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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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He doesn't travel anymore either, "if I can get out of it." He reads. "Baseball books, mainly," he says. "I'm more of a baseball fan than anything. I got footballed to death after it became a job." And he mows his lawn and feeds a sandhill crane that flies in regularly. But "mainly I do nothing, if that's what I want to do. It's what happens when you have enough dough. Muggs and I can have 20 people in for dinner tonight, or go a month without seeing anybody." When strangers inquire if he might be "the guy who played football," Grange tells them, "That was my uncle."

He was in the driveway of the sprawling, airy green-and-white concrete-block house when the visitor drove up. Grange had a bag of birdseed out and was making a large, neat mound on the concrete. High on a nearby telephone wire, the huge crane waited for his friend to finish serving. Grange straightened effortlessly upon seeing the car and waved. That simple act seemed to make him young again—trim and pink-faced and smiling warmly. From head to toe, he was impeccably coordinated: a chocolate brown Ban-Lon shirt, matching knit trousers, a light cream-colored jacket and brown running shoes that looked untested. Although his hair was white as tissue, it showed tints of red when the sun hit it right. Indeed, he looked as if he could be some older man's nephew.

He admired the visitor's rented Thunderbird, running his fingertips along the top of the car door. Once, he said, he bought four cars at the same time—Auburns for his brother and father and two Stutz Bearcats. "We were car nutty," he said. "The Stutz had a sphinx head on the radiator cap, and the overdrive would go whirrrrrr!" He enjoyed the image of his former auto whirring along the back roads of Illinois. "It was the first car I had that could do 100 miles an hour." In his garage now were a pair of worn-looking Pontiacs.

Inside the ranch-style dwelling, each room seemed to broaden into another. Muggs, a handsome, stringy, bright-eyed woman with a golfer's tan, said Red had designed the house "to take advantage of every inch." It has no halls, and the windows and sliding glass patio doors open onto the screen-enclosed pool so that the breezes can cool even the hottest days. There are some signs of disrepair, but in middle age it remains a comfortable house.

Muggs and Red have been married 44 years. She was a stewardess, and they met on a plane. They have no children. They share quarters with a waddling dachshund named Rusty and a mellowing hoard of memories. They have only memories now, said Muggs, because except for the oil Zuppke painted of Red in his wool jersey and leather helmet, which hangs over the bar, "Everything else has been shipped to the Hall of Fame. Red got tired of me polishin' every time we had company."

Red and the visitor passed a white brick fireplace and a formidable television set on the way to the patio. Red said, yes, he still watches football, "especially if it's a good college game," but "there's so many of them on TV now, and with all the time-outs they just go on forever. Football can't be so important that you'd sit and watch five or six hours of it a day. I get up and go for a beer, or go mow the lawn. I used to mow the hell out of that lawn on a Sunday afternoon."

The trouble with television, he said, "is that they try to sensationalize everything. Hell, a guy hits a home run, that's what he's supposed to do. That's why he gets all that money. When the fans realize it's not that sensational, they get bored. The media makes the Super Bowl seem like it's going to be World War III, and then after you watch it you realize it's not, and you feel cheated."

Grange sat straight in the aluminum patio chair, his posture so erect that his visitor instinctively straightened. The visitor was pleased—delighted, actually—to have found Grange so spry. The legend recounted his feats with no wasted words, as one might give a prepared speech. When the subject demanded it, he skillfully grafted the present to the past. As legends go, the Galloping Ghost had endured the march of time remarkably well.

"Football hasn't changed that much, really," Grange said, "except for the shape of the ball. The ball in the '20s and '30s was fat like a basketball, and on a windy day it was like throwing a balloon. The longer, narrower ball opened up the passing game, no question. But it took away the dropkick. An old dropkicker could kick a field goal inside the 50 with no trouble." He laughed, enjoying the irony. He said there were many ironies.

"The equipment got better and better," he said. "In one of those old helmets I'd get kicked in the head and I'd be dingy the rest of the game. Everything we wore was heavy except the helmets. But then they started making 'em so hard and heavy that coaches started using 'em like spears, getting guys hurt, so that wasn't much of an improvement.

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