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Incontestably, it was the perfect nickname. You could make a case that it was the best nickname in the history of American sport, although good nicknaming, like legible handwriting and jitterbugging, has pretty much become a lost art. But his was perfect because it compressed into imagery a style and a talent so wonderful that even now, more than half a century later, just saying it evokes heroic images.
The weekly newsreel clips that made the rounds of the movie houses in those days took the images to millions and enhanced them. In black and white, fluttering at 16 to 18 frames a second, they stoked the illusion of speed and made even more impressive the other eerie components of his long touchdown runs: the sublime shifts and feints, the paralyzing stiff-arms, the breathtaking bursts of speed. Reviewing those reels now, you get the impression that if Red Grange were not, indeed, a Galloping Ghost, he surely must have just seen one.
Still photographs taken at the time pinned down the image and put a face to it, but even in those Grange looked ghostlike. Beneath the leather pancake of his headgear, his eyes, embedded in deep sockets, appeared in perpetual shadow and shone so brightly black that they seemed more like objects to be looked at than to look with. A protracted exposure to hard work—he had toted ice for wages during his hardscrabble boyhood in Wheaton, Ill.—had toughened him. He was ruggedly handsome, but he never seemed youthful. Even at 22, which he was in 1925 when he single handedly took professional football out of the dark ages, he had a face like a well-worn coin. It is ironic that today, when he is very old, he looks much younger than he is.
There remains but a handful of people who actually saw Grange play, and most recall him only after he had suffered the crushing knee injury that made him a straight-ahead runner as early as his second year as a professional. He played the remaining six years of his pro career in pain, and witnesses at the end recall a productive but less nimble ballcarrier, the way most modern observers remember Joe Namath after his knees were gone. Those who played with and against Grange, men like Bronko Nagurski, remember him almost as much for his defensive skills. In those days the rules did not permit a player to escape to the bench when the other team got the ball.
Could it be that Grange really was the greatest ever? Damon Runyon wrote about him, as did Westbrook Pegler and Paul Gallico. It was the Golden Age of Sport, and those three supplied much of the burnish. When Runyon saw Grange play for the first time, he said he was "three or four men and a horse rolled into one. He is Jack Dempsey, Babe Ruth, Al Jolson, Paavo Nurmi and Man o' War." Gallico called him a "touchdown factory."
On an October day in 1924 in Champaign, Ill., against a Michigan team that hadn't lost in 20 games, Grange scored touchdowns on runs of 95, 67, 56 and 45 yards—in the first 12 minutes of play. He added a fifth TD later and passed for a sixth, as Illinois won 39-14. Grantland Rice, who is generally credited with giving Grange his sobriquet (Warren Brown of the Chicago Tribune and Charlie Dunkley of AP are also given nods), was deeply moved. When Rice became moved, he summoned poetry:
A streak of fire, a breath of flame,
Rice never missed a chance to see Grange play after that.
A year later, in Philadelphia, Grange played 57 minutes in a stunning 24-2 defeat of heavily favored Pennsylvania. In ankle-deep mud, he amassed 363 yards and scored on runs of 56, 13 and 20 yards. Laurence Stallings, who had co-written What Price Glory?, worked the game for the New York World primarily to see Grange. He agonized over his portable as he considered the performance and finally said, "This story's too big for me. I can't write it."
That was Grange's senior season at Illinois. In the 20 games he played as an undergraduate, he scored 31 touchdowns, many on spectacular long runs, usually when they stood to mean the most to his team. A maddeningly humble man, Grange has always regarded this ability as a kind of celestial fluke, like a passing comet, and has given any recitation of it the kind of passion one might show in reading a train schedule. The reason may be that he was on such intimate terms with the end zone for so long. At Wheaton High he scored 75 touchdowns and was also a four-time state sprint champion and captain of the basketball team.