A Few Minutes With Lars Anderson
- Red Grange
- College of Applied Health Sciences
- College Football
- University of Illinois
- Lars Anderson
At the Sapora Symposium on the campus of the University of Illinois, former Sports Illustrated writer Lars Anderson discusses his book about Red Grange, the Illini football star who helped validate college football and the NFL.
VINCE LARA: This is Vince Lara in the College of Applied Sciences at the University of Illinois. Today I spend a few minutes with former Sports Illustrated writer Lars Anderson who wrote a book about former Illini football star, Red Grange and his impact on college football and the NFL.
Now, you know Red played a long time ago and-- and even finding archival footage of him is difficult, yet he still resonates to this day and I'm wondering why you think that's the case.
LARS ANDERSON: Well, you know, the book that I wrote called The First Star, which was published back in 2009, the reason I wanted to do it was one, he was such an amazing college player in 1924 and '25 especially. And there is so much mythology wrapped around him being lugging ice around and coming just from of small town America. Losing his mom when he was five years old, who went through a lot of personal struggles. And-- and then the fact that he turned pro just right after his first college game with and his-- first college player to have an agent, C.C. Pyle and the deal that Pyle cut with George Halas. And then that barnstorming tour that they went on, I think he played his first game on the tour five days after his final college game and just going across the country.
And you know he was such a mythic figure at the time because people couldn't see him play. How people knew about him was in movie houses, movie theaters. Before the main show would play they would often show highlights of football games and Red just captured the imagination, especially after the 1924 Michigan game when he scored six touchdowns. And he-- people just wanted to see him play.
And he was so popular that George Halas and there were even other owners in fledgling NFL, who really wanted him on their team. And so Pyle and Halas arranged this barnstorming tour. And the sort of thesis of my book and I think it's accurate, that it was that tour which launched the NFL and save the NFL. The marquee game of that tour took place in New York City, the Polo Grounds, and the owner of the Giants was, I think last name was Mara, and it's still in the family. The Mara family still owns the Giants.
After-- when he looked out, this was before the game, when he looked out at the sea of people who were there he said, my financial worries are over. And even Babe Ruth was in attendance and Babe Ruth was upset because he saw about 50 photographers following Grange around on the field during pregame warm ups and Ruth said something to the effect of, that bum is stealing my photographers.
And I think it was the night before the game, Ruth went and visited Grange at the Astoria Hotel there in New York and the two of them talked up in Grange's suite and just-- and Ruth said, look. Don't read what people write about you, and don't start picking up checks. [LAUGHS]
And so I knew that there was just lot of rich characters but it was hard for me to kind of penetrate Red Grange. Because at least publicly, he didn't really open up. He was reticent and introspective by nature and because he had obviously, obviously already passed away by the time I did the book, I couldn't interview him. And so just from a literary perspective, he was kind of a flat character just because, again, he had gone through so much but he never talked about it with other reporters. And so that made it a challenge to bring Red to life away from football.
So I kind of just let his exploits on the field talk for themselves and then also just the fact on that on this barnstorming tour, there was record crowds everywhere they went. And it gave the NFL a sense of legitimacy, because you have to remember, back in 1925 the NFL was considered seedy and untoward and, you know, it was like the equivalent of how we view sort of roller hockey today. And it was Red who gave the NFL legitimacy and credibility and without him, again, you can make the argument that the NFL may not exist today.
But that tour I think it was 19 games in 31 days, and this is just off the top of my head, that tour ravaged him physically. And he was never the same player again after that tour. And so, you know, and just, there were so many different things. Like, you know, he met President Calvin Coolidge who didn't know the difference between a football and a baseball. And he was introduced to the president saying he plays for-- Mr. president this is Red Grange, he's a Chicago Bear. And the president said, well I always loved animal acts.[LAUGHTER]
President didn't know who he was so there's a lot of fun anecdotes in the book.
