great conditioning for an athlete, walking all day long up and down stairs and carrying that stuff. I’d start at six in the morning, and many a day I’d work until seven or eight at night, six days a week. We got five dollars a day until the union came in, and they upped our salary to $37.50 a week.
Did any of your customers ever give you any trouble ?
Most of the housewives are pretty nice people, but you’ll get a screwball every once in a while. I remember one who always used to holler if I got a little drop of water on her kitchen floor. One day she said she was going to keep her husband home to beat me up. He was a little guy, smaller than me, and she ran the place. She weighed about 220 pounds. She could have licked both of us. Sure enough, the next time I came, she shoved him out in the kitchen. Well, he gave me a wink, and then he bawled me out. I didn’t say anything, and about fifteen minutes later he caught up with me on the street. He said, “Grange, here’s five bucks for making me look good.” I’ll never forget that. But let me say this: if you deal with the public, maybe I’m wrong, but one person out of ten is somebody I don’t want to know. If you have forty guys on a football squad, you’ve got four or five guys that you’re going to have trouble with. You can’t get away from it.
Did the ice-truck accident affect your athletic career ?
I had sixteen letters in high school. I played four years of football, basketball, track, and baseball. In fact, I always said my two best sports in high school were basketball and track. At least they were the two I liked best, and when I went to the university, my idea was that I would go out for basketball and track. But my freshman year I pledged to the Zêta Psi fraternity, and they lined us all up and asked what we did in high school. When they came to me, I told them I was going out for basketball. They said, no, you’re going out for football. Well, I remember going over to the old Illinois gym and looking through the window, and I saw at least a hundred kids from Chicago high schools and big high schools. So I went back to the fraternity house, and I said, “I can’t make that team.” They finally got a paddle out, and they convinced me I had better go out for football.
Even though you scored seventy-five touchdowns jor Wheaton High School, you were not recruited by the University oj’Illinois ?
There was no recruiting in my day, not like they do now. That came along in the 193o’s. The great college coaches when I was playing—men like Bob Zuppke [Illinois] and Knute Rockne [Notre Dame] and Alonzo Stagg [Chicago] and Fielding “Hurry Up” Yost [Michigan]—they would not recruit. It was beneath their dignity. You held those fellows in awe. You tipped your hat to them when you saw them. If you wanted to come to the campus and talk to them, they were available, but they would not recruit. It was an honor to play for them.
Why did you choose the University of Illinois ?
The big thing was that it was the cheapest place to get an education for Illinois residents. We had to pay our own way, you see. There were no athletics scholarships, and the tuition at Illinois was very small. Besides, every kid in Illinois wanted to play for Coach Zuppke if he thought he could make it. Practically all the guys on our team were from Illinois, and the teams from other Big Ten states were about the same, and they were all about equal, and it was good football, the best in the country, in my opinion. Today these colleges go all over the country recruiting. I frown on some of these things. I think it’s wrong to give kids too much to go to school. They’ve just spoiled them.
What happened after the fraternity forced you to go out for football ?
I won a few wind sprints, and I kept making the cuts. It really surprised me. Finally, after I think we had had three or four days of practice, they told us we were going to play a regulation game against the varsity. They only beat us by two points, and I think we beat them every Wednesday scrimmage the rest of the season. Coach Zuppke spent a lot of time with the freshmen after that.
Illinois was undefeated your sophomore year, and you were named to Walter Camp’s All-American team. How did that affect your life ?
For one thing, I finally got a pair of football shoes that fit me. In high school we had to supply our own shoes, and I couldn’t afford them, so I had to wear the shoes of whoever wasn’t playing at the time. The ones they issued me my freshman year at Illinois didn’t fit either. But when I made the varsity my sophomore year, we had good shoes that fit. In fact, I remember that Coach Zuppke had them buy me a special pair of “kangaroo” shoes that were made to order. They cost fifteen dollars, which was unheard of in those days. They were much lighter than the regular shoes we wore. Zuppke had me wear them in one game, and afterward he said, “Grange, give me those shoes,” and he threw them away. I asked what was the matter, and he told me that I was “sneaking” in them. To Zuppke sneaking meant you weren’t running all out. I told him I was running as fast as I could, but he insisted I was sneaking, and he threw them away. He had names for everything.
