Friday, February 20, 2009

The Galloping Ghost: Q&A with Red Grange Biographer Gary Andrew Poole

This week, as college standouts showcase their talents before pro scouts at the NFL Combine, players of all skill levels hope to raise their draft stock and secure the lucrative contracts that come with playing in country's premiere sports league. This is a far cry from the practices that accompanied the golden years of professional football, when it was still struggling against baseball, boxing and horse racing for both legitimacy and the public's attention.

One man in that era (along with those associated with his stardom) helped shape the League as we know it today, by transforming both the college and pro game and its perception with the public.

Harold "Red" Grange is considered the greatest college football player who ever lived. While "Western" football was looked at as far inferior to the Ivys of the East, the Illinois standout legitimized the sport as one that appealed beyond the silver-spooned campuses of Yale, Penn and Princeton and paved the way for programs in the Midwest to showcase some of the country's best talent.

Known for his effortless gait, the Galloping Ghost's legacy is one that has rarely been looked at in depth, despite his unprecedented contributions to the game. At a time when most college players, especially superstars, capitalized on their stardom by forgoing the stigmatic notion of turning pro in favor of a white collar desk job, Grange's decision to sign with the Chicago Bears turned the college football community on its head. With Grange bringing tens of thousands of fans to pro stadiums across the country, he created a frenzied rush by other teams to emulate the Bears' model of signing and showcasing a major entertainment attraction.

Grange wasn't alone. His chief confidant-turned-agent, a noted con man named C.C. Pyle, saw the potential that the floundering NFL had, and flaunted it to his and his client's financial benefit (as well as that of NFL owners...when Grange was in town, at least).

It came a cost. Literally fresh off his college season, Pyle booked the Ghost and his Bears on a grueling nationwide barnstorming tour that often had the team playing 2-3 games a week.

While his health, and subsequently performance, suffered, Grange was still a box office hit, as fans clamored to witness the rumored legend that was so eloquently painted by respected sports writers of the day.

In September, The Galloping Ghost: Red Grange, an American Football Legend by Gary Andrew Poole was released. Poole revisits Grange's legend and his impact on college and pro football as we know it.

We recently caught up with the author to discuss his book.

HuggingHaroldReynolds: Red Grange is widely considered the greatest college football player ever and is often credited with legitimizing the professional game. Yet, until your latest biography on him, few major accounts of his life have been published. Why are football's golden years and its players often overlooked, and what made you decide to fill the void and pen a piece on the Galloping Ghost?

Gary Andrew Poole: Football hasn't always been a super-popular subject. Of course, there have been some excellent books written about football, but the publishing industry considered it a second-tier category in the sports genre. Baseball, golf and even boxing have traditionally dominated the sports bookshelf. (There is a cottage industry in Babe Ruth biographies.) But football has become our national game so there is more interest in it from publishers, authors, and readers. I have noticed that more quality football titles have been written over the last couple years. You can look at last fall in which a whole bunch of football books were released, including Jeff Pearlman's Boys Will Be Boys and Michael Rosenberg's War As They Knew It. Many of the books have been about more recent history. I thought there was a real gap in books about the early history of the game. I was shocked that no major publisher had tackled the Grange story. Not only did I think there was a great narrative to tell, I thought Grange--the Babe Ruth of football--was an overlooked figure. Many people consider Grange the most important figure in football, both college and pro; ESPN named him the greatest ever college football player; he was America's first national football hero and thanks to his charismatic and conniving manager, he was America's first sports commodity as well. I just thought there needed to be a major biography of this guy.

You also asked about why football of this era gets overlooked. Baseball, boxing, and just about every other major sport, haven't drastically changed over the years, but football looks much different. Baseball--minus the steroids era--is pretty much the same game that was played in the 1920s. But football was a radically different game in the 1920s. At its highest levels it was an exciting game, but it was more of an endurance sport (players often played the whole game, offense and defense); passing was a smaller element because the ball was wider and more difficult to throw; and kicking played into strategy much more (it wasn't unusual to punt on first down to backup your opponent). I wanted to give people a context to appreciate it, and to understand how football has evolved. It is virtually impossible to compare statistics and there isn't much film footage, even of Grange, the greatest player of that era. Through my book's narrative, I try and give modern readers a sense of the game, and the drama playing on and off the field.

HHR: Illinois coach Bob Zuppke essentially rolled the dice in terms of recruiting given his aversion to many of the practices and because of his own personal philosophies, and almost missed out in landing Grange. Had Grange not gone to his home-state university, would history have been different and what is that chance that the football world would have missed out on one of its greatest talents?

