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Photo of Red Grange book

Chris Willis promotes Sapora Symposium on ESPNCU

NFL Films' Chris Willis appeared on ESPNCU-93.5 on Monday to discuss the upcoming Sapora Symposium at Memorial Stadium on Nov. 14-15. Willis discusses Red Grange and his new book, Red Grange: The Life and Legacy of the NFL's First Superstar.

Click here to see the full transcript.

STEVIE JAY: Well, University of Illinois Department of Recreation Sport and Tourism participating in a panel discussion, The Impact of Red Grange on Sport and Society. It'll be Memorial Stadium on Thursday, November 14. It's open to the public from 2:00 to 4:30, and there's Chris Willis with a book. We'll talk about that event here coming up in just a moment. But Red Grange, I mean, Red Grange and George Halas and Bob Zupke, I mean, these are big-time names in the whole foundation of the NFL. All that coming up next. It's 8:20.

STEVIE JAY: ESPN 93.5 happy to welcome Mr. Chris Willis. Red Grange is the book about the legacy. What's the exact title, Chris, of your book?

CHRIS WILLIS: It's Red Grange-- The Life and Legacy of the NFL's First Superstar.

STEVIE JAY: I mean, he truly was. I have a Red Grange autographed football, I have a Robert Zupke chalk painting, I'm a huge George Halas fan, so I'm all about this. This is a cool thing coming up at Memorial Stadium in the Colonnades, so West Side, of course. Red Grange on sports, the site of The Impact of Red Grange on Sports and Society coming up 2:00 to 4:30 Thursday, November 14. Chris Willis will be there signing copies of his book. It did start then. I mean, this whole barnstorming thing was George Halas and Red Grange, and I wasn't sure Robert Zupke was on the page on that. He was worried about Red, wasn't he?

CHRIS WILLIS: Absolutely. When Red finished his college career in the fall of 1925, he bolted for professional football. He thought he would only have a couple years having his name in the news and being as good as he was, so he wanted to take advantage of his name and earn some money. So five days after his last game, he played his first NFL game with the Bears. So Zupke was very upset that his star pupil would go against his wishes, which at that time, pro football was not highly thought of, so he didn't want his player playing professional football. So Zupke was definitely against Red turning pro.

STEVIE JAY: What about the money? What did he make for that Bear game? A few hundred dollars, which was a lot back Then I have no idea.

CHRIS WILLIS: No, he made more than that. He made roughly about $100,000 on the first part of the barnstorming tour.


CHRIS WILLIS: Which, at that time, was unheard of numbers for pro football games. They were averaging about 8,000 fans, and he was getting $36,000--


CHRIS WILLIS: --at Wrigley Field. And they got 70,000 in New York, so he made out really well. He knew that his name was up there with Babe Ruth and Bobby Jones, so he took advantage of that and he made a decent amount of money during that barnstorming tour.

STEVIE JAY: Well, that's like a million dollars today easy.


STEVIE JAY: I mean, that's a bunch.

CHRIS WILLIS: Absolutely, yeah.

STEVIE JAY: All right, so when they went out, how in the world did they know when and where? Was it Instagram, Twitter? What'd they use?

CHRIS WILLIS: No, it was old school. It was newspapers.


CHRIS WILLIS: It was advertisement. It was some radio. But Grange, he actually had an agent, a manager, CC Pyle. They called him "Cash and Carry" Pyle because he was out for the money. But him and Halas a little bit, they had some of the NFL games already set up through the Bears schedule, but a lot of the other stops along the way, and especially when they went down south to Florida and out west to California and Seattle, that was all CC Pyle's doing.

He negotiated all the contracts. He did it fairly quickly over a two-month period. But it was old school, as you know. It was a lot of newspaper. It was some radio advertisement and some ads. But fans knew that Red was coming to town because it's not like today, where every game is on TV, every game is on radio. You can get it on your apps. You had to look in the newspaper. Wow, Red Grange is coming to my town. I got to go see him play.

STEVIE JAY: But he obviously had big games, right? He could run crazy. What was the deal? Was he just faster than everybody?