C oach Zuppke was quite a man, wasn’t he ?
He was one of the most unusual men I ever met, and he was also, let me tell you, never at a loss for words. Nobody ever got the best of him in conversation. He’d say anything. I remember one time reading in the newspaper where Zuppke had been at some banquet and somebody asked him why I hadn’t been knocked down on a certain play. And Zuppke had answered, “Well, you can’t knock Grange down because his feet are so big.” Now, I’m six feet tall, and I wear a number nine shoe, which is really small for a guy my size. Another time I read where Zuppke had said that I was a great runner because of my unusual peripheral vision. I didn’t even know what peripheral vision was. I had to look it up in the dictionary. I suppose it means looking sideways, and while I have good vision, I can’t look sideways any better than anyone else. Zuppke’d say anything. He was a master at bringing a team up to its peak for a game. But I adored the guy. To me he was a football god. We didn’t play Michigan my sophomore year. They were undefeated, too, and Zuppke started getting us ready the summer before we played them. I hadn’t been home two days before I started getting letters from Zuppke telling me what Fielding Yost, the Michigan coach, had been going around the country saying about our team. Every week I’d get a letter telling that Yost had been in Philadelphia or Detroit or someplace else, saying that Illinois wasn’t fit to be in the Big Ten, and on and on and on. The whole team got these letters from Zuppke. It wasn’t until after we beat Michigan that I found out that Yost had been in Europe all summer and hadn’t said any of those things.
On October 18, 1924, Illinois was at its peak for Michigan ?
I have often said that on that day I don’t think any college team in the United States could have licked our ball club. Maybe they could have the day before or the day after, but not on that day. It was the most perfect football game that I ever had the chance to play in. I’ve played in a lot of games, but I never played in one that the blocking was so terrific as it was in that game. Generally a blocker has an assignment, and even if he’s successful, he’ll lay on the ground and watch the game from there, which is a good seat. But the day we played Michigan, our blockers hit somebody, and then they got up and hit somebody else and kept doing that. So the touchdowns I scored that day weren’t any great thing. With that kind of blocking probably your grandmother could have scored those touchdowns.
S o you’d say that Zuppke deserves a great deal of the credit for Illinois’ stunning victory over Michigan that day ?
Certainly. To me the great coaches of my day, anyway, they were the ones that could get 120 per cent effort out of those kids. Rockne did it, Yost could do it, so could Stagg. Zuppke had that special knack. He knew how to handle young fellows. Some he’d kick in the pants, others he’d pat on the back. You’d be on a Pullman one night, and he’d wake you at two in the morning to tell you something he’d forgot, and then he’d give you the dickens for being awake. He knew when to take the pressure off and when to put it on. But I never heard Coach Zuppke utter a swearword. He had two words that were worse, when he used them, than any swearword. One was “jackass,” and the other was “lemon.” A lemon was a little better than a jackass in his book. He didn’t need to go any further. Everybody knew what he meant.
What did the coach tell you be/ore the Michigan game ?
For one thing, he told us to take off our wool stockings. All football players wore them in those days, but it was a rather warm day, and there was nothing in the rule book that said we had to wear them. So we took them off and went on the field. I think every guy on our team felt about half dressed.
Well, Michigan stopped their practice, and I remember that Herb Steger, the Michigan captain, and Yost came over and felt some of our legs. Yost told Zuppke that he knew Zup was going to grease our legs, and, of course, Zup didn’t admit or deny it. We didn’t have any grease on, but I think that threw Michigan off just a bit.
Did you do anything different against Michigan ?
Well, when I was in high school, if I got around end or off tackle, I’d head for the sidelines, and it worked all right in high school. But Zuppke worked quite a while with me to get me to come back against the grain of the defense, and I think that Michigan was probably one of the first games that I cut back quite a bit, because they overshifted us a lot. But it wasn’t anything special we saved for Michigan, no.
In those days the team that had just been scored upon had the option to kick off again rather than to receive the hall. Why did Michigan keep electing to kick off to Illinois after you scored all those touchdowns in the first quarter ?