GAP: That's a hell of a tough question. Along with Michigan's Fielding Yost and Notre Dame's Knute Rockne, Bob Zuppke was one of that era's greatest coaches. He was very creative and invented the "flea flicker," among other plays. He was also more than willing to pass the ball, which was looked upon as pretty crazy back in that era. Grange really thrived under Zuppke, and in turn Zup's reputation was forever tied to Grange's success, but Zup couldn't lower himself to beg a 17-year-old kid to play football for Illinois. He would have been embarrassed to act like Lane Kiffen, Charlie Weiss, Urban Meyer, Pete Carroll or other modern coaches as they glad-hand a high school kid...If Zup could have watched modern recruiting practices he would puke. Zuppke saw football as a way to learn discipline and leadership, and he believed that playing football at a university was an honor; football was a maker of men, not an end to itself. After his last college game, Grange decided to turn pro, which was shocking to Zuppke and the rest of the college football establishment. Zuppke, a surrogate father to Grange, was upset and didn't really talk with his greatest pupil for a couple years.

Would history be different without the Zuppke-Grange partnership? Zup would devise his whole game plan around Grange, and he was also very good at motivating the Galloping Ghost. So I don't know. If Grange would have gone to Michigan or Notre Dame, he might have had more consistently good players around him, but he would have been in much more plodding offenses...Zuppke and Grange formed a perfect storm: Zuppke's creativity as a coach, and Grange's creativity as a runner. But no matter where Grange played, I am guessing he would have excelled. In several of his greatest games, he almost single-handedly won the contests. Grange would have a terrible team around him and he was still able to dominate and even astonish some of the best teams in the country. Those games, in which Grange had to overcome great adversity, created his legend.

HHR: C.C. Pyle is painted throughout the book as a con-man. While the physical ramifications of Grange's career have undoubtedly been negatively affected by their association, has Grange's reputation and legacy at all been tarnished by Pyle's involvement?

GAP: Maybe Pyle hurt Grange's reputation, for a time, back in the 1920s, but Pyle was his own force of nature and I think the public came to realize that Grange had benefited from the relationship in many ways. I think the public simply saw Grange as naïve.

HHR: Despite his unsavory ways, Pyle in many ways can be credited as being one of the innovators who helped shape both the game as we know it today, as well as the role agents have taken in modern sports. Can you elaborate?

GAP: Many people see Pyle as a conman and I go to great lengths to narrate his rather dubious dealings, but I also see Pyle as a creative force, and an overlooked figure in sports history. He was Grange’s Col. Parker (i.e. Elvis’ manager). It was Pyle's plan to make Grange into a pro, which was outlandish in the 1920s because pro football was a joke. Pyle also realized that marketing the pro game and creating stars resonated with the public. Pyle was an entertainer, an old vaudeville guy who had many connections in Hollywood. He understood the power of movies, sports imagery, and the press, and he had the smarts to create schemes for Grange, many of which vaulted Grange from great college football player to cultural icon. Without Pyle, Grange might have been remembered as a great college player, but nothing more. For better or worse, he paved the way for Drew Rosenhaus and his ilk.

Photo: Pro Football HoF
Grange signing pro contract with Bears co-owners Edward Sternaman and George Halas (left) and Grange's manager C.C. Pyle (right).

HHR: A handful of East Coast sports writers played a large role in legitimizing the pro game by bringing it to the masses. Luckily, in their eyes, Red lived up to expectations. Had Grange not performed the way he had in the Illinois-Penn game, how different a course would the sport have taken?

GAP: Let me give the HHR readers a little context. Back in 1925, Illinois went to Philly to play the University of Pennsylvania. Penn was considered a national championship contender (the national title nonsense was as big a clusterf*!k back in the '20s as it is today). Except for Red Grange, Illinois was not a very good team. Penn was expecting to rout the Illini. All of the big time New York writers came to Philly to watch the contest. They were half-expecting to see Grange fall on his face, but he single-handedly took over the game and ran for 363 yards and three touchdowns. They were astonished. He already had a national reputation but playing on the East Coast and dominating a great team made him into the equivalent of Babe Ruth, and in fact many of the writers were saying he was more popular than Ruth. The florid writing and the newsreels featuring Grange made him into a demi-god.

Then Grange decided to turn pro. This move was greeted with great skepticism by the press, but fans loved the idea. In the 1920s, many people worked on Saturdays and it wasn't always easy to get tickets to college games—the tickets were expensive, and many people were living in cities so getting to a place like South Bend, Indiana wasn't always so easy. Grange took the game to people and they gobbled it up. He went on a nation-wide barnstorming tour and he sold out games in Chicago, New York, Boston, D.C., Tampa, New Orleans, Los Angeles...everywhere. The football wasn't always so great because Grange and his teammates were playing several games a week but Grange's tour helped legitimize the game. The media was tracking Grange across the country, and after the tour he starred in a movie and endorsed many products, and then tried to break the NFL by starting his own league. He was quite powerful and popular. He became exceedingly rich through pro football in a time in which most players were making $200 a game. Pro football would have eventually become more popular, I am guessing, but Grange really jumpstarted the pro game and created legitimacy, not only with fans but players. He made it ok for a college player to join the pros. George Halas said what television is to the modern era, Grange was to the earlier era.

Just to give readers a little more context, the great sportswriter W.C. Heinz wrote a profile of Grange in 1958, and I think it personifies an older generation’s awe of The Galloping Ghost.

