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Interview: Chris Willis, Author of “Red Grange: The Life and Legacy of the NFL’s First Superstar”

| October 10th, 2019

The Vaudeville posters of Red Grange.


Chris Willis is the head of the Research Library at NFL Films. He is the author of multiple books on early pro football, including The Man Who Built the National Football League: Joe F. Carr (2010), Dutch Clark: The Life of an NFL Legend and the Birth of the Detroit Lions (2012), A Nearly Perfect Season: The Inside Story of the 1984 San Francisco 49ers (2014), and Walter Lingo, Jim Thorpe, and the Oorang Indians: How a Dog Kennel Owner Created the NFL’s Most Famous Traveling Team, all published by Rowman & Littlefield. Willis was nominated for an Emmy in 2002 for his work on the HBO documentary The Game of Their Lives and won an Emmy in 2016 for his work on HBO’s Hard Knocks: Training Camp with the Houston Texans. He was awarded the Professional Football Researchers Association’s Ralph Hay award for Lifetime achievement in pro football research and historiography in 2012.


Folks, I rarely recommend books to you. So you know when I do it’s a damn good. This is a damn good book. You can order it HERE. And I recommend you do.


MY QUESTIONS, HIS ANSWERS

DBB: I don’t like to give too much of the book away in these interviews because we want people to go out and buy the damn thing. So first, a process question. This book is huge. It’s dense. So where do you start with a subject like Red Grange? And feel free to get super literal. Like, what did you actually do first, second…etc.?

CW: When writing a biography I usually start from the beginning with the individual. With Red Grange I started with his family tree and worked my way to him. The process usually starts with interviews, and since Red passed away in Jan. 1991 there were some individuals around who could talk about knowing Red and giving me their experiences with Red. Those interviews are sprinkled throughout the book. Second, it was off to visit the places where Red lived. So I visited his birthplace, Forksville, PA; his hometown where he grew up and went to high school, Wheaton, IL; then University of Illinois for college; and then the city of Chicago where he played the majority of his NFL and pro football career.

Retraces these stops were vital to telling the story of Red and getting to know him in a deeper form. Third, it was going through research material that included books, magazines, photos, game footage, old interviews with Red and the most important element, newspapers.

I spent hours and hours going through microfilm and on-line, trying to find any articles on Red and going through every game he played in high school, college and the pros. I know there have been a few previous volumes on Red but I wanted this To be the definitive bio on him so I covered his entire career and life, some parts (like his mother, post-NFL career in radio & TV, acting) had never been covered before. So that’s why it’s a very detailed biography.


DBB: My favorite passage in the book was Grange’s 12 minutes which you described as changing the course of college football history. Give the reader a sense of what that sequence was and why you think it had an historic impact?

CW: In chapter 9 I cover one of, if not his most historical moment of his football career, his performance against Michigan in 1924. As a junior at Illinois Red was given a great opportunity to show how good of a football player he was, and he didn’t disappoint. The match-up of Michigan-Illinois was set up the previous year when both teams went undefeated in 1923 and were co-champs of the Big Ten (Western Conference in 1923), but they did not play each other that season. So in 1924 the teams were set to face off in October with Michigan being the favorite to win. They had won 20 straight games and Illinois wasn’t as nationally known as the Wolverines. On October 18th Memorial Stadium was dedicated with a sold-out crowd present. With this backdrop Red had probably the greatest performance in college football history. In the first 12 minutes of action Red scored four touchdowns- scoring on the opening kickoff, 95-yards, and then on runs of 67, 56, and 45.

Grange’s performance went beyond just Illinois defeating Michigan that day, his great game was covered by every major newspaper (mass media at the time) across the country and his name was being talked about in the same breath as the other famous sports stars of the Roaring Twenties – like Bobby Jones, Jack Dempsey, Bill Tilden and the great Babe Ruth. Red’s great game against Michigan forever cemented his name in sports and American lore.


DBB: Grange had a complicated relationship with being a professional football player. (That first contract on page 141 is another favorite detail in the book.) In an interview Grange actually asks, “What’s the disgrace of being a pro?” Why do you think the notion of “professional football player” was difficult for people to grasp? Why was Grange such a perfect character to breakthrough that wall?

CW: When Red decided to turn pro in the fall of 1925, professional football did not have the greatest reputation. It had started in the small towns (mainly in the mid-west) and was played by sandlot players who sometime slugged their way through the game.

But by the middle 1920’s the sport and the teams of the NFL was mostly operated by former college football players- like George Halas, Jimmy Conzleman, Guy Chamberlin- who had gone to college and were trying to run the sport with class and respect. The sport had started to outgrow its roots of being played by so-called “drunks” and sandlot players who weren’t refined in their play on the field.

Red was initially drawn to playing pro football for two reasons, he could make good money and he love the game. He was 22-years old and wanted to keep playing. He always thought playing football was the same as playing baseball. What was the difference in the sports, nobody at the time complained about Babe Ruth and Lou Gerhig getting paid to play baseball, why was it bad for somebody to get paid to play football? He definitely didn’t think he’s career was done at the age of 22.

And what made the perfect man to turn pro and take on the negative attention in getting paid to play, was that he had no faults. He was charming and good-looking, he was smart and well-spoken, the public liked him and wanted to cheer him on.

So in the end Red was equipped to take on the negative criticism but withstand it because some of the paying public wanted to see Red perform. So they accepted him more than maybe somebody else, say like Jim Thorpe.


DBB: So I’m a theatre guy by trade and I had no fucking idea Red Grange did Vaudeville. First, is there any audio evidence of this? Second, what favorite stuff came out of this period for you as a researcher and writer?

CW: Sorry I haven’t found any audio or any footage of Red doing Vaudeville (that would be the holy grail).

One of the most enjoyable part of researching Red’s life was finding material about his career in Vaudeville. This was a part of his life that hadn’t been written about much and was a joy to discover some of unfound material.

Most of the best stuff was finding ads, stage reviews, descriptions of the stage shows, and songs done by Grange during this time. His most famous stage show was titled Come On, Red in which he toured the mid-west and east in 1928-1929. It was great to retrace this Tour to find out how he was as a stage actor. He always seemed to be a “fish out of water” on stage, but I give him a lot of respect for doing it, I know I couldn’t do it.


DBB: Big picture question. What’s the legacy of Grange when it comes to the entirety of the game of football? College, pro, whatever. Where does he live in the game’s story?

CW: Well, I think the lasting legacy of Red, since we are celebrating the NFL’s and the Chicago Bears 100th season, is that Red laid down the blueprint of the modern NFL player to follow in how to become a superstar athlete-celebrity.

When he decided to turn pro he:

  • Signed with an Agent
  • Highest Salary in Pro Football
  • Signed Endorsement Deals
  • Appeared in Hollywood Movies
  • Became an All-Pro Player
  • Won 2 NFL Championships

In 2019 this would be the resume of Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady. But Red did it nearly 100 years ago.  He then showed the NFL player the blueprint about his post-NFL career:

  • Coach
  • Radio & TV Announcer
  • Pro Football Hall of Fame
  • Fought for ex-players to get a pension
  • Ambassador of the Sport

His legacy was showing future NFL players what they can become, as one of the most successful and visible athletes in the world and I cover these themes all throughout the book, so you see how he accomplished it.


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