Much was made this week about the possibility of disgruntled Jacksonville Jaguars’ cornerback Jalen Ramsey being traded Friday and facing the possibility of playing in two games in a week. That idea was quickly dismissed when NFL officials informed several suitors that no NFL player would be allowed to play twice in the same week. Where were they when Red Grange was around?
With the Jags playing the Titans Thursday night and Ramsey going public with both his willingness to play in that game and his demand to be traded to a franchise in danger of actually winning a game, the question was a reasonable one to ask. What was not was the idea that such a notion was somehow without precedent.
Without precedent? Heck, Grange did that five times in six days in 1925 when he and his Chicago Bears went on a barnstorming tour around the country that has been proclaimed by some historians as the tour that saved the National Football League. History, you see, not only often repeats itself it often trumps the moment.
These days everything is treated like the most remarkable feat ever or the most incredible notion since the dawn of human history. Truth is what was suggested Ramsey might try pales in comparison with what Grange did in 1925.
That fall Grange was a star running back at the University of Illinois. Known as “The Galloping Ghost,’’ he was the most famous football player in the world. This was at a time when pro football was a mere afterthought among football fans, if they thought about it at all.
In the four years prior to 1925, more than 20 pro franchises had folded and the newly re-branded National Football League was going broke. Chicago Bears’ owner George Halas knew the NFL needed a star. He saw him in Grange, a running back who was electrifying college football and charming the country with his down home story of working as a delivery boy on an ice truck when not rambling through college defenses. The Wheaton Ice Man was hot.
Halas wasn’t the only one to realize this. So, too, did a movie theatre owner named C.C. Pyle, who was about to become sport’s first agent. He convinced Grange to leave Illinois after its season was over to turn pro, which in those days simply did not happen.
Pro football was seen then as a seamy imitation of the college game, rife with gambling and rough-and-tumble hooligans. Halas believed it could become more but if its franchises kept going broke the league might die before it had a chance to live. Enter Red Grange.
Pyle and Halas struck a deal that Grange would sign with the Bears not only for the remainder of the season but also agree to what became a 19-game, 67-day barnstorming tour through the rest of the winter with Grange and Pyle receiving a guarantee plus 50% of the gate receipts, which they would then split 60-40. All expenses would come out of Halas’ end.
Legendary Illinois coach Bob Zuppke was appalled. He and many others in the college game claimed the “purity’’ of college football was under attack. He went so far as to announce at Illinois’ wrap up football dinner that he would “never have another $100,000 football player.’’ Grange, incensed, walked out knowing the remark was aimed directly at him because he had been promised at least $100,000 for the Tour.
Grange’s pro debut came on Thanksgiving Day in Chicago. Over 20,000 tickets were sold within three hours of the announcement of Grange’s signing. Halas immediately had more printed and the Bears ultimately attracted 36,600 to what was then called Cubs Park (now Wrigley Field). By way of comparison, their previous game had attracted less than 8,000 fans.
As Grange wrote in his autobiography, “When I joined the Chicago Bears there were eighteen teams in the National Professional Football League but there wasn't enough activity at the turnstiles to support half that number. There was such a lack of interest in the pro game that the league didn't even hold a championship play-off at the end of the season. Fans just seemed to prefer the college brand of football. And the fact that the big names in college football were against the pro game made matters worse7
“Yet pro football in 1925 was good football. Many of the players were former college stars who continued to give their all to the game despite the small monetary return. The big problem was to get the newspapers to give the pro sport the publicity it so badly needed. Stories about the happenings in the professional league were usually buried on the second or third pages of the sports section. Had the same space been devoted to pro football as pro baseball, the former would probably have caught the public's fancy from the very beginning.’’
That’s where Grange changed everything for the NFL. There was nowhere he could go without being mobbed. Over 100 national sportswriters showed up for his first Bears’ game and many continued to follow the remarkable tour he was about to embark upon. Not only was a star born that fall. So was the NFL.
Three days after his debut, Grange was back on the field. Three days after that he played again. And then he got busy.