“When I was ten years old I paid ten cents to see Red Grange run with a football. That was the year when, one afternoon a week, after school was out for the day, they used to show us movies in the auditorium, and we would all troop up there clutching our dimes, nickels or pennies in our fists.

“The movies were, I suppose, carefully selected for their educational value…but I remember only the one about Grange.

“I remember, in fact, only one shot. Grange, the football cradled in one arm, started down the field toward us. As we sat there in the dim, flickering light of the movie projector, he grew larger and larger. I can still see the rows and rows of us, with our thin little necks and bony heads, all looking up at the screen and Grange, enormous now, rushing right at us, and I shall never forget it. That was thirty-three years ago.”

HHR: As a journalist, what is your impression of (and perhaps appreciation for) the poetic nature journalists in the 20's portrayed athletes in the absence of 24/7 televised coverage, and ultimately in helping modern historians to piece together facts? Is the notion that many of them protected athletes by glossing over unsavory facts hurt their credibility, especially as we witness the opposite extreme today? Were they preserving or forging facts/reality?

GAP: I actually wrote an essay about this same subject in the Columbia Journalism Review (January/February issue); the article-- Back to the Future: How sports writing can recapture its relevance-- delves into the history of sport writing, the impact of the Web and blogs, and how modern sports writing could be better.

But to directly answer your question: Some of the story leads went over-the-top but when you get into the guts of many of the game stories, there is an enormous amount of reporting and wonderfully rendered detail. Did they protect athletes? To some degree. But I wouldn't simply categorize it as glossing over unsavory facts; I don't think the sports writers were blindly protecting athletes. Remember, a lot of these sports writers had been in World War I, child mortality rates were higher, life was harsher...Sports were seen as games, as a relief from the struggles of life. There was a maturity and perspective on sports. We live in a different era, and sports and athletes are taken more seriously. Did 1920s writers gloss over too much? Perhaps, or maybe they had a more realistic view of human nature and a more mature perspective. As our society has become more educated and softer and athletes have become richer and treated as outsiders, we have taken a harsher, more adversarial, and cynical view of athletics.

But I don't think the writers ignored everything. Grange allegedly had a kid out of wedlock and the writers wrote about it; they talked about his pathetic vaudeville act when he was gong broke; when he was playing terribly and a member of his entourage started a riot in the stands, the press talked about it. I spent three years reading newspaper articles of the early era of sports writing. There is a stereotype that sports writers were protecting everyone and I just don't think that rings true. Some of the writers were pretty damn harsh. Like in any era, there is good writing and bad writing/good reporting and bad reporting, but in the earlier era there was a maturity level; a sense of human nature, its glories and foibles. Sports is an important subject and it deserves dogged reporting. But in modern journalism an athlete will be caught doing some nefarious act and the foaming-at-the-mouth tone demonstrated by the press often seems ridiculous, false, hypocritical, and rather immature to me.

By the way in the researching and writing of my book I didn't rely simply on newspaper accounts. I decided to take a modern approach to my subject and dig deeper than my 1920s compatriots. It was an exhaustive effort. To give events more perspective, I dug up courts records, police reports, oral histories, etc. from the 1920s. I didn't want to write a love letter to Grange and the era; I wanted to write a real story. For example, I spent a year finding Grange's "illegitimate" daughter. So I used newspaper accounts in my book, but I always tried to double-check the journalists of the day with primary sources, as well.

HHR: With the uncertainty of professional football in the 20's, Grange's dive into the pros was a calculated gamble to capitalize on both his popularity and physical ability. Had he and Pyle not taken the path they chose, between the barnstorming and the ramped up publicity machine, how long would it have taken the NFL's founding fathers, most of whom were football purists despite the knocks on the pro game, to realize the commercial appeal and marketability of the stars?

GAP: Pre-Grange, the NFL was doing ok: a few thousand people would come to the games. Grange joined the NFL and Pyle promoted him like crazy. People came in droves to watch Grange and he sold out stadiums all over the country. The next season the NFL owners were promoting individual stars. But I think they would have figured it out eventually.

HHR: Throughout the book, Grange is put on the same Mount Rushmore of sports with Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey and Bobby Jones. For the benefit of our young readers, is there any modern day athlete whose impact and ability can be most likened to Red?

GAP: In his glory days, he was the kind of guy people had to see. He brought drama to the game. He seemed to always perform in the clutch. He was a Tiger Woods- like figure.

HHR: Your website is brilliant and vibrant. Tell us a little about your podcast, some of your other projects and what's next for GAP.

GAP: Thanks. We worked hard on it, and I really hope people check it out, particularly the Experience section of the site. As for my podcast, it mostly has interviews with me on my book tour, but I am hoping to put more on it--interviews and essays--in the near future. I also have a blog. It is called In The Fray and I typically highlight great sports writing, post commentary, and write some other observations. For the last several months it has become a chronicle of my book tour, but I am phasing out the navel-gazing and getting back to its original mission. As for other projects, I am working on some articles, and I am also working on a new book proposal, which is another sports book but set in modern times.

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