Just announced today, the #1 overall sports icon in Big Ten history is…..Red Grange of the Illinois Fighting Illini! The man who was the Babe Ruth of college football and the NFL. He even had a candy bar named after him; just like Ruth. Grange was named the greatest college football player of all time on New Year’s Day 2008, and he pretty much put the Chicago Bears on the map in the 1920s.
He was so big that required two nicknames, the “Galloping Ghost” which conveyed his immortality. And the “Wheaton Iceman” conveying the everydayness of this 5’10” 175 pound legend.
He’s a charter member of its hall of fame and his sensational career vaulted the sport into the national consciousness for the first time. Now, Illinois’ Red Grange, the “Galloping Ghost,” has been named the No. 1 Big Ten Icon by the Big Ten Network. (Show airs Thursday, 10 pm ET)
Harold “Red” Grange grew up in Wheaton, Ill., and earned his nickname because of his hair color. He earned 16 letters at Wheaton High School in football, baseball, basketball and track, and scored 75 touchdowns on the gridiron. Despite his blazing speed and tremendous productivity, Grange was unsure whether he was big enough to play football at the collegiate level. He enrolled at Illinois in 1922, intending to play basketball and to run track.
According to legend, Grange was talked into joining the Illini football team by his Zeta Psi fraternity brothers. He made an immediate impact as a sophomore, scoring three touchdowns in his debut against Nebraska. That season, Grange averaged 5.6 yards per carry, scored 12 touchdowns and helped the Illini win the 1923 national championship with a perfect 7-0 record.
It wasn’t until his junior season, however, that Grange’s legend came to life. In the first game at Illinois’ newly constructed Memorial Stadium, the Illini hosted Michigan, then owners of a 20-game winning streak. Grange returned the opening kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown, and rushed for touchdowns of 67, 56 and 44 yards, all in the first quarter. He later scored two more touchdowns in the Illini’s 39-14 victory.
Grange’s first-quarter, four-touchdown performance made the national newsreels. The Chicago Tribune called Grange’s effort “the greatest performance ever seen on an American gridiron.”
Legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice wrote, “A streak of fire, a breath of flame. Eluding all who reach and clutch, a gray ghost thrown into the game; That rival hands may never touch; A rubber bounding, blasting soul; Whose destination is the goal – Red Grange of Illinois!”
With that, the legend of Grange was born. He became a three-time All-American and on October 5, 1925, at the age of 21, Grange appeared on the cover of Time magazine.
McGrath wrote, “Numbers don’t convey the spine-tingling excitement Grange brought to the field as a big-play threat.”
In 1969, in conjunction with college football’s 100th anniversary, the Football Writers Association of America named Grange to its all-time All-American team, its only unanimous selection.
The University of Illinois retired Grange’s No. 77 jersey in 1925. Dick Butkus is the only other Illini football player so honored. A 12-foot statue of Grange stands outside Memorial Stadium.
Big Ten Icons is the network’s most ambitious multi-platform initiative to date. All student-athletes from current Big Ten schools were eligible for the network’s list.
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