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Books | Sports

December 1, 2008

How Red Grange Created Pro Football

The Galloping Ghost was as big in his day as Babe Ruth, but we've forgotten how critical he was in building the modern NFL. A new biography aims to set that right.

Tom Flynn

Red Grange’s fame and impact may not be ships passing in the night, but they are certainly traveling in opposite directions. The football player’s fame heads off towards the horizon, as with each passing year he grows more vague and distant. His impact heads directly our way, the ubiquitous "NFL" logo emblazoned on its prow and looming ever larger in our American culture.

Grange did not found the NFL—it existed for a handful of seasons before he joined the Chicago Bears in late 1925—but his breathtaking open-field sprints electrified the stadiums of its motley assembly of early teams. With many of the country’s best collegiate football teams still in the Ivy League, going professional in football was decidedly lowbrow. The New York Giants, now an old-money cornerstone of the NFL, were founded by bookmakers (as in bookies, not publishers) in 1925. They were in good company in a league whose reputation and prospects were sketchy at best. That is, until Red arrived.

Gary Andrew Poole. Photo by Robert Gallagher.
"Grange put the NFL on the map and made it a much more credible game."

Gary Andrew Poole. Photo by Robert Gallagher.

Gelf recently caught up with Gary Andrew Poole, author of The Galloping Ghost: Red Grange, an American Football Legend, to get his thoughts on the challenges of bringing this icon back to the nation's fore in his new book; how a barnstorming tour was tragic for Grange but a boon to the NFL; and what's changed in the league since Grange's day. This interview has been edited for clarity. You can hear Poole, along with Liz Robbins, Nathaniel Friedman, Jacob Weinstein, and Jesse Einhorn, at Gelf's free Varsity Letters reading series on December 4 in New York's Lower East Side.

Gelf Magazine: The question that I think is going to strike everyone that reads the book is: Was the benefit of the physically brutal barnstorming tour (in which Grange and the Chicago Bears played 19 games in 67 days in the winter of 1925-1926)—namely that it thrust Red Grange and the sport so thoroughly onto the American scene—offset by the fact that coming out of that tour he was fairly damaged goods physically? Did he most benefit the game as a result of that tour or could he have done more if he had stayed healthy longer?

Gary Andrew Poole: I actually haven't been asked that question, and it's a fascinating one. I tend to think that even if he had played exceptionally well as a pro player, and they hadn't gone on that barnstorming tour, it wouldn't have had the impact that the tour had. The tour came just off his senior year that included the Penn game, which all the great writers of the day attended. After that every schoolboy was thinking about Red Grange and he was just an enormously popular guy, and then he goes on this barnstorming tour and you could see him live. It's a 19-game tour and they sell out these stadiums all over the place. I just think that compacting a lot of games into a short amount of time probably made a bigger impact than if he'd had a longer and more profound pro career. That's my sense of it.
On the barnstorming tour he went to all these major markets, and smaller markets, of course. He goes to New York, which has an enormous impact on the Giants. The Maras [the New York Giants' long-time owners] always said their game against the Bears saved the franchise. And all the other things—the extracurriculars, the product endorsements—are followed by a trip out to Hollywood and he then makes a movie. Just the suddenness of that—he capitalized on his college fame in such a short amount of time—definitely put the NFL on the map and made it a much more credible game because if you'd talked to people in the '20s, they just didn't see the NFL as very credible. There were college players playing in the NFL, but nobody of Grange's status, so his presence made people say, "This is something that we can look at and take seriously." The other thing was that in the '20s, people were working on Saturdays often, so it wasn't easy to get to college games. He brought credibility to the game and then he brought it to people on Sundays so they could go and see a game, which [meant] they had some entertainment on a Sunday other than baseball.

Gary Andrew Poole at Gelf's Varsity Letters event on December 4.

GM: I agree. And the other thing that occurred to me: Because the tour was in the winter right after the 1925 college season and they needed to play in some warm locations, it broke down the regionalization of the game because they were going to these places out west and down south that clearly Penn, for example, wasn't going to.

GAP: I think you're right. There were bowl games, and college teams such as Michigan would go to the Rose Bowl occasionally, but it wasn't as organized as it is today and it wasn't super-common. And it made the Chicago Bears into a more national team, into the first "America's Team," because they went to all these places and they had a very good, well-coached squad and a lot of the players were excellent. There was a notion that pro football wouldn't try hard because, who's going to damage their body for money? So that also broke that thinking down. Pro players would play hard for the love of the game and not because they were giving it the old college try.

