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'20s Star Grange, 87, Dies : Football: "Galloping Ghost" was one of game's pioneers playing for University of Illinois and Chicago Bears.

January 29, 1991|From a Times Staff Writer

Harold (Red) Grange died early Monday at 87, the last living reminder of that fabulous company of athletes who made the decade from 1920 to 1930 the Golden Age of American Sports.

Grange died of complications from pneumonia in a hospital at his home near Lake Wales, Fla., said Margaret Grange, his wife of 49 years. His condition was diagnosed as Parkinson's disease last year. He had been hospitalized since July, and on the critical list for a week.

Grange, perhaps the most gifted and certainly the most publicized football player of all time, outlived them all: Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey. Bobby Jones and Bill Tilden. And the other golden names of that magic decade, jockey Earl Sande, football's Four Horsemen and their coach Knute Rockne, women's tennis champion Helen Wills Moody, baseball's Ty Cobb and a horse who, in that sports-obsessed era, seemed only slightly less than human, Man o' War.

Grange, during three varsity years at the University of Illinois, raised college football to new levels of excitement with his quicksilver, broken-field running. Even Americans who hadn't cared about the game until his emergence became aware of who and what No. 77 was and could do.

When he signed a contract with the Chicago Bears in 1925 after finishing his senior season with the Illini, the publicity attendant to the act gave professional football a cachet of respectability it had never enjoyed.

His death followed only by hours the 25th Super Bowl, an event light years removed from the leather helmets and interminable bus and train trips of Grange's era.

Grange's nicknames--"the Wheaton Iceman" (from his hometown of Wheaton, Ill., where he carried ice to earn his college tuition) and "the Galloping Ghost" (conferred on him by sportswriter Grantland Rice)--became a part of American folk language.

Harold Edward Grange was born in Forksville, a hamlet in Eastern Pennsylvania, the son of a lumberjack foreman. He had two older sisters and a younger brother. When Grange was 5, his mother died and his father moved with his four youngsters to Wheaton, west of Chicago, where he had close relatives.

As a youth in Wheaton, Grange was an all-around athlete. He not only played football but basketball and baseball as well, and he was a star sprinter on the high school track team. In fact, it was his intention not to go out for football but for basketball and track when he enrolled at the University of Illinois in 1922, because he preferred those sports.

He never did play basketball, nor did he run for the track team at the university. But he played baseball in the spring.

Grange was a football sensation even in his freshman year, when he was ineligible for the Illinois varsity. The Illini freshman would regularly overwhelm the varsity in scrimmages.

Grange was always proud of the fact that he paid his own way through the university, with some help from his father, by then a Wheaton police officer, and with money he earned during summers from his ice route.

He told The Times in a June, 1983, interview, "I didn't have a scholarship. Never such a thing. Heavens, no. Everybody paid their own way. I never got a dime to go to school.

"I majored in business. Took a business course and economics, history, analytical geometry. I had all kinds of trigonometry.

"And I had good marks in school. Just because I played football, doesn't mean I was dumb. A lot of people think, because you play football, you're dumb."

Grange's first varsity game, against a powerful University of Nebraska team in 1923, propelled him toward national fame. He ran a punt back 66 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter. Later, he scored on dashes of 35 and 12 yards. "GRANGE SPRINTS TO FAME" ran the next day's headline in the Chicago Tribune.

During the next three years at Illinois, his name became as familiar to Americans who had never seen a football game as it was to devout followers of the sport.

In 20 games over three seasons at Illinois, he scored 31 touchdowns and ran for 3,637 yards. Grantland Rice after witnessing one Grange performance rhapsodized:

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/A rubber bounding, blasting soul/Whose destination is the goal/Red Grange of Illinois.

Corny, maybe. But when Grantland Rice rhapsodized, the sports-obsessed nation of that time listened.

Each of those three years at Illinois, he was named an All-American, then an uncommon feat. Years later, he also was elected an original member of the Professional Football Hall of Fame.

Grange also was the star of one of football's most memorable college games, Illinois against Michigan, on Oct. 18, 1924, before more than 67,000 in new Illinois Memorial Stadium.

In the 1983 interview, Grange would remember the prelude to the kickoff: "The year before, Illinois and Michigan had tied for the Big Ten championship. Neither team lost a game. We played eight games in those days and we did not play each other.

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