Thursday, October 2, 2008

Interview with Gary Andrew Poole, Author of The Galloping Ghost: Red Grange, an American Football Legend

Red Grange was one of America's great sports heroes in the 1920s. His colorful agent, C.C. Pyle, was a forerunner of Don King in many ways. Together, they helped to build the foundation for the modern NFL by arranging for a barnstorming tour that brought Grange across the country to play football for the Chicago Bears in front of sellout crowds in the L.A. Coliseum, the Polo Grounds and other prominent venues. The NFL was a fledgling operation at that time and this tour demonstrated that there was potentially a large audience for the sport if it was presented and promoted in the right way.

Gary Andrew Poole has authored the definitive biography of Grange: The Galloping Ghost: Red Grange, an American Football Legend. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Poole about Grange's story.

Friedman: "What initially inspired you to write a biography of Red Grange?"

Poole: "That’s a good question. Basically, I was at a football game with my daughter. I was watching the game with 90,000 people around me and millions watching on TV and I just thought to myself, 'Where did this crazy football phenomenon begin?' I’ve been to plenty of games and all that but just this sort of childlike question hit me. So I looked into football history, searching for that one person you could draw the line back to, and that was Grange. I’d heard about Grange, of course, and I knew a little bit about him but when I got into it I realized that he was sort of an unexplored icon. There really had not been that much written about the guy and I just thought that he was such a compelling figure that I wanted to write about him."

Friedman: "What did you learn about Grange that most surprised you and that you think would most surprise readers of your book who maybe only have the casual familiarity with him that you had before you started doing all of that research?"

Poole: "If you look back in football history, people always mention that game against Michigan, when he had four touchdowns in the first 12 minutes. I always wondered why that game was really that big of a deal—it obviously was an outstanding performance, he scores the four touchdowns in the first 12 minutes and throws for a touchdown later and runs for another one and I even discovered that he picked off a couple passes but I didn’t understand the context of why it was so important and why Grange was so important to a generation of men and women. I mean, I had 90 year old people calling me and writing me letters who were still passionate about the guy. I guess what surprised me was just how little was known about him and how nobody had really put these great performances—and that was just one of many—into context."

Friedman: "How long did it take for you to research and write the book and what was the biggest challenge you encountered along the way?"

Poole: "It took me about three years. The biggest challenge really was that these games and the glory period of his life happened in the 1920s. I’m a journalist by trade and I’ve done a lot of historical research as well but it’s hard to dig up stuff on somebody who played in the 1920s. There aren’t a lot of film clips, there aren’t that many recordings and I didn’t want to do just a glorification of this guy, I wanted to tell a real story, so it took me quite a bit of effort to get that back story for the book, as opposed to just recounting game summaries."

Friedman: "In the book you mentioned Grange’s 'photographic eyes.' What role did Grange’s 'photographic eyes' play in the success that he had as a football player?"

Poole: "It was known to some as the 'Grange eye.' There are two parts to this answer. He always said that he was very good at focusing on the field of play and that he could tell where everybody was moving and what was going to happen. It was almost like he could look into the future, like he had this photographic 'blink, blink, blink, blink' where he knew what was going to happen before it happened. He could predict movements. The other part of that is that writers and his coach were always astounded by this thing called the 'Grange eye,' which was not just his ability to see what was happening but this ability to almost tell when someone was behind him. He had a tendency when he was running and was about ready to be tackled to make a quick movement, a lateral movement or a twisting movement to avoid tackles. This thing really astounded everybody around him and he had a hard time explaining it. I guess it was a just a sixth sense that he had that really set him apart from a lot of running backs in that day. He had world class speed and he had football speed as well, so he could move out of difficult situations."

Friedman: "When I read that phrase and when I hear you talking about it, that immediately brought some things to mind to me from my experience covering basketball. Larry Bird’s first coach, Bill Fitch, called him 'Kodak' because it was like Bird was taking pictures of everybody on the court. Also, this thing that you are talking about in terms of visualizing where everyone was and seeing things before they happen: Magic Johnson had a similar ability and LeBron James has talked about being able to see plays before they happen and not just being able to see where everybody is but also where everybody is going."