The theory then was defensive football, which is just the opposite of what it is today. The theory was to kick it deep into your opponent’s territory, stop him on downs, and make him punt it to you around midfield. We didn’t pass much in those days, maybe five or six a game. So there was nothing wrong with the theory, only it didn’t work very well for Michigan that day. I don’t really know what happened. I was probably the most surprised guy on the ball field. I just took the ball and ran. I remember the touchdown I scored on the opening kickoff. I got all the way to the 15-yard line, and I remember thinking, here I’ve gotten through ten of the Michigan men and there’s Todd Rockwell, the Michigan safety, on about the 5-yard line, and I’ve got this far, and if this one guy can tackle me, I’m the biggest sucker that ever lived. Of course he darn near did, too. But I had good blocking all the way down to then.
How did you get past him ?
I don’t know how I got around him or how I got around anybody. You kind of get the habit of threading your way through. One thing a good ball carrier does need to know is the different assignments of the other fellows on every play. I know I studied those assignments religiously night and day, and I could tell you what each back and each lineman was supposed to do. That’s about all you remember about a long run. I would remember the key blocks rather than what I did.
When you’re standing in the end zone after a long run like that, what does a crowd of sixty-five thousand cheering people sound like, and what sort of feeling does it give you ?
It’s just a continual noise. A din, like a clap of thunder. You ,can’t pick out any certain thing. You get adjusted to it. Some guys couldn’t take it, though. We had one on our team at Illinois. From Monday to Friday he was the best player on our squad, including Grange. Come Saturday, he’d see the crowd out there, and he couldn’t do a thing; he couldn’t stand that pressure. It wasn’t his fault. Pressure plays funny tricks on different kids. I could play better under pressure. Some can. Some cannot.
After twelve minutes and four touchdowns Zuppke took you out of the Michigan game. What did he say to you when you got to the sidelines ?
If I remember it right, he said that if I’d had any brains, I’d have had another touchdown. Nobody got to be a big shot around Zuppke, either. You know, he never pronounced my name right. He always called me “Grench.”
How do you compare your upset oj Michigan with your victory over the University of Pennsylvania your senior year ?
I think those two were the biggest pressure games we had while I was at Illinois, and I probably played my best football in those games. We received a lot of credit for beating Pennsylvania, which we should have, because we didn’t have as good a team my senior year. Everybody said that Pennsylvania rules the East, and we beat them because our scouting reports showed that they always overshifted on defense. I was calling signals that day in Philadelphia, and Zuppke told me to run our fullback, Earl Britton, into the strong side on the first two plays. I think he lost three or four yards each time, and he came back to the huddle and said, “What have you guys got against me? I pretty near got killed.” Well, on the third play, just like Zuppke told me to do, I shifted our line to the right, took the ball back to the left, and went fifty-five yards for a touchdown. I didn’t even see anybody. There wasn’t anybody over there. And that happened all day long.
What was the final score ?
We beat them 24-2. And our last touchdown was scored on the “flea flicker.” It was a fake field goal. I’d hold for Britton, our kicker, only the snap would go to him. Then Britton would toss a little basketball lob to our right end, who would turn around and throw me a lateral. When we tried it against Pennsylvania, we had the ball on about their 35-yard line on a very muddy field. Well, Zuppke had a bunch of signals he would give us from the bench, and when he saw us line up for the flea flicker, he tried to call off the play. We ignored him. Then he sent a substitute out on the field, but we waved him back to the bench. So Zuppke turned his back on us and put his hands over his eyes. The play worked perfectly, and I scored the touchdown. Later, back at the hotel we stayed at in Philadelphia, I saw Zuppke in the middle of a huge group of fans in the lobby telling how he had sent in the flea flicker and insisted that we use it right away. You couldn’t get ahead of Zuppke.
Did Zuppke invent the flea flicker ?
Yes, he said he did. He also claimed credit for the spiral pass from center, for the huddle, for the practice of dropping back guards to protect the passer, and for the screen pass. And I tend to believe him. Zuppke was a little bit ahead of most coaches of that day because he played a lot of wide-open football. The other coaches, like Stagg at Chicago, liked to hit the line all day for two or three yards, but Zuppke … well, he was an artist, you know. All these paintings around my house here were done by Zuppke. He used to compare football to painting, and he was fascinated by the grand design of the game. He dreamed of the perfect play, the play that would go all the way for a touchdown. His interests went way beyond football. When he coached high-school football at Oak Park, Illinois, Ernest Hemingway played tackle for him, and he and Hemingway became very close. Zuppke used to go down to visit Hemingway in Cuba all the time. Well, I asked Zuppke many times whether Hemingway had been a good tackle, and Zup always insisted that Hemingway had been one of the greatest he ever coached. So one night at a party, after Zup had had a few drinks, I said, “Zup, tell me the truth, how good was Hemingway?” And Zup said he wasn’t worth a damn.