VINCE LARA: You know, curious, there are a lot of things obviously to unpack from that, but I'm curious about the timing of when you wrote it. You said you wrote a decade ago. So books are coming out about Red now because it's the 100th anniversary of the NFL and 150th college football. Why did you write it when you wrote it? What was the impetus for it?
LARS ANDERSON: I was just coming off-- I had just written a book on it's called Carlyle versus Army, which subsequently is being made into a movie right now with Angelina Jolie backing it. But in that book-- that book takes place in 1912. And so I was interested in doing another historical nonfiction book. So I was looking for a sports figure who hadn't been written about extensively from the 1920s who was, you know, sort of this mythological kind of figure and there hadn't been a serious book done on Grange.
And again, I kind of found out halfway through one of the reasons why was because there just wasn't a ton of material on him and-- and he just was, again, not prone to opening up about himself to the writers of the day. And but, but yeah, just the timing of it was I just wanted to write something about in the 1920s. And you know, everybody knows about Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey and the racehorse Man o' War, but not many people knew about Red Grange and his back story.
VINCE LARA: So you mentioned you referenced Babe Ruth, does that Red Grange exist without Babe Ruth? Would there have been a Red Grange, would that have been even possible had Babe not sort of been a trailblazer for that?
LARS ANDERSON: That's a good question. You know, Babe Ruth was a sort of larger than life figure and you got to put sort of Ruth and the times in context. It's post World War I, people are going to sporting events in droves, and I think one reason why Grange resonated was because there was not a star athlete from middle America. There wasn't a star athlete from the middle and lower classes. And so once Grange came onto the scene it was just like he's one of our own. He's one of our own, I can identify with him, I can't identify with Babe Ruth and the lavish lifestyle and living in New York City and-- or a Jack Dempsey who's so big and brawny and just knocking guys out left and right.
So, you know, Ruth was arguably like the first sort of major sports celebrity and yeah, he may have opened the door for the possibility of somebody like Red Grange.
VINCE LARA: Now why did-- it wasn't a Fait accompli that Red would go to Illinois. Why did he pick here? I mean I'm sure it wasn't recruiting like it is today. But there were people who were interested, coaches who were interested, so why here?
LARS ANDERSON: Well, you know, Coach Zuppke here, at the time, recruiting was so different. He just almost thought it was beneath him to have to go and talk to kids from Illinois to get them to come here. And Red at first had no interest in going to college. You know, he just wanted to stay in Wheaton and keep working and supporting his family. And Zuppke arranged sort of surreptitiously a meeting with Red at a track meet.
And I think Red won the 100 and finished second in the 200 and Zuppke and said, hey. You know, they went for a walk, and the track meet was here on campus. They went for a walk around campus and he basically said, if you come here, you know, you'll get a scholarship. And that had never really dawned on Red that that was even possible and then once he went back home and told his dad, who is a no nonsense man, you know, a former logger, a very tough man, who was the only patrolman in Wheaton who worked really long hours. And so because Red's mom died when he was five, you know, she had she bled to death after having a tooth pulled which is just, it's amazing that something like that could happen but Lyle, Red's mom-- or Red's dad couldn't get her to the hospital in time to stem the bleeding.
But Red spent a lot of time at home almost becoming the man of the house because his dad was working 18 hour shifts. And-- and so-- and no Grange man or no one in the Grange family had ever gone to college. And so when Red told his dad that he'd been offered a scholarship to go to college, his dad said, you're going. And that was the end of the story right there.
VINCE LARA: Had Red played football or showed interest in football prior to this?
LARS ANDERSON: Oh yeah, oh yeah, yes. He started playing, you know, in junior high. He played against older kids. And, you know, I discuss this in the book, football became his escape from the difficulties of his own life. And in a way, he would undergo almost a personality transformation on the field. He could be really rough, he could be violent, he could even get in fights. And away from the field you know he'd be like the nicest, most passive person in the world but football became an outlet, an escape, and he did very well in high school but he also considered himself just, you know, just this small town kid from Wheaton.
