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THE '20s
Peter King
August 30, 1999
Grange puts pro football on the map
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August 30, 1999

The '20s

Grange puts pro football on the map

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Shortly before Thanksgiving Day, 1925, a desperate Tim Mara boarded a train bound from New York City to Illinois, where he hoped to find salvation for his failing first-year NFL team, the Giants. True, the club was drawing 21,000 to the Polo Grounds on a good day, but as Wellington Mara recalled one day this summer, "Who knows how many of those people had paid? I carried pockets full of tickets to my grammar school and handed them out."

Baseball, boxing and college football were the rage in '25. Earlier that fall New York governor Al Smith had Sunday supper with the Maras. "This pro football will never amount to anything," Smith told Tim. "Get rid of that team." Wellington says his dad might have had to do just that at season's end. But then Tim took the trip to Illinois.

At the time there were three titans among American athletes—Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey and Red Grange, the Illini's electrifying senior running back—and Mara took a Giants contract with him, hoping to get Grange's signature on it. Just before heading back to New York, Mara sent a telegram to his family with the cryptic wording, "partially successful."

Red Grange a Giant? Could it be? "No," says Wellington Mara, sitting in his office at Giants Stadium. "When he got back to New York, my father told us the Bears beat him to Grange. His piece of good news was that the Bears, with Grange, were coming to play the Giants in New York."

A promoter, Charlie Pyle, was paying Grange $100,000 to play in 18 Bears games on a 66-day, cross-country tour—including five games in six days, in Philadelphia, New York, Washington, Boston and Pittsburgh. President Calvin Coolidge summoned Grange to the White House the morning of his game in Washington. Grant-land Rice and Damon Runyan had never stooped to cover a pro football game until Dec. 6, 1925, when Grange jogged onto the soggy turf of the Polo Grounds. "The only thing I can equate it to that I've seen," Mara says, "is the way everybody got so excited this summer about the U.S. women's soccer team."

The Maras expected a huge crowd, maybe 50,000 in the 55,000-seat stadium. What they got was an announced crowd of 68,000, the largest to witness a pro football game. Scores of kids sneaked through a hole in the Polo Grounds fence, and thousands who couldn't get tickets gathered on a bluff overlooking the field. Playing both ways just 20 hours after scoring both touchdowns in the Bears' 14-7 win in Philadelphia, Grange rushed for 53 yards and returned an interception 35 yards for a score. Chicago won 19-7.

Scratch that: Pro football won. "I've heard many people in pro football say the 1958 NFL Championship Game was the greatest game ever played," Mara says. "But that game might never have happened were it not for the Red Grange game. That game gave my father, and everyone else in the NFL, new hope."