D id anyone try to capitalize on your fame as a college AllAmerican ?
I had some letters from different promoters around the country who said they’d like to talk to me, but I threw them away. During my senior year I had a chance to endorse an outboard motor. They wanted to give me a thousand dollars—that was the biggest paycheck I had ever seen—but I had to turn it down because there was no way I could handle it without being ineligible. And then, I think it was the summer after my junior year, some alumni I knew wanted me to sell insurance or something, but it would have meant using whatever name I had made at the university to sandbag people, and I don’t like that. I could have made quite a bit of money in Chicago selling insurance that summer, but I would have been out of shape, and maybe I’m crazy, but I’ve always disliked anything that isn’t fair. Besides, I’m a lousy salesman, and I don’t like to sell, because I don’t like taking advantage of people. After I left football and went into the insurance business fulltime, I did very little individual selling. Mostly I worked with corporations and companies.
What led up to your decision to turn professional after your last college game ?
One night my senior year I was at a movie at the Virginia Theatre in Champaign, Illinois, and one of the ushers came to me and said that Mr. C. C. PyIe, the owner, would like to see me. That was the first time I met Charlie—I think it was Westbrook Pegler who later dubbed him Cashand-Carry Pyle—and I’ll tell you I would not have liked to go through life without having met Charlie Pyle. That night his first words to me were “How would you like to make a hundred thousand dollars?” and he had me laughing. The most I had ever made was $37.50 on the ice truck. So I said How? And he said, well, he thought he could go to Chicago and talk George Halas and Dutch Sternaman, the men who owned the Chicago Bears, into setting up an exhibition tour throughout the United States. So naturally I was interested. I didn’t sign anything, but we did shake hands on it. A couple of weeks later he called me and said that everything was all set up.
Didn’t turning professional mean that you’d have to drop out of the university ?
That never worried me in any way at that time, because I knew that getting a sheepskin was not going to make a hundred thousand dollars for me in the first month, although I felt then that I would go back and finish up at some later date, which I never did.
How was Pyk able to keep his scheduled tour a secret until you finished your college football career ?
There were a lot of rumors, of course. They even had me down at the Champaign News Gazette a few days before our final game at Ohio State, and they grilled me about those rumors. But I hadn’t done anything. I had not signed any contract, although I had verbally agreed with Pyle, and it seemed to me that what I did after my last college game was nobody’s business but mine. So finally I told the newspaper, look, you print any damn thing you want, but be ready for a lawsuit if it’s not truthful. One of the nicest things said about me at that time—because they were really cutting me up pretty badly before that game—was a Mr. St. John, who was athletics director at Ohio State, and he came out and said that if Red Grange says he has not signed a pro contract to play pro ball, that is good enough for us, and we take him at his word. That was more than my own guys at Illinois would do. You see, all the college coaches and athletics directors, they were 100 per cent against professional football. They thought anybody connected with it was going to hell, you might say. When I joined the Chicago Bears, as far as the University of Illinois was concerned, I would have been more popular if I had joined the Capone mob.
How did Coach Zuppke react to your decision ?
Not very well. I told him about it right after we beat Ohio State, 14-9, before 85,000 people in Columbus. We drove around in a cab for a while after the game, and he tried to talk me out of turning pro. He said I was making a mistake. I told him that he was making a living out of teaching and coaching football, so what’s the difference if I make a living playing football. About three weeks after I turned pro, I went back to Champaign for the Illinois football banquet, and Zuppke got up and berated me in front of everybody. He said he didn’t want any more hundred-thousand-dollar football players at Illinois and stuff like that. Well, I’m somewhat of a bullheaded guy, I guess, and that kind of talk riled me up, and I walked out of the banquet, and Zuppke and I didn’t talk to each other for a couple of years.
