The NFL did not keep individual statistics until 1932, so we don’t have a singular statistic to show the impact Red Grange had on the team when he came aboard for Thanksgiving 1925. But let’s try this: attendance.
The Bears played in front of fewer than 10,000 fans for most of the season before Grange’s arrival, topping out at 13,000 against the cross-town Cardinals on Oct. 25. In their final pre-Grange game, a 21-0 win over the Packers on Nov. 22 at Cubs Park, they drew 6,898 fans.
Four days later, still at Cubs Park and again playing the Cardinals, but now with Grange: 39,000.
Three days later, against the Tigers at Cubs Park: 28,000.
Dec. 5, in Philadelphia: 36,000.
The next day, at the Polo Grounds against the Giants, the largest crowd in the history of pro football: 65,000 at kickoff, and upwards of 74,000 depending on the source. They drew more gate-crashers, 8,000, than most of the other pre-Grange games had in paid attendance.
On this basis alone, you could make the case that Red Grange is a top-10 Bear of all-time.
You can see the packed house for Red Grange's final collegiate game (left). Here he is second from the left watching the Bears beat the Packers the very next day. pic.twitter.com/TmhRO2J4YW— Jack M Silverstein (@readjack) September 13, 2018
If he’d never played another game for the Bears after 1925, and the WCG Top 100 had him at #10, you might take us to task, but you’d have to admit, we would have a case.
But Grange did play for the Bears again.
And that is where his story gets interesting.
After failing to sustain his own league, folding his New York Yankees into the NFL in 1927 and missing the 1928 season with a knee injury, Grange returned to the Bears in 1929 and played six legendary seasons in Chicago.
As a back — a star half back and defensive back — Grange made two All Pro teams in 1930 and 1931 and helped lead the Bears to championships in 1932 and 1933. His play in all three phases was stellar. He was no longer an athletic freak, but he remained a unique talent, and in ‘32 and ‘33 he made two of the most clutch plays in Bears history.
In the 1932 championship game, the first in league history, he caught a fourth-quarter touchdown from Bronko Nagurski to break a scoreless game and give the Bears a trophy.
But his best came in the ‘33 title, on the last play of the game, with time gone and the Bears up two.
The Giants completed a pass to Dale Burnett, who had a basketball-esque two-on-one, with teammate Mel Hein trailing him and Grange the only man between Burnett and the endzone. Sensing that Burnett would lateral to Hein, Grange tackled Burnett high, pinning the ball to his chest, taking him down and giving the Bears championship #3.
In 1949, when George Halas retired the first three numbers in team history, Halas’s famed #77 was among them. In 1963, when the NFL launched the Pro Football Hall of Fame with an inaugural class of 17 men, Grange was included.
His run from 1929 to 1934 doesn’t get nearly the attention or appreciation of his collegiate career or 1925 pro breakout, but it’s possible that Grange would not have been in the Pro Football Hall of Fame without it.
Instead, he was in the inaugural class, an appropriate distinction for a man who achieved success all over the field in all three phases. Consider his placement on all-time pro teams over the years.
- In 1941, George Halas selected his all-time Bears 11. Grange: left halfback
- In 1969, the NFL announced its 1920s All-Decade team. Grange: halfback
- In 1985, the Tribune’s Don Pierson selected his all-time Bears. Grange: kick returner
- In 1986, a panel of Tribune writers and another of readers selected an all-time Bears team. Grange: kick returner on both
- In 1994, for the team’s 75th season, the Tribune’s Don Pierson and Fred Mitchell selected an all-time Bears team. Grange: cornerback (opposite Bennie McRae)
- In 2005, Fred Mitchell again selected an all-time Bears team. Grange: cornerback (again opposite McRae)
This summer, when Don Pierson and Dan Pompei delivered their all-time Bears team in celebration of the franchise’s 100th season, Grange was left off. The running backs were Payton and Nagurski, the corners were Peanut and George McAfee, the returners were Sayers (KR) and Hester (PR).
It took a century to unseat Red Grange.
Jack M Silverstein is Windy City Gridiron’s Bears historian, and author of “How The GOAT Was Built: 6 Life Lessons From the 1996 Chicago Bulls.” He is the proprietor of Chicago sports history Instagram “A Shot on Ehlo.” Say hey at @readjack.