CHRIS WILLIS: Yeah, we would call him a freak, you know? He was an athletic. I mean, he was about 6 feet, 185 pounds, but he was just more elusive. He was faster than everybody. He was the one that brought the long distance running to football. Before, it was always a 3 yards and a cloud of dirt. As great as somebody like Jim Thorpe was, he wasn't going 50, 60, 70, 80 yards in a single carry. He was just physically bigger than everybody, and he'd get down to the goal line and nobody could stop him.


CHRIS WILLIS: Grange brought the big play and that sort of long distance run into football on a regular basis, not just one time. He did it a lot at Illinois, and he did it some in the pros.

STEVIE JAY: What about the instincts and the savvy of George Halas and other U of I grad? I mean, he had to be so far ahead of everybody on this.

CHRIS WILLIS: Absolutely. Obviously, Grange had a big name, and Halas, it was close to his heart. It was his alma mater. He was trying to make the Bears the best team in football. He was trying to make the NFL a business. So once Grange became this three-time All-American and the best player in college football history, he knew he had to get him. And he wanted to do everything he could, so he was willing to agree to whatever CC Pyle wanted. He made some money, but he could have made a lot more. But he agreed to whatever because he knew he needed Grange, he needed that name to sort of get his team out there and get the league out there.

STEVIE JAY: This is kind of a leap, Chris Willis. Would the league be what it is without this? Or would somebody have come along inevitably to do this?

CHRIS WILLIS: I think somebody would have come along. I just don't know when that would have happened.


CHRIS WILLIS: Although it took a couple more decades for the NFL to really get going because of TV, but when would that have happened? All of a sudden in the mid-'20s, at least people were aware of, oh, there is professional football, it's being run on the up and up. Because it had a bad reputation, and it tried to get college players to play under assumed names. All that went away in the '20s.

And in the '30s obviously with the Great Depression, they survived. It might took a lot longer. It might've took a lot longer for athletes to come into the league. That was one thing that Grange also did was, if Grange wanted to play pro football, the greatest college football player, why wouldn't I? So you had a lot of All-Americans say, you know what, I'm going to go play pro football.


CHRIS WILLIS: So it might've took a little bit longer to get there. I think somebody would have eventually because people would've still wanted to play the sport, especially coming out of college football, but it might've took a little bit longer for fans and some people to notice or even pay to go to an NFL game. Like I said, there were 70,000 in New York.

STEVIE JAY: Amazing.

CHRIS WILLIS: It might've took a lot longer to get that.

STEVIE JAY: All right, Chris Willis will be there at this symposium. It's going to be on November 14, Thursday. It's open to the public and free, 2:00 to 4:30. You get to ride the elevators at Colonnades Club. That's fun. The Impact of Red Grange on Sport and Society. You'll be there with your book, Chris?

CHRIS WILLIS: Yes, I'll be there, then a couple other historians and authors will be there celebrating Red's life.

STEVIE JAY: Sounds like a heck of a Christmas gift to me, buddy.

CHRIS WILLIS: There you go. It's coming up. It's getting here.

STEVIE JAY: Chris Willis, all about Red Grange and his impact. Listen, thank you for being on. We love talking about this stuff. It's important. It's the University of Illinois, groundbreaking in so many different areas, including sports. Thanks for your time, bud.

CHRIS WILLIS: No, thanks for having, Stevie. Appreciate it.

STEVIE JAY: You betcha. Thanks to Vincent Lara-Cinisomo.

DIANE DUCEY: Yes. And I was just looking, it's in celebrating of the 150th anniversary of college football and the 100th anniversary of NFL that this game is coming together--

STEVIE JAY: Pretty cool.

DIANE DUCEY: --on Thursday the 14th. And you can just google like I did and find out how this event is hosted by the College of Applied Health Sciences at the Illinois Department of Recreation, Sport, and Tourism in Illinois.

STEVIE JAY: Thanks to Mike Raycraft and Vince for setting this up.


STEVIE JAY: All right, Chris Willis, again, cool stuff. Would be a good gift, sign it and everything. It would be a nice gift for your historian.


STEVIE JAY: All right, we'll be right back. It's time for the news. ESPN 93.5. It's Monday, November 4, and it's 8:30.

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