Poole: "In football, they always talk about—particularly with rookies—that everything looks so fast. That ability to slow things down, that kind of plays into it. In sports, I think that those little things separate people. I’m sure that there are people who can shoot as well as Larry Bird or dribble as well as Magic Johnson but that little thing where they can anticipate action—you saw that all the time with Bird’s passing and with Magic’s passing. The players playing with them were always in awe of how they could deliver the ball at that perfect time and that perfect place."

Friedman: "Would it be fair to describe C.C. Pyle as the Don King of his era?"

Poole: "Yeah, I think that’s a pretty good comparison. He called himself the P.T. Barnum of sports. Pyle was the first real sports agent. He got together with Grange and really helped to propel Grange from a star to a superstar when he set up this barnstorming tour. After Grange played his last football game in college, he joined the Chicago Bears and went on this grueling 19 game barnstorming tour that Pyle set up. I think that Pyle is sort of an underrated figure in sports history and football history because back when he joined forces with Grange the NFL was sort of a nothing league and the owners really were not good at promoting themselves and promoting the league. Pyle just had a silver tongue and a great ability to promote Grange and football itself."

Friedman: "The reason that I thought that the comparison was apt is that throughout the book you describe Pyle making these grandiose statements and these grandiose claims of what he was going to do and how he would convince people to go along with his way of doing things, which reminded me of the way Don King’s public persona is. Also, if you look at King’s career, he seemed to run a lot of his boxers into the ground because it seemed like he was primarily concerned with how he could make money for himself quickly, not necessarily what was in that fighter’s interest in terms of how much time to take off between fights or things of that nature. You could really see something similar in the way that you wrote about that grueling barnstorming tour during which they played so many games in such a short period of time. He basically just destroyed Grange physically instead of maybe having a long term idea of spreading this out a little bit, making it last longer and making more money instead of going for the quick, instant gain."

Poole: "I think that your analysis is right on. He did drive Grange to exhaustion. He basically treated him like a piece of meat. I don’t know a lot about Don King. I’ve never met him personally or covered him that much but that seems like a pretty good comparison."

Friedman: "Did it surprise you that Grange did not seem to have more resentment towards Pyle in terms of the work load and in terms of what happened with the money? They made so much money so quickly but it was almost like blood money—it was Grange exerting all of the blood, sweat and tears to make the money and in a short period of time that money was gone. Yet, the sense that I got from your book is that Grange always spoke highly of Pyle."

Poole: "Yeah, it did and it didn’t. I think that most people would be upset at Pyle, who did drive Grange into the ground and who invested in some wild schemes and really blew Grange’s money but Grange at the end of the day was a guy who took responsibility for his actions. He was a very humble guy and he just wasn’t a person who—at least publicly—would say anything bad about anybody."

Friedman: "It is very difficult to compare players from different eras. The rules are different and so many other things are different but what current or recent football player do you think is most similar to Grange either in terms of skill set of style of play?"

Poole: "That’s a good question and a very fun question. Could I give just a little context? Back when Grange was playing, they played both ways—offense and defense. The ball was much rounder, so it was very difficult to pass. There were no hash marks, so a team could pretty easily get pinned along the sideline, making the play calling pretty predictable. It was not unusual to kick on first or second down because it was much more of a defensive game. Lastly, it was not the specialty game that it is today and if players got hurt they typically stayed in the game because if you went out of the game you could not return until the next quarter. That said, Grange really changed the way that football was seen in a lot of ways. It was very rugby-like before he came on the scene and he had this incredible breakaway speed, sort of like Devin Hester. When he caught the ball on a kickoff, there was a great chance that he was going to score and the whole place was electrified when he touched the ball. He had that breakaway speed ability on punt returns and kickoff returns. He was a decent passer. He was also a tough guy. He could run through the middle like a LaDainian Tomlinson or someone like that. He was a strong straight-ahead runner as well. So those are two comparisons. He was pretty good on defense; it was not unusual for Grange to run for a couple hundred yards, throw for a hundred yards, pick off a couple passes and make quite a number of tackles. So he was a good all-around player and he wasn’t a bad kicker as well."

