Sports Illustrated staff writer Anderson (Carlisle vs. Army, 2008) chronicles the rise of Red Grange (1903–1991), the NFL’s first superstar, and the men most responsible for the early success of professional football.
Long before the NFL became a marketing juggernaut, pro football occupied the lowest rung on the sporting ladder, an inferior cousin to baseball, boxing and even its amateur counterpart, college football. As struggling franchises folded, Chicago Bears founder George Halas, a former college player whose on-field success owed more to gumption than natural talent, sought desperately to help pro football shed its reputation as a poorly organized, frequently fixed game for hooligans. Enter Grange, a handsome, hardworking, humble halfback who hailed from a working-class background before starring at the University of Illinois, where he displayed an unprecedented talent for creating excitement every time he touched the ball. In an era in which dignified college stars shunned the pro game, Grange stunned the sporting world by leaving school early to join Halas’s Bears for a brutal barnstorming tour that saw the team play ten games in 18 days. Organized by enterprising agent Charles Pyle, the tour, headlined by the “Galloping Ghost” (as the press tabbed Grange), created a national market for professional football and ensured the game’s financial viability. Though decades would pass before the NFL became the unquestioned king of American sports, Anderson makes a convincing case that without Grange, Halas and Pyle, it never would have happened. More analysis of Grange’s influence and the subsequent growth of the NFL in the context of the larger American cultural environment would have been welcome, but the on-field action is riveting.
A game effort to convey the elusive majesty of Grange’s performances and qualify his impact on the development of the NFL.