Grange played back-to-back games on December 5th and 6th and three in a row between December 8th and 10th. That’s five games in six days. What was that about poor Jalen Ramsey possibly playing twice in one week again?
Not surprisingly, Grange began to suffer serious injuries, including a badly swollen arm that finally incapacitated him after doctors told him the blood clot that had caused his arm to swell to twice its size could move to his heart and kill him. Still, his presence had already changed everything, most significantly for the New York Giants.
On December 5th, 1925, Giants’ owner Tim Mara was over $40,000 in debt and had no way of paying it off any time soon. Things were so dire that New York Mayor Al Smith told Mara, “Pro football will never amount to anything. Why don’t you give it up?’’
One day later Grange and the Bears appeared at the Polo Grounds in front of over 68,000 fans. Tim Mara and the Giants had been saved by a guy who was playing his fifth game in 11 days.
"When I saw that crowd and knew half the cash in the house was mine, I said to myself, 'Timothy, how long has this gravy train been running,'" Mara once recalled. Ultimately Mara would turned a $18,000 profit in that the Giants’ inaugural season.
With Grange now beaten up along with his teammates, most of whom played both ways in those games, a December 10 United News Service article said, “the Grange bubble appears dangerously near the bursting point. Beneath the withering, pitiless spotlight of publicity, the red-headed youngster's fame may melt away like some of his own ice, leaving only a little dank, malodorous saw-dust.’’
Not quite. Although Grange would sustain career-changing injuries, he also made what would be the equivalent of millions of dollars both from the Tour itself and a string of endorsement deals Pyle arranged for him with soda companies, a cigarette maker and for hats, sweaters, caps, shoes and even dolls. There was no NFL Properties then to grab the cash and demand it be licensed by the owners. There was only the Galloping Ghost running across the country with an ever-increasing limp but a swelling wallet to go with it.
By the time the Tour ended on January 31, 1926, Grange and the Bears had played 19 times in 67 days with one two-week break between their East coast swing and a trip to the South and West Coast. Grange was required to play at least 30 minutes in each game. He missed two games due to injury but did sit for more than a half in some others and was roundly criticized for it in the media of the day.
Yet the fans kept coming. In New York, it took 50 police officers walking around him to get him to the locker room. In other places he was swarmed from the train station to his hotel and all the way to the playing fields.
And play he did. In one case, Grange and the Bears played back-to-back games at Shibe Park in Philadelphia against the Frankfort Yellow Jackets and then the Giants at the Polo Grounds. After the game in Philadelphia, Grange and his teammates boarded a train IN THEIR DIRTY UNIFORMS for the ride to New York.
"There had never been such evidence of public interest since our professional league began in 1920," Halas once said. “I knew then and there that pro football was destined to be a big-time sport."
Indeed it was and players like Jalen Ramsey have become the beneficiaries. They stand on the battered shoulders of men like Red Grange, who did several times in a month what this week was rightfully viewed as dangerous folly for Ramsey. Grange, were he still alive, would have surely advised Ramsey not to consider such a workload if the league allowed it but what is equally as interesting is that it’s been reported several of Ramsey’s suitors did ask the league if it might be possible. That proves once again that what Grange said in 1985, 60 years after embarking on his remarkable schedule, remained true.
"I was booed for the first time in my football career in the Boston game," Grange said. “It made me aware of something I had never thought of before—that the public's attitude toward a professional football player is quite different from the manner in which they view a college gridder. A pro's performance is evaluated much more critically and he is less likely to be forgiven when a mistake is made. A pro must deliver, or else…
“I complained a few times, because we had guys in hospitals, guys who had had amputations because of football injuries. Guys who had problems. I thought the game could have done something for them, but it never did. As far as I know, pro football hasn't done anything for anybody except lately, and that's mostly for itself. I never made a real stink about it, but I was sad for the old-timers.”
Guys like Jalen Ramsey, who have benefitted so greatly because of those who came before them not only financially but also in terms of health and safety regulations, should remember that next time they talk about their union standing up for pre-1993 NFL players, many of whom suffer from long-term and dire medical needs.