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A Day In Wrigley Field History: November 26, 1925

This was the day that began to put professional football on the sports map in the United States.

Library of Congress

Life was very different for pro football in the early 1920s. College football was king of the sport; the NFL was in its very beginning stages, much like the National League of baseball in the 1870s or 1880s.

There was no NFL draft -- that didn't start until 1936. And thus it was that Harold "Red" Grange, who had starred for the University of Illinois, was signed by the Bears to a contract less than a week after his college eligibility expired.

Imagine the feeding frenzy among NFL teams if you could do that today.

Anyway, Grange didn't play in the first Bears game after his signing, a 21-0 loss to the Packers on November 22. But four days later, on Thanksgiving, Grange suited up at what was still known as Cubs Park, and 36,000 -- the largest crowd to see a pro football game up to that time -- jammed into the ballpark at Clark & Addison to see the new sensation.

You can read a summary of what happened -- the game against the Chicago Cardinals wound up in a 0-0 tie -- at either of those links above, both written in recent years. But I thought I'd give you a bit of the flavor of the time from the Tribune recap, written by Irving Vaughn:

Red Grange the Bear is much the same as Red, the roving Illini.

He swung his star into the salaried firmament for the first time yesterday at the Cub park and it blinked, not sensationally but steadily, in a hard driving but thrilling game that terminated with the Bears and Cardinals in possession of a 0 to 0 score, and with a packed house of 36,000 convinced that dollars as well as college loyalty will make gridmen fight.

On the first punt that fell to him the red head zigzagged back toward the hostile goal for about 30 yards. Two others came his way in the final quarter and he brought a roar from the crowd each time, once by diving through for a 16 yard return and next for 20 yards.

From scrimmage the lad who hopes to climb into a fortune by the use of cleats made thirteen assaults at the Cardinal tackles or ends. In eleven of those he showed he was Grange. In two of them he showed that even supermen can be stopped.

Grange's total yardage from scrimmage was 36, his best being seven yards when he went through his right tackle in the first play after the initial kickoff. He added 56 yards in the running back of punts. He also threw six passes, none of which was completed, caught the only Bear pass that was successful, and once intercepted a Cardinal pass to break up the only touchdown threat made by the south siders.

Offense, defense, quarterback, return man (sounds like the reaction was almost like the early days of Devin Hester) -- that was fairly common in the early days of football. Even though Grange couldn't lead the Bears to victory that day, what he did lead them on was a barnstorming tour -- remember, the league was in its infancy and didn't have set schedules -- that totalled 19 games in 67 days:

While some games drew fewer than five figures, others attracted amazing crowds, such as the more than 65,000 that attended in New York and Los Angeles. Grange played in 17 games (injury kept him out of the other two), and when the tour ended on Jan. 31, 1926, he went home to Wheaton weary but wealthy, driving a new $5,500 Lincoln and wearing a $500 raccoon coat.

Grange later tried to buy part of the Bears, but George Halas rejected his offer. The ESPN link above says Grange and a partner formed a rival league, but that failed in a year, and Grange was back in the NFL, returning eventually to the Bears in 1929 for six seasons, the last two of which resulted in championships. After retirement, Grange went into the insurance business, where he did quite well, and later broadcast football games. He died in 1991, and his impact on professional football in the USA and the NFL in particular cannot be underestimated.