How did you and Zuppke get back together ?
Two or three years later I happened to be in Champaign, and Zup called me up and we had lunch together. Funny thing, though, the subject of my turning pro was never mentioned at lunch that day or ever again, and he and I were the closest of friends from then on. He changed his thinking about professional football later. He told me once that he often wished he could keep his players until they were twenty-five or twenty-six years old, because just as they were hitting their peak, he would lose them through graduation.
Your entry into professional football really changed the game, didn’t it ?
In the sense that more people started paying attention to it, yes. Until I went with the Bears, the crowds were only a couple of thousand, and the sportswriters didn’t give the pros much coverage. I joined the Bears on Thanksgiving Day in 1925, and we played eight games in the next eleven days with twenty-two men. We went east and set an attendance record of sixty-five thousand in the Polo Grounds that stood for years. And when we went on tour after the pro season ended, we had sportswriters like Grantland Rice and Pegler and Damon Runyon and Ford Frick travelling with us. That had never happened before. I remember when we got to Washington, Senator McKinley of Illinois called and asked me if I wanted to meet the President. I was certainly flattered, but to show you how sports-minded the President was in those days, when the senator introduced me to Calvin Coolidge as “Red Grange of the Chicago Bears,” the President told me that he had always liked animal acts. I’ll never forget that.
Was it Grantland Rice who dubbed you the Galloping Ghost ?
No, it was Warren Brown, who was a great writer with the Chicago American in those days. Some of those sportswriters, though, they’d write anything that came into their heads. I remember once—maybe I shouldn’t tell this story —well, the late Bill Stern, the sportscaster, called me one day; and he said he wanted to go on the radio with a great story about a guy who got kicked out of the University of Illinois for gambling, and later he became rich and picked me up and paid my way through school just to have me go to Illinois. I told Bill that I had paid my own way through school and that I didn’t know any gamblers. Bill insisted that it was a good story and it didn’t hurt anybody, but I wouldn’t let him do it.
What was your agreement with the Chicago Bears in 1925 ?
First of all, my contract was with PyIe, not the Bears. I never did have a contract with the Bears. PyIe and Halas agreed to split the gate receipts, and then Charlie and I split our share. Charlie was honest as far as … well, with me, anyway. A lot of people used to say he was gypping me, but he never did. The day after we beat the Giants in the Polo Grounds, PyIe gave me a check for fifty thousand dollars, and I remember it was coming up close to Christmas, and I remember going out to Wheaton and giving my father a check for five thousand dollars and driving a new automobile out and giving it to my brother. That was probably the biggest kick I got out of making money. That, and paying off a few debts I owed. I owed five hundred dollars for a raccoon coat, which I paid off.
D idn’t you endorse a lot of different products ?
Charlie had lined up all these endorsements when we were in New York to play the Giants. The only thing I needed to do was just meet the people. I never had any part in the discussions or anything. I guess I was the first football player to have a manager or a business partner like that. But we endorsed a lot of things, including football dolls and soft drinks and a candy bar and even a meat loaf. I would have been embarrassed to ask for some of the prices that PyIe used to ask for—and get, by the way. PyIe also signed me up to a movie contract that time in New York. As I recall, we were supposed to get a percentage or something. Anyway, Charlie made out a check for three hundred thousand dollars and flashed it around to the press. It was strictly a friendly promotion, and we didn’t receive anything near that amount, but he had a lot of people believing it. Then the following summer, when we went out to Hollywood to film One Minute to Play , the script called for the big game to be played on a fall afternoon on the east coast. Well, nobody wanted to spend a lot of money to hire extras for the crowd scenes, so PyIe came up with the idea to stage an exhibition game in Los Angeles that would be free to anyone who came wearing a hat and overcoat. You know, twelve thousand people dressed like that showed up in the middle of July, and we were able to shoot all the crowd reactions we needed.
Did you like working in the movies in Hollywood ?
It was awfully hard work, believe jne. You’d get up at five o’clock and be over there at the studio many times until nine or ten at night. It was no fun. But One Minute to Play was shown throughout the country and did very well. A year or two later I made another silent movie called Racing Romeo , which never amounted to very much. But I did get to work with Barney Oldfield, who did a lot of the driving sequences in the movie, and I got to know Jim Jeffries, the old fighter. And had I known that Wyatt Earp was living out there at the time, I certainly would have looked him up, because he was one of my great old heroes from the West.