GM: One of the things that I thought was important in the book—and I think that's partially due to the tragic injuries to Red—is that it's an incredibly physical game. I'm not saying the older players were better or tougher than the modern players. But the notion of players pushing on with these injuries would be good for the modern fan of the game enamored with fantasy football to read about.

GAP: It was a physical game. They also played both ways. A lot of people say, "God, these guys were so much smaller back then. There's no way they could play now." But it was a different game—it was more of an endurance game. They were playing both ways, and you couldn't really be 300 pounds and play a whole game. They weren't shuttled in and out and they had to play through injury because there also was a rule where if you went out of the game, and rules changed through the years, that you couldn't come back in until the next quarter. So you could really hurt your team if you're Red Grange and you come out of the game and you can't return until the next quarter. So they endured, they really endured and I was surprised by that when I went back and really studied Grange's college games—it was harder to do in the pro games because he wasn't covered quite as diligently as in the college games—but I was surprised when I looked at how many concussions he had.

GM: One of the halftime stories you told mentioned that he had his head "iced down."

GAP: Yeah, I went back and double-checked and in later interviews he would say, "I remember what happened in this part of the game"—but not other parts, and it was obvious that he was in a pretty severe concussed state, it seemed, in half the games. He was the targeted guy and the other team was going after him and it was a lot looser back then in terms of penalties. The refs weren't kicking you off or giving you severe penalties too often. He just endured a heck of a lot. George Trafton, the Hall of Fame center, saw Dick Butkus play and said, that guy's a pussy compared to the way we used to play.
I don't know if that's true because if you look at Butkus, he was so ferocious. But it's definitely a tough brand of football and a different brand of football. I like the modern game and I don't think that people would want to see that 1920s-style game, because guys are fresher now because they're going in and out. But I wouldn't mind going back into the 1920s and watching a few of them and really comparing them.

GM: What you're saying about concussions—just think about the NFL's blow-to-the-head rule that's, what, only a decade old, and football's been around forever. And medicine was still figuring out what was truly damaging to a human being and they knew even less of what was damaging on a football field. You mentioned that Red had no recollection of the latter part of the Illinois-Michigan game in 1924 because he was so heavily concussed at that point.

GAP: Yeah, I think they have to protect these guys and its good that they do, because once you get to the pro level, you're banging heads with people all the time. And concussions, if you talk to a physician, pile up like repeated car wrecks. You have to protect these guys. Plus they play more games now than they used to. The college season is definitely longer now, and the pro season is long and there's a lot of speed out on the field. I'm not for going back in time and letting guys play in a concussed state, because they have to live the rest of their lives. It's just football, it's a game. Although it represents a lot, I don't think you need to ruin your life over it.

GM: This was your first book, correct?

GAP: Yes, it's my first book. Hopefully not my last.

GM: I'd like to ask you about the mechanics of writing a book, because I know you're a journalist. What was it like for you, jumping from articles to a book, particularly this book, where so much of the action takes place 80 years ago?

GAP: It was a bit of a leap for me, going from 800-word newspaper pieces—I also write magazine articles which can get up to 5,000 words or so—to writing chapters that were 5,000 to 10,000 words themselves in a book that was about 130,000 words. And with book narrative, the writing is just a little different: Instead of a middle-distance runner, you're a marathon runner. So it takes a slightly different skill set: the way you approach your subject…the way you write about your subject. So it was different for me. It took me halfway through the process for me to find my legs, I would say, but I enjoyed it a lot.

GM: You're going back 80 years so some of the figures you describe are not in the public consciousness now and you really have to establish them to begin with.

GAP: That presented some difficulties just because I really had to understand the characters well and had to do a tremendous amount of research before I felt comfortable writing about them. I did book research but I really wanted to dig deeper than that and not just replay the games that were already part of sports mythology.
As part of the reporting process, I had to dig up 80-year-old court records and oral histories. I looked at a lot of photographs and did photo archival research, trying to find game clips. I tried to figure out the characters' later lives: what they had done after their careers and where these guys passed away: anything that spoke to their character and let me feel like I was an authority and could talk about them as well. C.C. Pyle, Grange's agent and the book's secondary character, really was tricky because he was sort of a liar, so I had to fact-check his life. So that was difficult, too.
But I'm a journalist so I obviously deal with live people whom I'm interviewing, and you can get as many different stories from people who lived long ago as you can from live people. It's always the tricky part of journalism, getting the facts straight. If it's 80 years ago, or when you cover a story for journalism, different people have different perceptions of what is happening and you really have to use that filter and figure out what's right and how to put it in perspective.

