Legendary, historic gridiron hero had area roots

It may come as a surprise to many people that one of the greatest football players of all time was born in Sullivan County.

There is even a road landmark along Route 154 in Forksville paying tribute to him.

And yet, many folks today likely have never heard of Red Grange.

Grange, a fleet halfback dubbed the Galloping Ghost, was one of the most remarkable sports figures of the 1920s along with such athletes as baseball immortal Babe Ruth and heavyweight boxing champ Jack Dempsey.

What is perhaps best known about Grange is how he first carved out his legendary gridiron status.

Numerous sources cite the fall afternoon in 1924 when Grange took the opening kickoff for the University of Illinois and ran 95 yards for a touchdown.

But that wasn’t all. He scored three more touchdowns — all in the first quarter — on runs of 67, 54 and 44 yards. He later scored on a 13-yard run and for good measure, tossed a 20-yard touchdown pass to lead the Illini to a 39-14 win over Michigan and put the finishing touches on one of the most incredible individual exploits in collegiate football history.

Harold Grange was born in 1903 in Forksville.

At the time, a number of lumber camps operated in the area, where Grange’s father worked as a foreman.

In 1908, upon the death of Grange’s mother, the family moved to Wheaton, Illinois where he grew up.

Although born with a heart murmur, he managed to earn 16 varsity letters playing high school sports. To gain strength, Grange reportedly lifted and delivered heavy blocks of ice throughout high school and college.

He earned All-America status during his sophomore year in 1923, the first of three seasons he was so honored, leading the Illini to an undefeated record.

But it was in that 1924 game when he electrified more than 66,000 fans with his blazing speed and open field maneuvers and imprinted his name forever in the minds of football fans.

Over his three-year collegiate career, Grange scored 31 touchdowns and rushed for 2,071 yards from scrimmage. He managed to compile those yards in just 388 attempts, a most impressive 5.3 yards per carry.

He turned to professional football quite abruptly during his senior year of college in 1925, joining the Chicago Bears of the National Football League on Thanksgiving Day.

According to Grange’s obituary in the New York Times: “The Bears were owned and coached by George Halas, himself a former Illinois player. Coach Bob Zuppke of Illinois, angered by Mr. Halas’s hiring Mr. Grange, contacted the Bears coach and told him that such actions could jeopardize the college game. Mr. Halas came to agree with Mr. Zuppke, and although Mr. Grange stayed on the Chicago team, Mr. Halas eventually persuaded the N.F.L. to adopt a draft of collegians and not take any of them before their class graduated.

“Mr. Grange’s debut professional tour started with 8 games in 12 days, and by the time it ended, in February 1926, he had earned $100,000. But more important than his earnings was the fact that he almost instantly gave the N.F.L. the credibility it had lacked in its first five years.”

Grange would go on to play professional football for eight years (he missed the 1928 season due to a knee injury) before retiring in 1934.

He later became an assistant football coach before venturing into various pursuits including acting.

He returned to football as a radio and television broadcaster, calling many college games and 312 Bear games from 1947-61.

He retired to Indian Lake, Fla., where he owned an orange grove and an insurance agency and was involved in the real-estate business.

Grange’s star power and lightning-like speed fueled the imaginations of sportswriters who covered his exploits on the gridiron, feeding a nation hungry for heroes.

Following the famous Michigan game in 1924, Grantland Rice, perhaps the most famous of all sportswriters of the day and known for his hyperbolic and elegant prose, wrote of Grange’s athletic exploits:

“A streak of fire. A breath of flame

Eluding all who reach and clutch;

A gray ghost thrown into the game

That rival hands may never touch.”

Celebrated New York newspaperman Damon Runyon once wrote of him: “He is three or four men rolled into one. He is Jack Dempsey, Babe Ruth, Al Jolson, Paavo Nurmi and Man o’ War.”

Grange, by all accounts, was a modest man, not a person inflated by his own celebrity status.

In a Sept. 4, 1985 “Sports Illustrated” article, John Underwood wrote: “Unlike those modern-day cads and bores who make millions from their sports without exhibiting a redeeming social grace, Grange was a much-loved figure, partly because he was easy to love. The effusive Sid Luckman said that just meeting him was ‘one of the greatest honors I’ve received in sports.’ Upon meeting Grange socially, the Giants’ All-Pro center/linebacker Mel Hein called him ‘the nicest, dearest man I ever met.’ Hein had first met him on the field at the end of “a stiff-arm so strong it knocked me over.’ ”

Baseball Hall of Famer Ralph Kiner called Grange “The most modest hero who ever lived.”

Long-time sports broadcaster Lindsey Nelson said of Grange, “An absolute peach. You couldn’t get him mad at you if you tried.”

Grange died in 1991 in Florida due to complications from pneumonia.

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