W ho were some of your other heroes ?
I’ve always admired men like Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey. These were guys who came from nothing, from no place, from poverty—same way I did, and nobody was ever poorer than Grange when he was a kid. I admire people like that. I have nothing against them, but I don’t admire rich kids who never worked a day in their life and their old man dies and leaves them a few million dollars. I met Babe Ruth, incidentally, the first time I played in New York. The Babe came up to my room at the Astor Hotel. Bless him, it was real nice of him, and he said, kid, I want to give you a little bit of advice. He said, don’t pay any attention to what they write about you, and don’t pick up too many checks.
Didn’t you have any heroes who were football players ?
Well, the fact is that I’m not a great football fan. I prefer baseball. To me football was work. Playing a game was fun, but the doggone practice, that’s the toughest job in the world. Also, after I stopped playing, I broadcast three hundred or so football games, including play-by-play for the Bears for fourteen years. So just to see two teams play football, that doesn’t have an awful lot of appeal for me.
But what about Jim Thorpe, ihe Carlisle Indian ?
Jim wasn’t a hero of mine, but we did get well acquainted, and I liked him a lot. I only played one exhibition against him, and he was past his prime by then. But when I was living in LXJS Angeles, he used to come over to the house two or three times a week. Jim was Jim’s worst enemy, you know. A great, talented guy, probably the greatest athlete that ever lived, and a lovable kind of guy, too. PyIe used to have a party trick he’d work with Thorpe. Charlie had two quarters with the same kind of marks on them. He’d get Thorpe to plant one quarter in an orange for him. Then PyIe would show everybody the other quarter and tell them he was going to magically pass the quarter into that orange over on the table. Then PyIe would say a lot of hocus-pocus and palm the quarter. Well, one night everybody gathered around the table, and when they opened the orange, old Thorpe had put two dimes and a nickel in it. It was the only time I ever saw PyIe get mad at anyone.
Were those the only two movies you made in Hollywood ?
No. I went back in the summer of 1929, and we made one of those blood-and-thunder action serials, the kind that were shown every Saturday in those days. It was called The Galloping Ghost , and it was full of things like falling out of airplanes and speed boats running underneath the docks and into posts. We didn’t actually fall out of airplanes, of course. They’d go up and shoot the ground, and then we had an airplane suspended about ten feet in the air. It was a double exposure. It was really an exciting thing, you know, like the Perils of Pauline . Later that fall I was playing against the Giants in the Polo Grounds, and Steve Owens, who later coached the Giants, he tackled me on one play. And before I got up, he said, “Red, I missed that last episode, but what happened when you fell out of that airplane?”
In that movie serial you thwarted a bunch oj gamblers who were trying to fix football games. Did you ever run into this sort of thing outside of the motion pictures ?
Nobody ever suggested it to me, and I never heard of a player that ever came in contact with it at all. I don’t think that anyone has ever thrown a game. I would suspect maybe that points have been shaved, from what I’ve read in the newspapers years ago and things, but I don’t know. I never came in contact with it, so I’ve just been a babe in the woods as far as that is concerned.
Why didn’t you continue to play for the Chicago Bears your second year in professional football ?
As I said, my contract was with PyIe, not the Bears. Well, the second year PyIe wanted a third interest in the Bears, and Halas wouldn’t do it. So PyIe started the American Football League. PyIe and I each owned half of the New York Yankees, which I played for, and another travelling franchise built around George Wilson, who had been an All-American at the University of Washington. But the league failed, and later I gave PyIe my interest in the two teams. I don’t even remember how many teams we had in 1926 or who they all were, but I’ll never forget that it rained every Sunday all fall. I don’t think we had one sunny Sunday. And of course in those days people did not buy season tickets. If it was a nice day, they’d come to the game. We lost a bundle. The American League disbanded, and in 1927 the Yankees became part of the National Football League. The Yankees were playing Chicago that year, and late in the game I went up for a pass, and when I came down, I caught my cleats in the sod, and George Trafton, the Chicago center, fell over me, and I hurt my knee. I was on crutches for three or four months and thought for a while that I would never play football again. I missed the entire 1928 season, and when I did come back, I couldn’t cut. So the injury was the end of me being much of a running back, because straight runners are a dime a dozen.