Friedman: "I put some thought into this while reading your book and the players I came up with were Tomlinson and then going back a little bit, Walter Payton—a versatile guy at 5-10, 5-11. None of the modern players are playing offense and defense except someone like Deion Sanders; that is just the difference in the game now. In terms of being a threat to run, pass and catch, Tomlinson is that way and Payton used to do that. In terms of the elusiveness and the ability to run back kicks, I thought of Gale Sayers, based on what I have read and seen about him. Also, the shortness of Sayers’ career is similar to Grange; Grange’s career lasted longer but his prime before he got worn down was short. Like Grange, Sayers also had a knee injury before they developed the modern ways of dealing with that."

Poole: "I think that those are very good comparisons. If you read about Grange and the way that he was described, people were much more straight ahead runners back then and his twists and turns really awed people. Running backs were not doing the type of crazy moves that Grange was doing, like a Payton or a Barry Sanders would later do."

Friedman: "Payton was not a really big guy for his era. Grange was not big for his era. Payton had that philosophy, the title of his book—Never Die Easy—and he was always trying to deliver that blow to would be tacklers. I noticed in your book that Grange was elusive but if it came to it, he would try to run a guy over. If he could not get around a guy he was not at all afraid of contact. That is also where I got the Payton comparison; Tomlinson also has the great stiff-arm. Tomlinson uses his elusiveness but if he cannot get around a guy he will run him over and Tomlinson is not a real big guy."

Poole: "I think that if you are going to compare some people those are good comparisons. Grange was not super big for his era. He was 5-11, 175 pounds. He was playing both ways. He was not lifting weights or drinking protein shakes."

Friedman: "Obviously, when you are compare from 70 or 80 years distant there really is no way to compare playing both ways or the difference in the substitution rules, that back then if you came out you had to stay out for the whole quarter; in some ways, you really can’t compare because the game is so different. What would you say is Grange’s most significant accomplishment?"

Poole: "If you’re going to pinpoint a game, I would say that it was when the University of Illinois went to play the University of Pennsylvania. If you look pre-1920s, the Midwest had some very good teams: Michigan, Illinois, the University of Chicago, Notre Dame, of course. But it was still seen as an East Coast, upper crust, Ivy League game in a lot of respects. So Grange went to play against the University of Pennsylvania in 1925 and this was seen as a gigantic matchup. Here was the University of Illinois playing the University of Pennsylvania which was, believe it or not, a powerhouse back then. Grange was on a team that wasn’t very good. They had a losing record and his line was really terrible and not blocking very well for him at all. All the great writers of the day were there—Grantland Rice, Damon Runyan of 'Guys and Dolls' fame, Westbrook Pegler, who eventually won a Pulitzer Prize. The eyes were on him. It was raining and snowing. The field was incredibly muddy and people were literally betting that he would not gain more than 10 yards but he ended up with 363 yards and three touchdowns. He had an amazing day and it really brought a lot of fame to him. The writers could barely contain themselves. It showed the media elite on the East Coast that the game had changed a bit. It also lent a lot of credibility to Grange when he turned pro a couple months later. It brought a lot of people to the stands. People were enamored with seeing him after hearing about this performance at the University of Pennsylvania. He then went on this 19 game tour that sold out everywhere—Wrigley, the Polo Grounds, Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. People were dying to see him, so I think that game really was even more significant than the Michigan-Illinois game which is often touted as one of the most significant games in college football history. I think that was his most profound moment. The guy always rose up to the biggest games, just like Tiger Woods or Michael Phelps or Tom Brady before his knee injury."

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