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The Ghost that gave the NFL life

Today’s column from The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.) …

The Ghost that gave the NFL life

The WISCH LIST

Jan. 15, 2011

There are shapes now moving,
Two Ghosts that drift and glide,
And which of them to tackle
Each rival must decide.
They shift with spectral swiftness
Across the swarded range,
And one of them’s a shadow,
And one of them is Grange

– Grantland Rice

This weekend, millions of Americans – perhaps including your red-blooded self – will glue themselves to a TV set (or a wall of them at a sports bar) and watch the divisional round of the NFL playoffs unfold.

But, while you’re catching the Bears or the Packers, take a quick timeout and think for a moment about how if it not for the exploits of a University of Illinois legend more than eight decades ago, there might not be an NFL at all today.

Red Grange rescued professional football.

And Charlie Finn would like everyone to know it.

“I’m now starting my 9th year working on the Grange film project,” the 77-year-old Champaign resident said with a chuckle this week. “And I tell my wife, I hope the movie can be made before I croak.”

On Oct. 18, 1924, Harold “Red” Grange galloped into history – and the American consciousness – when the Illinois halfback touched the ball six times in the first quarter against Michigan during the dedication game at Memorial Stadium and scored four touchdowns on 262 yards rushing.

The performance, unlike anything seen before or since, earned Grange his nickname, “The Galloping Ghost,” and instantly made him America’s biggest sports star. But, while many people know the tale of Grange’s greatest game, few know his full story, which was made for Hollywood.

And for the better part of a decade, Finn – a 1955 U. of I. grad and former Illini football manager – has been pitching his idea of turning the Ghost’s life turned into a top-quality sports movie along the lines of the 1981 classic film, “Chariots of Fire.” But, it wasn’t until recently that those pitches began finding the strike zone.

Last year, on the advice of his new attorney in Hollywood, Finn put together a demo DVD movie trailer that runs about seven minutes and evokes several goosebump moments in summarizing the Grange story. For the making of the trailer (which isn’t available for public distribution), Finn enlisted the assistance of the University of Illinois.

“But the breakthrough was adding the Chicago Bears’ participation to the production,” explained Finn, who through former Illinois coach Ron Turner was able to get Bears board member Pat McCaskey to appear on camera noting the history of Grange playing for George “Papa Bear” Halas.

During the early 1920s, college football was king in America, while pro ball was on the brink of bankruptcy drawing only 10,000 fans a game. That changed in ’25, however, when Grange and his colorfully controversial agent, C.C. “Cash and Carry” Pyle, signed with the Bears. The team embarked on a nationwide barnstorming tour that drew crowds of 70,000 and legitimized the NFL.

“I think he saved the league,” McCaskey says on the trailer. “Grange elevated the game to a whole new level … If it wasn’t for him, NFL teams might still be playing with leather helmets and have 16 players on a team.”

Like all great Hollywood tales, Grange suffered a downfall (he and Pyle got greedy and left the Bears to start the first American Football League, which failed after just one season, during which Grange was injured) but then found redemption (Halas invited Grange back to the Bears in 1929 and he led them to NFL championships in ’32 and ’33).
There’s plenty more to the story, too. But to learn it all, you’ll have to wait for the movie – if it happens.

“We currently have five production companies interested, including the one that made ‘The Blind Side,’ ” Finn said. “Grange’s is a story that would make a great movie, and I hope we do it.”

He’s not the only one.

The Ghost incarnate
The Ghost incarnate