Was it PyIe who brought you back to football in 1929 ?
No, it was George Halas. My contract with PyIe had ended, and I absolutely thought my football career was a thing of the past. But Halas practically insisted I come back and give it a try. I played through the 1934 season for George, and then I coached for him three years more, and I never had a contract with him. It was kind of an odd relationship in a way. I would go along, week to week, drawing what money I needed or what I wanted, and at the end of the season I’d go down to the office, and Halas would say, “Red, how much do I owe you?” Whatever figure I would mention, he never questioned it. He’d just have a check made out for it. Maybe it was good psychology, because you never overemphasize the money thing, you know, when you’re making the judgment yourself. But if anyone asked me who my best friend was, I’d say George Halas. We haven’t agreed on everything, but tomorrow if I need fifty or a hundred thousand dollars, I could go to George, and I’d have it in ten minutes, and he wouldn’t even ask me what I wanted it for. George was one of the originators of the National Football League. I’d say Uiere would be no league if it hadn’t been for people like Halas and Tim Mara of the Giants and, of course, Curly Lambeau of Green Bay and Art Rooney [Pittsburgh] and George Preston Marshall [Washington] and Bert Bell [league commissioner]. Those are the fellows who kept the league going. Halas is bullheaded about pro football, and in the early days he moonlighted to make money to keep his franchise in Chicago going. If anyone deserves what he has today, George Halas is that man.
How much pay did you average during your playing days with the Bears ?
I really don’t remember. I think I was paid by the game, maybe a thousand dollars a game or whatever it was. It varied, depending on how good a year I thought I had. I was paid very well, considering what the other fellows were paid.
What were the other fellows paid ?
In my day so many of these fellows played not because they wanted to get rich. They just loved to play football. You could get probably the finest All-American lineman out of college for a hundred dollars a game, which was the way most people were paid. Trafton, for instance, the Bears’ center, after thirteen or fourteen years he was the highestpaid lineman on the Bears, and he got a hundred thirtyfive dollars a game. You would, of course^ be guaranteed maybe twenty-four or twenty-five games a year, and remember, this was back when a suit of clothes only cost seven dollars and you could get a good steak dinner for sixty or seventy cents. But just to give you an example of how the times have changed, when I joined the Bears in 1929, except for my salary the entire payroll—all the coaches and players and even the trainer—was about three thousand dollars a game. I remember some of our early games at Wrigley Field in Chicago; our trainer would wait until they had sold a dozen tickets, then he’d take the ticket money across the street to a drugstore and buy the tape for our ankles. So help me, that’s true.
In what other ways has the game changed since your time ?
There’s no way you can really compare it. Today I think it’s a better game, and the thing that has made it better is that you have two teams, a defensive and an offensive team, playing. I’ve often said that there are three or four rule changes that have made modern football so much better. One is the free-substitution rule that permits players to go in and out of the game. In my day you couldn’t go back in until the next quarter. Another change was bringing the ball fifteen yards in to the hash marks after you had gone out of bounds. Before that they always brought the ball in one yard, and your opponents would just keep shoving you off the sidelines, play after play. I’ve played against the sidelines that way for a whole quarter. Pretty dull game that way.
Who decided to bring the ball in to the hash marks ?
George Halas. In 1932 die Bears played Portsmouth for the championship indoors in Chicago Stadium because of bad weather. Well, the field was only eighty yards long, and the sidelines were only about a foot from the stadium walls. We didn’t want anybody to get hurt, so Halas suggested a rule that whenever the ball went out of bounds, we would bring the ball back in fifteen yards. It worked pretty well, so the next year Halas proposed it at a rules meeting, and they adopted it. Shortly after that the college rules were changed, too.
What other changes do you think have improved football ?
