The early days of professional football were not pretty or promising — obviously not televised but also casually recognized. The Bears and Cardinals were relegated to secondary pages of the sports sections in Chicago, with college football dominant and even high school football more prominent.
And more than that, pro football was a second-class citizen in American sport — considered substandard to college football and to some, an unseemly, disrespected profession. The best college players didn’t automatically go to the National Football League.
Red Grange helped change all of that. The running back from Wheaton and the University of Illinois rivaled even Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey as an American sports star in the 1920s. When he signed with the Bears out of Illinois in 1925, he almost single-handedly changed the face of the NFL — giving it an instant credibility that was reflected in banner headlines and sell-out crowds.
Grange’s debut with the Bears on Thanksgiving Day drew 36,000 fans at Cubs Park — the largest crowd in the then-brief history of the future Wrigley Field. Ten days later, Grange drew a record 65,000 to the Polo Grounds for a game against Tim Mara’s fledgling New York Giants — an event that without exaggeration is credited with not only saving that franchise, but leaving an impression on eastern sports writers that further legitimized pro football. On a winter barnstorming tour following the season, Grange and the Bears drew a record 65,270 to the Los Angeles Coliseum.
As it turned out, Red Grange’s impact on the field would never match all of that. While playing for the New York Yankees in 1927 after a salary dispute with the Bears, Grange suffered a knee injury and missed the 1928 season. He returned to the Bears in 1929, but had lost the speed and agility that made him a superstar. He made his mark as an outstanding defensive back — most notably making a touchdown-saving tackle on the final play that clinched the Bears’ 23-21 victory over Giants in the NFL championship game. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963.
All things considered, no player from Illinois has had more impact on a sport than Red Grange. He was a four-sport star at Wheaton High School who scored 75 touchdowns. He became a superstar as a three-time All-American at Illinois who famously rose to the occasion of the big game when he scored four touchdowns in the first quarter against Michigan in 1924 at newly dedicated Memorial Stadium — a 95-yard return of the opening kickoff, plus runs of 67, 56 and 44 yards. In those days he was a larger-than-life star, his No. 77 was almost as famous as he was. And even then, the best was yet to come.