In the 1920s, four athletes stood like giants in a golden age of sport - Babe Ruth, Bobby Jones, Jack Dempsey and Red Grange. With “The Galloping Ghost”, author Gary Andrew Poole delivers an authoritative autobiography of Grange, who was most responsible for the popularization of professional football during a time at which the pro version of the sport was considered undesirable.
Grange played for Illinois in college, his most famous day coming against a Fielding Yost Michigan team on October 18, 1924. That day Yost was determined that Grange wouldn’t beat the Wolverines, ordering his team to kick the ball to Grange, then “hit him hard and see that he stays hit”. Instead, Grange returned the kick 95 yards for a touchdown. He then scored on runs of 67, 56, and 45 yards, scoring four touchdowns within 12 minutes. He then left the game to rest for the second quarter and returned in the third to score on a 12-yard run.
Grange’s day ended up being one of the greatest in college football history - finishing with 402 yards, 212 rushing, 64 passing and 126 in kickoff returns. He rushed for five touchdowns and threw for a sixth. In an era in which players played both ways, he also intercepted two passes. All of this came against a Michigan team that hadn’t lost in three years. It was a game that made Grange a living legend.
Grange’s life story is certainly compelling, but moreso are the cast of characters that surrounds him. His Illinois coach, Bob Zuppke, made his mark upon football by inventing the huddle. His battle with Grange’s desire to play professional football further establishes how much Grange meant to the game.
C.C. Pyle, Charlie “Cash and Carry” Pyle, is Grange’s promoter. He is a con man and is as much a skinflint as he is full of brilliant ideas. Together with Grange, Pyle creates an audience for professional football where none had previously existed. Pyle is such a character that his exploits could make a decent movie by themselves.
The story wouldn’t be complete without the inclusion of George Halas, the owner of the Chicago Bears, who convinces Grange (at Pyle’s urging) to sign a professional contract in 1925. There is much detail about the early origins of professional football, including a barnstorming tour that has Grange playing 30 games in 12 weeks while enduring ten concussions and a host of other injuries. The tour establishes Grange’s nationwide celebrity.
Author Poole does an excellent job of placing the reader with the context of the times. His detailed account of the barnstorming tour leaves you wondering how the men of the era could survive such brutality. He makes it clear that football was a much different game being played in an era that is other-worldly as well.
If you like college or professional football history, this is a must read book. Poole’s writing is compelling as the book reads more like a novel than a history text. His research is extensive and the characters are exquisite. It’s easily the most fun history-based football read I’ve reviewed to date, comparable to James W. Johnson’s “The Wow Boys”.