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WAS HE THE GREATEST OF ALL TIME?
John Underwood
September 04, 1985
You would never get Red Grange himself to say it, but there's a strong case to be made for the Galloping Ghost
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September 04, 1985

Was He The Greatest Of All Time?

You would never get Red Grange himself to say it, but there's a strong case to be made for the Galloping Ghost

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"The most modest hero who ever lived," said baseball Hall of Famer Ralph Kiner when he met Grange. "An absolute peach," said Nelson. "You couldn't get him mad at you if you tried."

Eventually, Grange left football altogether, but as the years rolled by, he surfaced now and again, usually at the business end of a comment about the passing scene. Asked what it had been like as "the first Herschel Walker" to quit college to go pro, he said he couldn't have been better received "if I'd announced I was joining the Capone mob." Asked about the rigors of playing 10 games in 17 days, he said, "It beat practicing." Asked about the millions of dollars agents were demanding for their players, he said, "I'd have to have an agent, too, because I couldn't keep from laughing if I asked for that kind of money to play football."

In 1980 his age coincided with his old number, 77, which had become so familiar that it turned into a golfing term. "I shot a Red Grange today." The predictable birthday columns reviewed his achievements. He conducted the interviews by telephone from his home near Lake Wales, Fla., where his wife, Muggs, would say, "He'd rather do it that way. He really doesn't care one way or the other if anybody writes about him anymore."

Then, two years ago, Jack Dempsey died and again Grange was sought out, except on a more melancholy note. All the great heroes of the Golden Age had finally passed from the scene—Ruth and Cobb from baseball, Jones from golf, Tilden from tennis, Dempsey from boxing. Only Grange was left. He is the last of those national treasures, and though it isn't so grand to be a grand old man of 82, he is holding on. To what? To what dreams, and to what memories? What could he be thinking now about his game and the part he played in making it? It was to that end that a man with a notebook recently went to Florida.

The town of Lake Wales is one of those fortresses of underdevelopment around which time did not pass as much as it got rerouted. The thundering interstates that allow one to race from Miami to Disney World to Tampa without seeing anything else were plotted well to either side, and not even a Holiday Inn can be found within the city limits. The only prominent landmark is a 10-story apartment house that was in its heyday the Seminole Hotel. Like the town itself, the building is a faded, peeling relic, protruding from the flat terrain like an impaired thumb.

Route 60, an old, thin zipper that slants across the state below Orlando, penetrates Lake Wales in four lanes from the west and squeezes out the other side in two. The land boom that was anticipated years ago never detonated. Except for the voracious discount chain stores and the inevitable Century 21 real-estate office, enterprise to the east of town has a tentative, distrustful quality about it, like the struggling motels there that promise shelter but don't risk putting phones in the rooms.

Farther east, a silica-mining firm has opened the earth right next to where fruit lies spoiled on the ground in a frost-devastated orange grove. The central Florida winters have become more drastic and threaten to shove the citrus industry deeper down the peninsula. A sign advertises five acres for $9,900, NO MONEY DOWN! A new shopping center, with an appositeness undoubtedly lost on its clientele, features a Kash & Karry grocery.

Exactly 20 miles out, a brown and yellow billboard introduces Indian Lake Estates, a "country club community." Passersby are welcomed to "inspect our model homes," although the "estates," half an acre apiece, were carved out of the palmetto patches, sectioned off and grabbed up years ago by speculators hoping to make a bundle selling them to older people looking for perpetual warmth. That was a more optimistic time. Many of the lots have been resold more than once without development. Long stretches of the neatly cut paved roads are devoid of housing. FOR SALE signs dominate the landscape. Indian Lake Estates is a resort that never quite made it.

The star inhabitant, who did, lives on Amaryllis Drive, three blocks from the sticky, blue-black waters of Lake Weohyakapka and half a mile from the golf course he no longer patronizes. Grange is mostly untouched by celebrity now, and that's fine with him. When he moved in 25 years ago, Grange figured he would fish a lot and play golf. He bought two boats. "It's amazing how little the earth seems to move when you're sitting in a boat," he says.

After a while, though, he didn't fish anymore. He didn't mind the fishing, he said. It was the catching and the cleaning. He golfed until recently, but he found that the game lacked something. "It's like kicking field goals," he says. "You don't have to be a football player to kick field goals; you just have to be precise." Golf, he said, would be all right "if somebody came up from behind and tackled you when you were swinging."

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