Starting in the 1920’s and moving all the way to the 2010’s we will explore the games that made the NFL what it is today.
This is all very subjective of course, and you may well disagree. If you do, let us know in the comments below, or contact us at Ninety-Nine Yards.
This is regarded as the first game in NFL history. Although, the four thousand people paying $1.75 for admission would have no idea of its’ significance. It was however the starting point. The first game in APFA (later NFL) history.
A milestone moment no doubt. But not the milestone moment of the 1920’s. That came because of one of the superstar players of the time.
Bears 19 – Giants 7: December 6, 1925
Polo Grounds New York – attendance approximately 68,000 (figures vary from 65,000 to 74,000 depending on the source!)
The undefeated Akron Pros had won the title in 1920. Now the NFL was in its sixth year, but it needed a boost. It had its own stars, but it needed a legitimate superstar to really kick start it and show what was possible. Step forward Harold ‘Red’ Grange.
A true Superstar
“A streak of fire, a breath of flame, Eluding all who reach the clutch; A gray ghost thrown into the game that rival hands may never touch”. With his usual flair for the grandiose that is how Grantland Rice once famously described Grange.
The ‘Galloping Ghost’ had a memorable college career. His most famous game saw him score four touchdowns in the first 12 minutes against Michigan on runs of 95, 67, 56, and 44 yards. In that game he had 21 carries for 402 yards. Returning to the field in the second half, Grange scored a fifth touchdown and passed for a sixth as Illinois stunned the Wolverines, 39-14. A Michigan team no less that was unbeaten in three years.
Before he left college, he became perhaps the most famous All-American in the history of football. How famous was he? A century later his name still echoes down the annals of football history.
In a time when collegiate athletes were idolized and the pros looked down on, Grange going to the pros was huge news.
Within a week of his final game for Illinois, Grange signed with the Chicago Bears for a percentage of gate receipts. To take advantage of Grange’s popularity the Bears immediately took off on a barnstorming tour playing 10 games in 15 days.
On Thanksgiving Day, 1925, a mere 10 days after Grange’s last college game, 35,000+ fans were on hand at Cubs Park (Wrigley Field) to see Grange make his pro debut against the Chicago Cardinals.
The game that saved the Giants?
Plenty of NFL history books will tell you that this game saved the Giants as a franchise. It is thought original owner Tim Mara was close to folding operations. It seemed his ‘small time’, (they had far and away the best attendance in the league), pro operation could not survive against the college teams of the day for popular attention.
This game changed that. Nearly 70,000 people coming to a pro game had been unthinkable. Mara decided if it was possible to draw this kind of crowd, even this once, there was something worth keeping.
That may not even be the most important aspect of this match-up as a milestone game. Of more value was the fact that it proved to the wider world, not just Mara, that the pro game could be a big draw in a big city. We all know how successful big city teams in the big league can be now. But they didn’t in 1925. It was Red Grange and this milestone game that convinced them otherwise.
Think about how many of the early small town teams have come and gone and how the NFL has flourished in the big markets. All because Red Grange showed them the way.
The Milestone Game Itself
Unlike so many key moments in league history the action of the game itself is not what is best remembered here. That said, a large number of people turned out and they turned out to see Red Grange play. So what did they get for their money?
The thing with having a single player as your gate attractions is obvious. You have to play him. Chicago actually held Grange out for the first half. They had played 10 games in about three weeks and it was taking its toll. Imagine how restless the crowd may have been – paying to see Grange and him not appearing in the first half!
When he did play there were none of the flashy big runs that had made his name in college. He was pretty banged up at this point. That said, when he did play he made an impact.
Grange threw a key block on a Joey Sternaman touchdown (his second of the day). The moment that no doubt roused the fans came in the fourth quarter. With the score at 12-7 to the Bears, Grange stepped in front of a pass and ran it back 35 yards for the game sealing touchdown.
Sternaman a 5’6″ and 135 pound dynamo finished the day with 13 of the game’s 19 points on two touchdowns and a conversion. It would be overshadowed by Grange’s presence of course.
The Bears won 19-7 and Grange is said to have taken a $25-$30,000 share of the gate receipts.
In 1926 Red Grange was pulled out of the NFL by his agent CC Pyle. They formed the first AFL to rival the still nascent NFL.
The NFL had learnt a valuable lesson. A superstar equaled coverage and money. With Grange gone they found another college superstar in Ernie Nevers and launched another barnstorming tour.
In October 1927 Grange suffered a knee injury and never really returned to his earlier form. Grange took a year out in 1928 but returned to the Bears in 1929.
For much of Grange’s career no official stats were kept. 20 college games netted 3,362 yards and 31 touchdowns. We don’t know how that translated into a highly overworked pro career! What we do know is that his level of fame elevated the NFL – one of the first steps toward becoming the global behemoth it is today.
In 1932 he would have a key role in the next milestone game we will be looking at. A game that saw the Bears defeat the Spartans and launched the idea of tie-breakers and divisional play!
Banner image: Red Grange in Bears uniform Image from windycitygridiron.com