Red Grange, the "Galloping Ghost" whose speed on the field brought thousands of fans to professional football, collected an armful of awards during a visit to his hometown, but kept only a letter from a little girl.
"I think it read: `I love you, Red,' " recalled D. Ray Wilson, publisher of the Daily Journal in Grange's hometown of Wheaton."When he got ready to go, he gave me all the awards and told me to keep them for our archives, and the only thing he took with him was that letter," Wilson said of Grange's 1978 visit to his old hometown.
Grange, an electrifying collegiate athlete who helped popularize professional football, died in Florida Monday at the age of 87 following a long illness.
"He was a very humble guy; he never admitted he was a hero," said Wilson.
A large collection of uniforms, footballs, trophies, scrapbooks and photos are displayed at the DuPage Heritage Gallery in Wheaton.
Grange's accomplishments on the football field are legendary, but those who knew Grange remember him as a modest man who praised younger players, joked with his friends and worked hard to pay for his education.
"I'll just use one word - humble . . . the most humble person I've ever met," said former University of Illinois classmate Seely Johnston, who owns a Champaign sporting goods store.
"He'd make you feel at home, no matter who you were, and he never bragged."
Grange may be best known for his six-touchdown performance (five rushing and one passing) as Illinois defeated Michigan in 1924. A three-time All-American, Grange went on to play for George Halas with the Chicago Bears.
"Red Grange was a wonderful man who was very special to the Bears, the Halas family and the McCaskey family," said Edward W. McCaskey, Bears' chairman of the board.
"He always credited the other guys," Johnston recalled. "Even the second string players admired him; he'd tell them a tackle they made was the difference in the game."
Grange would put on his raccoon coat and ride around campus in Johnston's car. Students rushed over to meet the football star, but "he didn't ask for that - the social end of it," said Johnston.Grange was born in Forksville, Pa., but after his mother's death moved with his father to Wheaton, where he starred in four high school sports. When he got to Illinois, fraternity brothers urged him to go out for the football team.
He wore No. 77 from 1923 through 1925, and was an All-American for three seasons.
"He made the number 77 famous, but if people would ask how he got the number, he would say, `I was behind the guy with 76 and in front of the guy with 78,"' remembers Jack Brickhouse, a former Illinois and Bears announcer who worked behind the microphone with Grange.
There was no recruiting or athletic scholarship in those days; Grange worked summers delivering ice to pay for his education, earning the nickname "Iceman."
"He was the idol of all Illinois sports fans, from the day he ran wild against Michigan and throughout his career," said Charles E. Flynn, a former University of Illinois sports information director.
"He did a great deal for the university . . . through the inspiration he gave young people."
One was Howard Griffith, a high school running back from Chicago who also came to Illinois without a scholarship.
During the 1990 season - his last - Griffith broke Grange's 66-year-old touchdown records of six in a game, 13 in a season and 31 in his Illini career.
Griffith visited Grange just before playing in the 1991 Hall of Fame Bowl in Florida.
"He said he was thrilled to meet me and I was saying to myself: `This guy has done everything and I've just done a few things in college,"' said Griffith. "To meet him and be able to come back and share that experience with my teamates was tremendous."
Grange left Illinois and coach Bob Zuppke at the end of the 1925 season for a $100,000 deal with Halas and the Bears, who had been averaging 6,000 fans a game. A crowd of 36,000 saw Grange's first professional game, but his career decision upset Zuppke.
"Zup didn't talk to me for three years after I became a pro," Grange once recalled. "Practically all college coaches of that period hated the pros."
Grange later was an assistant coach for the Bears and did sports broadcasting.