In 1928, Pyle staged a transcontinental 3,422-mile footrace and accompanying sideshow that became known as the Bunion Derby. Grange rode along in a specially outfitted $25,000 bus to help in the promotion. The Bunion Derby, like Grange's one-man review, was a reach. The thousands who were expected to flock to those towns the runners passed through didn't materialize, and Pyle's sideshow, which included a fire-eater, a wrestling bear, a mummified human cadaver and a five-legged pig, was a flop. In Conway, Mo., citizens egged the bus.
Grange's movie career, like that of most athletes who try Hollywood while their names are hot, was a shooting star. Pyle made a deal with Joseph P. Kennedy during that first barnstorming season. Afterward Cash and Carry flashed a $300,000 check that the guileless Grange immediately identified as phony. "One of Charlie's crazy stunts," he said. Nonetheless, Grange did make two films (One Minute to Play and Racing Romeo) and a serial (The Galloping Ghost) for Kennedy. Each was as unsensational as the next, and Grange complained that it was "hard work." After 1929 he didn't make any more movies.
As his football abilities waned, his involvement in the game changed. In the '40s, he was briefly named president of the proposed United States Football League (fancy that), but resigned before it got airborne. He went into broadcasting, and his sometimes unique use of the language gave critics the impression he was self-educated. Still, he was in great demand. He did the Bears games on radio and TV for 14 years and teamed with Lindsey Nelson on network telecasts of college games.
Nelson recalls that Grange was never beguiled by his own importance ("He was incapable of taking himself seriously") and suffered his detractors with good humor. Nitpickers in Chicago were not relentless, but they were pointed. "It is considered a masterpiece of achievement," wrote one, "when Grange has the right team in possession of the ball."
Athletes to Grange were "atha-letes," and sometimes an atha-lete played "right side rinebacker." He had trouble with the collective noun. "The Army team," he would say, "now have four first downs to Navy's three." A staunch defender of Grange, Nelson told a complaining NCAA television executive, "That's the way they do it in England."
"Dammit, Lindsey," said the executive, "Red didn't go to Oxford. He went to Illinois!"
Nelson recalls that Grange once said his greatest achievement was the success he made of an insurance business in Chicago, "because he felt he did that by himself. Everything else was God-given and teamwork." However, Grange gave up the business after a mild coronary in 1951. By then, no doubt, he realized that his apotheosis as a sports hero was going to carry him through after all. When Grange talked, people queued up to listen, and he was not so much a sweetheart that he qualified everything he said. He was, for example, adamant in his futile support of a pension plan for those who had played pro ball when he did and were not as well off as he was. But he always made his case politely.
Says Nelson, "Red had such a wonderful way of handling things that he could make the worst of situations seem O.K. A waitress dropped a bowl of Roquefort dressing on my new blue suit in Chicago one night. I hopped up and was dancing around, all excited, and there sat Red, looking at me ever so sweetly. 'I thought you ordered Thousand Island,' he said."
Sixty years is actually a short bridge in time when a hero is being defined or on his way to being better defined. Instead of dissipating, the testimonials to Grange's preeminence have accumulated over the years. Halas said over and over again that Grange's signing in 1925 was an event "comparable to the national televising of games" in bringing pro football to power. Nagurski called him "the greatest running back I ever saw." Bulldog Turner said he was "the greatest name football ever had." To commemorate college football's 100th anniversary in 1969, the Football Writers Association of America chose an alltime All-America team. Grange alone was a unanimous choice. O.J. Simpson made the second team.
Unlike those modern-day cads and bores who make millions from their sports without exhibiting a redeeming social grace, Grange was a much-loved figure, partly because he was easy to love. The effusive Sid Luckman said that just meeting him was "one of the greatest honors I've received in sports." Upon meeting Grange socially, the Giants' All-Pro center/linebacker Mel Hein called him "the nicest, dearest man I ever met." Hein had first met him on the field at the end of "a stiff-arm so strong it knocked me over."