And when he got to Illinois, he had no intention of playing football. He wanted to play-- he wanted to play maybe basketball and run track. He gets to his fraternity that he had joined, one of his friends from Wheaton was in that fraternity, and they knew about his exploits and so they said, OK, you're going, you're gone out to tryouts.
And Red gets over there and he sees how big everybody is, Red only weighed about 160 pounds at the time, and he sees all these guys who look like they could lift Model T's and immediately, as he was waiting in line to get his gear and his uniform, he turned around and went back to the fraternity house and said, told his older fraternity brothers, I'm not playing. And they said, well, yes you are and he said, no I'm not, and they said, OK, we're going to get the paddle. And as he was about ready to bend over and get paddled, he said, you know what? Playing football sounds like a pretty good idea?
And so he then goes, he goes back the next day and then as a freshman, the freshman basically were getting the varsity team ready for their first game. And it was just nothing more than a scrimmage where the varsity was going to beat up on the freshman. And he fielded a punt and he ended up breaking, like, five tackles and just-- and Zuppke was watching this, and he was just like, oh my goodness, oh my goodness.
One, he was he was fast, he was powerful, he was shifty, I mean, he was just a beautiful player and so he automatically was made what was called a, quote, made player and that he would be on the freshman team that year ends and Zuppke just couldn't wait to get him up to-- get him to be when he would be eligible to play his sophomore year. And Zuppke actually spent almost as much time with Grange as a freshman as he did with the varsity team because he knew the kind of player that he was about to get.
VINCE LARA: Now, was it a Fait accompli that Grange would play for the Bears, considering the proximity where he and the Halas connection?
LARS ANDERSON: No, it was not. This was all done by CC Pyle, cash and carry-- cash and carry Pyle. The Giants were interested in him, other teams were interested in him, but ultimately Halas cut the sweetest deal. And if I remember correctly, it was $100,000 for Grange and for Grange and Pyle, and then they would also get a certain percentage of the gate. And so almost overnight this kid who grew up very poor, struggling, he had money and he liked that a lot, you know.
VINCE LARA: What would that equate to in 2019 dollars?
LARS ANDERSON: I mean, a couple million, I would think, yeah. So you know, he immediately was the richest NFL player in the league. There'd been no contract ever like that before but Halas knew that he had to have them, especially because he was a local kid and there was so much not just local interest in him but national interest.
VINCE LARA: Now he went in with the idea that he was only going to play a few years, correct?
LARS ANDERSON: That I don't recall, but it was, it really-- that tour wore him down. He ended up getting injured and was never the same player. You know, he stuck around for a few more years but didn't do anything spectacular like he did at the early parts of the tour. And also especially like in 1924 and '25 in-- at Illinois.
VINCE LARA: Now you said early on in the interview that the NFL would not have survived without him.
LARS ANDERSON: I don't think so. I don't think so, I mean that's-- that's my opinion.
VINCE LARA: Survive.
LARS ANDERSON: Survive, yes, because of the perception of the league at the time and you had teams just folding left and right and it just wasn't a profitable venture. I mean all of the guys on the team, on the different teams, they were making such a little money that they all had, you know, regular 9 to 5 jobs. Sometimes they'd show up to games, sometimes they wouldn't, sometimes they showed practice, usually they wouldn't. It was just a very sort of haphazard not well organized organization and everything changed when Grange, again, just captivated the nation during that 19 game barnstorming tour across the country.
VINCE LARA: What made him so transcendent? Was it that he was from the Midwest, was it, as you mentioned, kind of a hardscrabble life? Is that what really?
LARS ANDERSON: I think it was just, again, I go back to the clips that people saw of him in the movie houses and it was just the highlights that he could put forth and the runs and, you know, the eight summers he spent hauling ice, that made his-- that made his forearm a lethal weapon. Both his left arm and his right arm, and he could hit guys and they would just dropped to the ground as if they were knocked out by a Jack Dempsey.