Red Grange's greatest hits

GM: You also had to weed through the writing style of the '20s and also the brotherhood of the football players and owners such as [Chicago Bears' owner] George Halas to figure out what is truly accurate.

GAP: I can think of one case, where Halas is talking about Red Grange in the 1930s and he was quoted in some newspaper article as saying, "Oh, Red's doing fine," but then I dug up court records revealing that the Chicago Bears were basically being sued for the amount of his salary because they were employing Grange and he owed money, so Red Grange wasn't doing OK.
You talk about the '20s writing style which many people feel is full of hyperbole—and that can be argued—but on the other hand, it's got great detail. When you read stories today, you don't have the description—the great descriptions—that you did in that era, basically because people can see these games on television. So, if you're covering a World Series game, you probably wouldn't go into the weather to a great degree, but in those old days they had great literary descriptions and just incredible detail…the level of detail was just amazing and really fun to read. Especially when you dig deeper down into the stories.

GM: Maybe an analogy today would be between television and radio announcing. I get Navy football games on the radio and I always notice when the announcers say, "Navy in the blue and gold moving from right to left," because it seems like an anachronism. It's as if they are falling into the cadence of what these older writers had to do, because obviously no one saw the game on television, and also they were speaking to parts of the country where they had no other record of the game whatsoever.

GAP: Plus if you're going to compare modern-day writing with the writing of the '20s, it was all in the game story. Nowadays if the pitcher warms up and trips over something and stubs his toe, all the writers are on their Blackberries or their laptops feeding that into a blog post. Whereas in the old days, up until the television era, you'd read Red Smith's game stories and you really got a feel for the game in his story; it wasn't sliced up into blog posts. So it was much more comprehensive. It's fun to read but you have to be careful as the person doing the research not to get caught up and believe everything you're reading. You have to double-check a lot of the stuff, but it is certainly fun to read.

"In those old days, they had great literary descriptions and just incredible detail…the level of detail was just amazing and really fun to read. "
GM: In the book you match the older detailed style in a game between the Bears and the New York [football] Yankees and describe the painting of the seats at Cubs Park [now Wrigley Field]; that descriptive style you used was reminiscent of some of the great detail of the era in setting the scene.

GAP: Yeah, sports in the '20s was pretty fascinating because it was becoming so much more of a commodity. People were really getting into sports during that era and the increasing sports pages and the importance of those pages made a lot of these athletes into legendary guys. They really pumped them up. It was a fascinating era because you did have some great athletes. Back to the writing just briefly, I remember reading a New Yorker quote of that era and they were talking about newspaper writing and even the New Yorker acknowledged that at that time the sports pages were some of the most interesting to read and the most accurate compared to the rest of the paper.

GM: Football has clearly eclipsed Major League Baseball as far as popularity nationally, which is why the topic of Grange is well-timed. He had such a large impact and yet, to an extent, has fallen off the map.

GAP: I use the term "unexplored icon" because if you look in the '20s, you've got Babe Ruth, Bobby Jones, Jack Dempsey, and Grange. I know I wrote the guy's biography, but in some ways he's more profound than those guys because of his decision to turn pro and what it did for the sport itself. But then he totally dropped off the map, really. He was a broadcaster and people in the Midwest still know who he is, but if you go outside that belt, people on the coast don't really remember him, for the most part.

GM: Based on what I've experienced, they don't.

GAP: I went on a book tour and the reading I gave is much different in Illinois, for example, than anywhere else because I didn't have to explain who he is at all. I just gave a reading here in Los Angeles, and I have to spend 20 minutes telling people who he is because they don't remember him that well.

GM: You lose context I'm sure as a biographer because you're so immersed in his feats that you have to pull yourself back and say, "Where is he in the public consciousness as compared to what I've gone through in writing a book?"

GAP: You can become the great Red Grange nerd and wonder why people are like "C'mon…"

GM: "…enough about Grange."

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn has written two books, Baseball in Baltimore and Venable Park.

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- Sports
- posted on Dec 10, 08
darrel mason

Who knows what year was football created ?

Article by Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn has written two books, Baseball in Baltimore and Venable Park.

Learn more about this author


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