Harold (Red) Grange, the Illinois halfback who was to become as celebrated as any athlete of his time, might have been just another forgotten track man had it not been for his Zeta Psi fraternity brothers at Champaign-Urbana. A four-letter man during his high school days in Wheaton, Ill., he promptly wrote himself off as a football player when he got to college and took a look at the competition: he judged himself too small, and decided to stick to basketball and track. But his plan did not meet with the approval of his fellow Zeta Psis. Familiar with his high school reputation as a quadruple threat, they undertook to persuade him—with a fraternity paddle—to change his mind. The persuasion was so vigorous that where Grange had been afraid to try out for football he suddenly found himself afraid not to, and thus was urged on his way to immortality.
Once committed, Grange quickly began to build the legend. As a freshman in his first varsity game Grange scored three touchdowns against Nebraska. He went on to play in seven of the mini's eight games in 1923, scoring 72 points, gaining 937 yards total offense and helping his team to the national championship.
Illinois opened its 1924 schedule with four straight wins, including a 39-14 victory that ended Michigan's 19-game winning streak, and the 36-0 crushing of an Iowa team that had given away only five points to their four previous opponents. In his most famous performance, Grange scored five touchdowns against Michigan, four of them in the first 12 minutes, and passed for a sixth. Against Iowa he scored twice and rushed and passed for 249 yards.
By 1925, with his college career only half complete, Grange was already famous, immortalized in verse by Grantland Rice:
A streak of fire, a breath of flame
Eluding all who reach and clutch;
A gray ghost thrown into the game
That rival hands may never touch
An inventive advertising man dubbed the 1924 Wills Sainte Claire automobile "the Red Grange of Traffic," because it boasted "such suppleness, such dash, such unbelievable change of pace."
To make the most of these skills—in the man, not the machine—Illinois Coach Bob Zuppke designed a special "Grange formation," essentially a single wing set behind a split line with Grange stationed at tailback 5� yards deep. The exaggerated distance kept The Ghost from galloping up the heels of his interference and it worked so well that for a year and a half, through 12 straight Illinois wins, only one team came close to containing the redhead. That was Amos Alonzo Stagg's powerhouse at the University of Chicago.
In their confrontation in 1923 Grange had been limited to 108 yards total offense and one touchdown—enough, as it turned out, to beat Chicago. Despite this narrow margin of victory, the Illini were heavy favorites to win the 1924 rematch, mostly because of the feats Grange had performed in the meantime. As one newspaper glowingly explained, "No team or player has captured popular favor in years as have Illinois and the famous Red Grange." It modestly added, "...to neutral observers the Illinois eleven is regarded as an almost perfect team."
Chicago was less impressed as it prepared for the Nov. 8 game. A brawny, bruising bunch (they were known as the Monsters of the Midway before the professional Bears adopted the title), the Maroons had been pointing for Illinois all season. Stagg held secret practice sessions in which he polished what one story called "a smashing attack to combat the ground-gaining and point-scoring propensities of Red Grange." So determined were Stagg's efforts that another correspondent wrote, "Everything in the veteran mentor's repertoire of attack and defense plays has been drawn upon to perfect the Maroon machine."
On game day 33,000 jammed into little Stagg Field, among them the former Yale coach and All-America selector Walter Camp, who had come a thousand miles for a look at Grange.