A Few Minutes With Chris Willis
- College of Applied Health Sciences
- University of Illinois
- Red Grange
- Sapora Symposium
- College Football
- Illinois Football
At the Sapora Symposium, Chris Willis of NFL Films speaks with College of Applied Health Sciences media relations specialist Vince Lara about his new book on the life of Illini football star Red Grange.
VINCE LARA: This is Vince Lara in the College of Applied Health Sciences at the University of Illinois. Today I spend a few minutes with Chris Willis of NFL Films, who wrote a book about former Illini football star Red Grange and his impact on college football and the NFL.
Chris, you work for NFL Films. You wrote a book. Your book is coming out on Red Grange, and I'm wondering what-- is it the timing of the 100th anniversary and the 150th anniversary that sparked you to write this, or what was the impetus for it?
CHRIS WILLIS: Yeah, definitely, a couple years ago, I'm always looking ahead for-- you know, this is my seventh book, so I'm always looking ahead of certain projects I think I might want to write about.
VINCE LARA: Sure.
CHRIS WILLIS: And in 2016, when I saw that in 2019-- especially with being the NFL's 100th season, that's sort of like I always was fascinated with Red and the story, and him being somewhat the first superstar in the NFL. It was perfect timing, and my publisher loved the idea. And then college football's 150 sort of tied in, like, oh wow. This is going to be a great year for history, and sort of telling these type of stories and these type of players throughout the fall of 2019. So that was, yes, the impetus of doing the book.
VINCE LARA: Now what makes Red such a transcendent figure? I mean, considering when he played, it was so long ago that even, like, archival footage is hard to see. So what makes him still resonate today, do you think?
CHRIS WILLIS: Well, I think mainly because anytime you're the first in something, usually you're elevated. And also that he was such a great name at the time when he was popular. The roaring '20s with mass media, there was a lot of-- especially athletes took a life of their own. You had Jack Dempsey, and Bill Tilden, Bobby Jones, and the biggest name was Babe Ruth. And Red sort of fit in that period.
So his name resonates with fans, like, he was one of the biggest stars and for the NFL's sake, being pretty much the first superstar. You know, Jim Thorpe was past his prime when the NFL started, so Red sort of put the NFL on the map. You've got the league out there, got pro football out there.
Because when he joined the Bears and went on that famous barnstorming tour, big crowds showed up. And most of the crowds came to see him. They weren't seeing the Chicago Bears or these all-Star teams that were made just to play. They wanted to see Red play because they had heard about him and read about him throughout his career at the University of Illinois. So I think that's why he resonates still, even almost ninety years after he last played.
VINCE LARA: Right, yeah. It's pretty amazing. Do you think that where he was positioned-- meaning the Midwest-- played a lot into his popularity? And I say that because for a while everything was East Coast bias. In the '70s, certainly, if you played in New York, that was a big deal. Do you think that where he was based had a lot to do with him having this kind of countrywide appeal?
CHRIS WILLIS: I think it definitely helped his success. Because as you mentioned, even in the '20s, a lot of the best football teams-- college football teams-- and some of the pro or college teams were all on the East Coast. The Ivy League started with a lot of their famous teams, and then you had some of those other programs. So when Red was starting to dominate and you had Michigan, and you had Ohio State, and you had University of Illinois with Bob Zuppke and the University of Chicago with Stagg, people thought they were still a little bit inferior to the East Coast, some of the Ivies and some of these East Coast powers.
So when Red became popular-- and had the famous game against Michigan with the four touchdowns in 12 minutes, he actually played University of Pennsylvania his senior year, and all these coach writers were, OK, now we're going to show how good. And he dominated that game, scored three touchdowns, and they just destroyed University of Penn, too. So being this Midwest guy, now all of a sudden, oh, he is good as we thought, because he dominated on the East Coast.
So yes, I think if he was on the East Coast maybe he just stays a great player, and then maybe he falls away, but he-- overcome this Midwest, oh maybe not quite as good, and showed that he was.
VINCE LARA: I wonder, why did he pick Illinois? He probably could have had his pick of schools, right? So what was it about the University of Illinois for him?
CHRIS WILLIS: There was a couple things. Mainly, there wasn't sort of widespread recruiting at the time. Some of the schools did and some didn't, but being from Wheaton-- it was a little bit smaller town outside of Chicago-- but he did get recruited by some of the Big 10 schools. Michigan showed some interest, Northwestern, and then University of Chicago, but it was mainly that University of Illinois was the public school, so it was cheap for his dad. His dad was paying, wasn't getting a full-ride scholarship, so his dad was paying.
And also that one of his high school friends and former teammates-- George Dawson-- from Wheaton High was also on the University of Illinois playing for Bob Zuppke. So he's like, you know what? It's the closest, I've got a couple friends there, I'm going to go and play at the University of Illinois. And Zuppke was one of the great coaches-- especially the Midwest-- at that time, too.