And so, and he had amazing speed, agility, able to change direction. I mean, you just-- no one had seen a player of that caliber before. And also in the movie houses, you know, because of the-- it's in black and white and because it's like a herky jerky motion, it almost made him seem faster than he really was. And so people were like, I want to see this guy, I want to see this guy, I want to see what he can do. And you know that's how people got their information.
And it was and at that time, according to my research, about 3/4 of the country frequently went to movie houses. You know, not just to see the movie but also to get their news and their sports and these mini reels that would run before the main feature.
VINCE LARA: Sure, now is there a modern day analog for a player like that?
LARS ANDERSON: Who have you heard?
VINCE LARA: So I-- Pat Mahomes is a player that someone mentioned previously. So I'm just try to get an idea but a player who had that kind of transcendent, like, when he stepped on the field, everyone stopped and--
LARS ANDERSON: I mean maybe, like, before everything, maybe OJ Simpson.
VINCE LARA: Jim Brown.
LARS ANDERSON: Maybe Bo Jackson, Jim Brown. You know, Red wasn't as big as either Bo Jackson or Jim Brown, but I would say, you know, OJ Simpson really comes to mind the way that he played and the way that he also just sort of-- when he started with the Bills, you know, it was like must see-- he was a must see player. People would go out of their way and travel great distances to see OJ play.
VINCE LARA: You mentioned how slight he was, 160 pounds. That would put him in Ice Cube territory these days, right?
LARS ANDERSON: Right.
VINCE LARA: Gerald McNeil, Gerald was 157 pounds.
LARS ANDERSON: Yeah.
VINCE LARA: Played for the Browns.
LARS ANDERSON: I think by then by the time he was a-- by the time he was a junior and senior, he was up to about 180 pounds. So he's about 5'9", 170- 175, I think.
VINCE LARA: So where would Red fit in today's game and would he enjoy today's game? He died 1990-- he died in '91, I know.
LARS ANDERSON: OK. So you know, he would be an outside player, right? He wouldn't be a running back, he would be like a Tyreek Hill type of player, right. Like he would be-- he would be a wide receiver, and a very gifted one and one that you'd want to get the ball to in space and make people miss and that to me, that's how he would fit in.
You know, the game has evolved so much and player conditioning, player size, so it's hard to think of how he would fit today. But you know, if he had started doing like real rigorous conditioning, I mean, now you have kids who have their personal coach-- personal coaches at age 10. If Red had all of that, you know, there's no telling. But I think he would be a perimeter player either a wide receiver or a slot wide receiver.
VINCE LARA: What do you-- he saw the game, he saw the Super Bowls and everything, do you think that he enjoyed what football became?
LARS ANDERSON: That's a tough question to answer because I really, in the book just with the end of the tour, you know, I think he was involved with the game to a degree after he retired. The game has evolved so much since he was playing and running you know, the single wing and all that. But yeah, I think so, I mean, again, football gave him so much.
You know he appeared in movies and his teammates started calling him Rudy after Rudolph Valentino. And you know, it's hard for me to imagine him being dynamic on screen but you know, he was he was a classically handsome guy. And also I think what also contributed to everything was the nickname, the Galloping Ghost. And it was so appropriate in on so many levels and people just wanted, again, they wanted to see it with their own eyes.
It's like I'm reminded just in my own experience of when Mike Tyson was at his prime and I was living in New York and I was able to see Tyson fight a couple times and there was just nothing like it. There was nothing like-- and it just didn't translate well on television the sense that you got when Mike Tyson is walking into the ring and the anticipation of the crowd, the roar of the crowd and the other poor guy that he's about ready to fight is already in the ring looking at Tyson coming at him and you know that this guy is about ready to get destroyed. You know, I think Red Grange had a sort of similar effect on people.
VINCE LARA: My thanks to Lars Anderson, this has been A Few Minutes With.