I think being able to pass anyplace behind the line of scrimmage, instead of more than five yards back, like in my day, has opened up the game. And of course the equipment is a lot better today. The nylon and plastic and sponge-rubber stuff they wear nowadays gives much better protection and maneuverability, and it weighs about one third what our equipment did. When I was playing, our uniforms were made of leather and felt and canvas and wool, and along about five minutes after the game started and everyone was soaking wet, well, you can imagine what that felt like. But the big thing that has popularized professional football is television. I used to travel around the country a lot before television, and once you got outside a professional franchise city, why, people had no idea what pro ball was like. They’d say that the pros don’t tackle and they don’t block and that there was no spirit. Well, there was just as much tackling and blocking in my day, maybe more than now, but you could not convince people until television brought the game into their living rooms.
Is it true that Halas talked you out of retiring after the 1932 championship game ?
I retired every year, you know. Half the guys retire every year, and then they come back the next year. But that year I had had it, and I didn’t see any great future out of being a defensive football player. But George wanted me to come back, and I did. Then, in ig33, we had a play-off game with the Giants in Chicago, and I think that was probably the greatest football game I ever participated in. It was the first East-West play-off championship in the National Football League, and the score changed hands seven times. Seven different times! Well, there were just a few seconds left, and we were ahead, 23-21.1 was playing defense, and Harry Newman, the Giant quarterback, threw a pass to Dale Burnett. I was the only Bear between Burnett and the goal line, and I knew that as soon as I tackled him, Burnett was going to lateral to MeI Hein, the great Giant center, who was trailing him. So I grabbed Burnett around the chest and held his arms so he couldn’t lateral. And we went down, and the whistle went off, and the Bears won the championship. I guess that had to be one of my greatest thrills in football.
How much was a championship worth to the players in those days ?
In 1933 the winner’s share was $210, and the losers each got $140.
I n 1934 you were honored at the Illinois homecoming game. Considering the circumstances under which you had left the university, was there anything special about going back there in triumph ?
I don’t think so. I suppose it did represent a tremendous change in their attitude in a fairly short period of time, because all they had done before was to give me hell for being in the pro league. But by that time more and more college graduates were turning professional. You see, right after I dropped out of school and joined the Bears, the pros passed a rule that they could not draft anybody until his class had graduated, and that rule took a lot of the fear out of the colleges, who were afraid the pros would raid their teams. Later on, in 1950, somebody nominated me to run as a Republican candidate for trustee at the university. I didn’t ask for the nomination, and I didn’t campaign at all, but I still received more votes that year than anyone in the state, including Governor Adlai Stevenson. But I didn’t enjoy being on the board. I hadn’t been a trustee more than a couple of days, and I started getting phone calls from politicians, telling me to put this guy or that guy to work or else you won’t get your budget through. I don’t believe it’s the right way to run a university, and I got out as soon as I could.
Your last year with the Bears, 1934, was one oj their best, wasn’t it ?
That’s right. We won all thirteen of our regular season games, and that record stood until 1972, when the Miami Dolphins broke it. Then on December 9 we played the Giants again for the championship, this time on the frozen turf of the Polo Grounds. That was the famous “sneaker” game. We dominated them in the first half, and at half time the Giants borrowed some basketball shoes from nearby Manhattan College. When they came out wearing those sneakers, we thought they were crazy. But the second half of that game was probably the funniest, most ridiculous game ever played. There we were, running along with our cleated football shoes, and our feet were going out from under us. And the Giants, although not running fast, were just trotting along, doing all the things we couldn’t do. They beat us, 30-13, although it was a shame that we were forced to play a game of that importance in that kind of weather.
Tell me about your last game .
We played an exhibition game against those same Giants on January 27, 1Q35, in Hollywood’s Gilmore Stadium. Everybody, including the Giants, knew it was going to be my last appearance as a player. I sort of thought it would be nice if I could score one more touchdown, and then I’d just walk right to the clubhouse and that would be the end of it. Well, I went back into the game in the last quarter, and the Bears had the ball on about our ao-yard line. I ran a simple off-tackle play, and although I can’t prove it, I think the Giants let me get loose. So I started running as fast as I could, only it seemed like the doggone goal posts kept getting farther and farther away. At any rate, I could hear one of the Giants—a huge tackle named Gecil Irvin, who was so slow you could have timed him with a calendar —sneaking up on me. Finally, around the Giants’ 39-yard line, he caught up with me. I know he didn’t want to tackle me, but he had to. I said to myself, when a 23o-pound lineman can run me down in the open field, this is it, brother. I’ve had it. That’s the last time I ever played football.