Two days after his last college game, a 14-9 victory over Ohio State in Columbus before 85,500 fans—college football's largest crowd up to that time—Grange did something extraordinary, as significant as any single event in the history of American football: He turned pro. Specifically, his colorful agent, C.C. (Cash and Carry) Pyle, made him an offer he and the Chicago Bears could not refuse: the chance for everybody to make a lot of money in a hurry.
To appreciate the impact of Grange's decision, you have to understand that in 1925 pro football was regarded as a dirty little business run by rogues and bargain-basement entrepreneurs. The Milwaukee franchise had to fold that year because it was using high school players. Tim Mara bought the year-old New York Giants for $500. The game was confined mainly to tank towns (Pottsville, Frankford, Providence, Rock Island, Green Bay) where gatherings—you couldn't call them "crowds"—numbered four or five hundred on a good day. People who patronized professional football were thought to be of a caliber you now associate with Roller Derby.
College officials wanted no part of the pro game. Besides being seedy, pro football posed an economic threat. So they were aghast that the mighty Grange would defect without at least waiting for graduation day. He was, after all, college football's jewel, a three-time Walter Camp All-America who had represented all the appropriate virtues. He didn't drink or smoke. He hadn't even had a date until he got to college, and once there he was a solid student. The only thing outrageous about him was his modesty. ("The Michigan game? I had great blocking.")
The Chicago News warned that a "living legend" would be wise not to "go and sully" his reputation. Fielding Yost, the Michigan coach, said, "Anything but that." Grange's own coach, Bob Zuppke, lobbied against it ("Stay away from professionalism, and you will be another Camp") and criticized him pointedly at a banquet they attended. "Zup," said Grange, a pragmatist awakening, "you coach for money. Why isn't it O.K. to play for money?" They didn't speak for two years.
Grange played his final game for Illinois on a Saturday, announced his intentions at the Bears game in Chicago on Sunday (he was mobbed by ecstatic fans), signed what amounted to a personal-services contract with the Bears on Monday, practiced two days and played his first pro game on Thanksgiving Thursday. What followed were the 17 days that made pro football.
A hybrid schedule—part regular season, part exhibition, all barnstorm—had been doodled up by Pyle and approved by George Halas, the Bears' owner, coach and starting right end. It called for a miracle of endurance: 10 games in 17 days, seven of them within a nine-day period. Grange was expected to perform in every game. For that, he was guaranteed a 50-50 split of all gate receipts, with Pyle getting 40% of Grange's share.
The first game matched the Bears against the Chicago (now St. Louis) Cardinals. Accustomed to attracting crowds of less than 5,000, Halas was not prepared for the demand. The 20,000 tickets he had printed were sold in three hours. More had to be ordered. A standing-room-only crowd of 36,000 jammed into Cubs Park (now known as Wrigley Field) on a snowy day. No NFL game had drawn near that number. Halas was said to have cried while counting the receipts.
St. Louis, Washington, Boston, Pittsburgh...the trains carrying the Galloping Ghost and his supporting cast of 17 mortal Bears rumbled across the East and Midwest, and wherever they went, it was the same. Grange was an event, a happening so stupendous that the curiosity to see him seemed insatiable. The Bears played before an NFL-record 40,000 fans in Philadelphia in a steady downpour, and Grange scored the game's only two touchdowns. The next day, wearing the same muddy jerseys, the Bears were cheered by 73,000 fans at the Polo Grounds in New York as Chicago beat the Giants 19-7. The $130,000 take saved Mara from financial ruin. "My worries," he said, "are over."
More than 125 reporters covered that game. Rice, Pegler, Runyon and Ford Frick joined the merry group for the remainder of the tour. The Bears were hurried along like artificially ripened fruit to take advantage of the market. At every stop, Halas passed out press releases he had written himself. The Bears traveled in Pullmans and used the ladies' washroom as a training room. Although there were a lot of injuries—the trainer had to suit up for a couple of games—the converts kept coming.
The gate at one stop was $200,000. A Chicago writer noted, "All of a sudden some people around the country think that pro football might be a good investment." In Detroit, nursing a torn muscle and a blood clot in his left arm, and bone tired from the killing pace ("Deep lines showed about Red's face," wrote Frick), Grange could not play. More than 20,000 fans demanded refunds. That game and the next one the following day in Chicago were his only no-shows. "In those days," Grange said later, "you were taken off the field only if you could not walk or breathe."