- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
In the late summer of 1922 an undersize boy with an unruly shock of red hair showed up at the University of Illinois for the first day of football practice. His credentials were impressive enough. At Wheaton (Ill.) High School he had been a three-sport standout, and during his senior year he had scored 23 touchdowns and kicked 34 extra points. But Harold E. (Red) Grange (above) took one look at the assembled monsters and decided right then that his talents could be better applied to his other two sports, basketball and track. He didn't even bother to suit up, but hightailed it back to the Zeta Psi fraternity house. Luckily for Illinois, the good brothers were better judges of his ability than he, and that night after some judicious fraternal hazing, Grange decided to have a go at college football after all.
That 1922 Illinois freshman team was one of the best ever brought together, according to Grange. Besides Grange, it included Fullback Earl Britton, who should have been named All-America (in Grange's opinion), but was not because of the unwritten rule against two players from the same backfield making the team. The freshmen were so good, in fact, that midway through the 1922 season varsity Coach Bob Zuppke, suffering through his second successive losing year, decided to concentrate on them. They were regularly defeating the varsity during midweek scrimmages anyway.
Grange, of course, was the star. Jim McMillen, himself an All-America guard in 1923, said, "Red would run through us every night. If he got a step on you, he was gone. He could run away from you or run over you. You'd grab for a leg, and suddenly the leg wasn't there. It was a little tiresome."
That pretty much summed up the feelings of all of Illinois' opponents during the 1923 season. Beginning with a rout of Nebraska, which had lost only two games in the previous two years, the Fighting Illini went on to an undefeated season, their first since 1915, and the national championship, their first ever. Grange was so nervous in the Nebraska game that he tipped off the plays. When Zuppke told Grange this, he replied, "I can't be. I don't know where they're going myself." He still scored three touchdowns as Illinois won 24-7.
Grange scored twice more the next week during a 21-7 victory over Butler, then a major opponent. And then came Iowa, coached by Howard Jones. The Hawkeyes had just completed two undefeated, untied seasons and had a 21-game winning streak going. To further complicate matters, Fullback Britton, who, as McMillen put it, "was a hard man to get serious about a game," failed to show up at the team meeting before the game. McMillen was sent by Zuppke to find Britton. He looked everywhere without success until a hotel operator told him he could find "the big guy" up on the roof. It was homecoming at Iowa City, and a massive parade was in progress. Britton was making paper airplanes out of hotel stationery, scribbling "To Hell with Iowa" on the wings and expertly sailing them into the gathered crowd.
Fun, if not games, aside, Britton kicked a 53-yard field goal with the game just four minutes old and, after Iowa had taken a 6-3 lead, Grange scored a last-minute touchdown from two yards out for a 9-6 triumph.
The following Saturday it was Northwestern's turn to face the now-rampant Illini. Grange picked off a pass early in the game and ran it back 90 yards for a touchdown, scored two others and so impressed Grantland Rice that Granny dubbed him "The Galloping Ghost," the name that has stuck with him ever since.
On Nov. 3, powerful University of Chicago came to Champaign-Urbana to play the first game ever in what is now Memorial Field, and Grange scored the only touchdown as Illinois won its fifth straight, 7-0. (The Memorial Field dedication came a year later and will always be remembered for what Grange did to Michigan: four touchdowns in the first 12 minutes, a fifth early in the third quarter and a pass for a sixth in the fourth as Illinois won 39-14.)
After Chicago came Wisconsin (10-0) and Mississippi State (27-0), leaving only Ohio State between Illinois and a perfect season. The Buckeyes were down, but did their homework on Grange and Britton to perfection. Entering the last 15 minutes the score was tied 0-0. Then Britton kicked a 32-yard field goal and Grange broke away for a 32-yard touchdown run to clinch the perfect year.