VINCE LARA: What was the program here like before Grange got here?
CHRIS WILLIS: It was-- it took-- I mean, once Zuppke arrived, he turned it around pretty quickly. You know, they were in some doldrums there. They were not at the level of where Stagg was at University of Chicago, Fielding Yost at Michigan, Henry Williams at Minnesota were all better than the University of Illinois at the time. And then quickly, Zuppke made it his sort of thing that he wanted to compete with these guys. He wanted to beat them. And it turned around and started beating Stagg. So it turned, and then everybody who-- especially players from Chicago and from Illinois-- there's a huge, great, high school football, especially in-- they all wanted to go to Illinois, then, and maybe not go to Chicago or somewhere else.
So at the time when Red got there, the program was definitely on the rise, and it had won a few big 10 championships under his belt.
VINCE LARA: So there was no draft at that time, NFL draft. So was it a fait accompli that Red was going to end up with the Bears just because of proximity?
CHRIS WILLIS: Well, obviously, the Bears had an in with Halas, had played for Zuppke, and they were close enough. But they were also the best-run team at the time and Halas was dedicated the sport, even though it was only in its sixth season in 1926. He was dedicated to the sport. He wanted to make it his life's work. So he knew that a star like Grange could only help.
The best thing that happened for Halas was that Red was interested in playing pro football. He had other offers. I mean, even his college coach did not want him to play. They were against pro football. Even his dad didn't really want him to play pro football, in some of those newspaper articles. But Red wanted to do the thing he did best, and he could have went into politics, become a writer for newspapers, a businessman, sell real estate. He was offered a real estate job down in Florida. Like, he wasn't qualified. He goes, look. I'm pretty good at football. I like football. It's my name, and he knew he was only have a short shelf life.
So that helped Halas. Red wanted to play pro football. Halas had the team already there, and they didn't have to start a new team or hire players or pay players. So it was a perfect fit at the perfect time, and is mainly based that Red really wanted to keep playing at 22 years old. He didn't want to quit.
VINCE LARA: Short shelf life in terms of what he envisioned his life as? OK.
CHRIS WILLIS: No, a short shelf life in playing football. He knew he wanted to keep playing after 22, but he knew it was only going to be a couple more years, and then when he turns 25, 26, he's got to go do something else. So he wanted to take advantage of, oh, I have a name. People want to pay to see me play. I can make some money, and I'm still at my peak as an athlete. Let me keep-- he didn't think he was going to-- nowadays, guys think, oh, I can play for 10 years, maybe. And Brady wants to play till he's 45. I mean, that's ridiculous. But back then, he thought, I only have two or three years. Let me take advantage of that, and then I can go do my life's work.
VINCE LARA: Wow, that's interesting, because he figured that the punishment he would take on the field, or it was just like I don't want to do this forever?
CHRIS WILLIS: I think it was more of, yes. You only had a short shelf life maybe with your health.
VINCE LARA: OK.
CHRIS WILLIS: And also the fact that the next new star might come three or four years later, the next player, then people lose interest in me. And let me take advantage of it now, because people want to pay to see me play.
VINCE LARA: You know what's interesting is too, at the same time, there was another transcendent star in baseball-- Babe Ruth. So was it a chicken or egg thing with Red in that does Babe happen without Red, or does Red happen without Babe?
CHRIS WILLIS: I think more Babe being there first helped Red. Red was not going to-- obviously, because baseball was the number one sport in the country. So I think because of some of those other, like I sad, roaring '20s stars, help it. Because the World War I was over. People had some money. You know, they spent it on sports tickets. So they were willing to go see boxing, golf, tennis, even horse racing. Obviously, pro football was at the bottom of the realm. I mean, college football was up there on Saturdays, but pro football wasn't.
So I think Babe helped him, because Babe was larger than life. He had kind of a manager which was not common like it is now. You know, he had Christy Walsh helping him. So when Red's manager came along, it helped him. So I think Babe doing it and kind of setting the standard a little bit helped Red along the way.
VINCE LARA: Is it-- could it be said that it's overstated in any way that the NFL would not have survived without Red, or at least started to thrive without Red?
CHRIS WILLIS: I wouldn't say they would not have survived. The sport was going to continue. I just don't think-- Red just helped it get to the masses more. I think that was one of his big accomplishments. It wasn't that he helped save pro football. Football was going to survive. Now, it might have took even longer to get more popular, but I think he just helped the masses.
And like we talked about a little bit earlier, across the country, like, when he went out to Los Angeles and San Diego and played in Portland. He played in Florida, they became a little bit more-- although they didn't the NFL teams, they became more familiar with what pro football's about, and what type of athletes was coming into the game. Because if Red was going to play pro football, then oh, it must be somewhat good, because he's the best player coming out of college football and the best player-- some might say he might have be the best player in football at the time, you know, ever.
