CHICAGO - He was the most famous college athlete in the country, a superstar when college football was second only to baseball in the hearts of American sports fans. When Red Grange starred for the University of Illinois, the NFL was considered an afterthought, a minor league filled with teams not even at the caliber of the best college teams.
That changed when Grange signed with the Chicago Bears. Just weeks after his college career ended, and with a fresh, new $100,000 contract - back when many players made $100 a game - Grange made his professional debut for the Bears on November 26, 1925. He only gained 36 yards in a 0-0 tie against the crosstown Cardinals, but that didn't matter. The full crowds and unmatched anticipation for the game made Grange's huge contract more than worth it.
The Galloping Ghost filled NFL stadiums wherever he went throughout the 1925 season. In his second game, more than 65,000 people showed up to the Polo Grounds to watch the Bears play the Giants. Grange scored a touchdown on an interception return and had 108 total yards in Chicago's 19-7 victory. The high attendance was credited with saving the Giants franchise, even if most of the crowd was there to see a member of the opposing team.
Grange's stats don't stand out when examined today, but his influence on the NFL was unquestioned. In his nine-year career, he filled stadiums everywhere he went. More than any other single player, Grange helped establish the league's popularity, helping an upstart league jump into the forefront in American sports.