So I think that helped with the masses more than-- because it took, still, the '30s and '40s, even up till TV to really take off. So it would have survived, but it might have took a lot longer to say, hey, what is pro football about, and who are the athletes playing in pro football?
VINCE LARA: Is there an analog today to Red, and I say that meaning, is there a guy who-- in recent years-- came in, had a huge impact, but then said I want to do something else?
CHRIS WILLIS: Well, I don't know, because the sport-- pretty much, you know, since the Super Bowl era, so we're talking about the last 45 years-- has been number one, so it's more of the athletes are getting better and he just-- I mean Patrick Mahomes just looks like a freak now, more than even Joe Montana and Joe Montana was before Unitas or something like that. I think Red's main legacy or part of that is, he made the blueprint for what the NFL athlete is today, and he did it in 1925. He did it almost 100 years ago.
VINCE LARA: Right.
CHRIS WILLIS: You know, he left school early. I mean, he played his last game, but he left school early. He signed with an agent, he signed the highest rookie contract in football. He did endorsements. He did Hollywood movies. You know, he won NFL championships. So that's what we strive today. You look at Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, you know, Aaron Rodgers.
VINCE LARA: Even Jim Brown if you want to go back to that.
CHRIS WILLIS: No, he's sort of set that standard in 1925.
VINCE LARA: Right.
CHRIS WILLIS: You know, so I look at that and I'm like, wow. And he was smart enough to see that. You know, he's like, you know what? Football is going to be good. I can do these things. It allows me to where-- now, like I said, Patrick Mahomes can do any of that. If he wants to do a movie spot or he wants to do a TV spot or do endorsements-- which he does-- and then also be a great player, you can do that and strive to be that.
So I think that's where Red's blueprint-- like I say, he did it 100 years ago, pretty much.
VINCE LARA: So a guy like Red couldn't exist today, do you think? Or it would just be a different--
CHRIS WILLIS: No, Red would be one those guys. You know, if Red was a great athlete, like, he was the fastest player on the field. He learned-- and some of the things that I did research in the book is, he would learn how to throw the ball during summer vacations. He would learn how to do stiff arms. He learned how to try to punt, or kick a little bit. He did this at 18 or 17, 18, 19, 20 years old. He worked on his craft.
And some of these articles that were from the mid-'20s, and he's talking about developing his legs and his stamina and being ahead of the game. I mean, he became the nice man to actually help him be a football player. The money was nice during the summer, but he talked about that even at a young age. He wasn't-- I did find in his autobiography, and certainly he talked about it. But he actually talked about it even much earlier in high school and college, talking about these type of things. I'm like, wow. Most of those 18, 19, 21-year-olds were not even thinking of that. They're just goin' playing football because they liked playing football.
So I think he would be one of those super freaks where he'd want-- maybe a Christian McCaffrey, where he's just a great all-around player, and he just loves, and he drinks and eats and sleeps football 24 hours a day.
VINCE LARA: Was there much pushback against him? And this is a time where newspaper columnists really had a lot of weight, right?
CHRIS WILLIS: Absolutely.
VINCE LARA: So was there a lot of pushback against him for trying to go to the NFL and--
CHRIS WILLIS: Absolutely. I mean, first was, like I said, his dad. His dad allowed him to make the decision, but he was not pro going-- wasn't in favor of him playing pro football. He'd rather see him stay in school. I think was more of because he dropped out of school to go into into-- and his dad didn't really-- and all the college coaches were against, cause they thought the pro game was evil and a menace, and they were-- yes, they did take players and they would use it, assume names and play on Sundays and they would get caught.
But-- and when once the NFL got more established and the rules were a little better, that was going to go away and stuff. So all the college coach-- and there were some writers that said, yes. Stay away. You'll be better for it, and there were some writers that were pro. Look, he's old enough to make his own decision. He wants to go play, and Red always said-- especially at the time, Babe Ruth gets paid. Christy Mathewson, like nobody complains about these college guys.
VINCE LARA: Sure.
CHRIS WILLIS: Well they moved, but Christy Mathewson and Eddie Collins played in college and then went on to play major league baseball, and nobody complained. Nobody really gave them the business of turning it away and going to play pro ball. So he did get it from all over, and there was some pushback of joining the NFL.
VINCE LARA: What do you think he would think of pro football today?
CHRIS WILLIS: I think he would love it. Red lived a full life. He was 87 years old when he passed away in January of '91, so he had seen it become the number one sport, Super Bowl. I think he would, because he just loved the game. You know, he would watch college. He would watch the NFL. So I think he would just continue to love it and see how great it is and stuff. So yeah, he would love it.
VINCE LARA: My thanks to Chris Willis. This has been "A Few Minutes With."