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New Book on “the NFL’s First Superstar” Highlights the Wheaton College Archives

October 7, 2019

Author Chris Willis is coming to Wheaton College to speak about Wheaton’s hometown hero Harold “Red” Grange on October 9 at 7 p.m. Willis used Wheaton College’s Special Collections as a major resource for his research in writing Grange’s biography.  

Red Grange and jersey 253x380Wheaton native Harold “Red” Grange is the focus of a new biography titled Red Grange: The Life and Legacy of the NFL’s First Superstar.

Nearly a century ago, Grange earned the nickname “the Galloping Ghost” for scoring four touchdowns for the University of Illinois in just 12 minutes in a football game against the University of Michigan. Grange, who grew up in Wheaton, went on to play for the Chicago Bears—and is credited with popularizing and legitimizing the then-fledgling NFL. At the time, the NFL was not well-regarded, but Grange’s spectacular performances on the gridiron helped sway the opinions of sports fans. 

Author Chris Willis, who heads up the research library for NFL Films, completed much of his research for the Red Grange biography in the Harold "Red" Grange Papers of Special Collections, Buswell Library at Wheaton College. The Collection is the greatest pool of source material on Grange and includes photographs, correspondence, and memorabilia. The news clippings alone number more than 2,000, and there are also 500-plus photographs that document Grange’s life, from his years as a Wheaton youth all the way through his retirement—though the bulk of them feature his collegiate and early professional years.  

According to Wheaton College Assistant Professor of Library Science Sarah Stanley, one of the most exciting objects in the collection is Grange’s jersey from the University of Illinois. 

“I’ve seen grown men tear up when they see it!” Stanley said.

“When I planned to do a book on Red Grange, one of my first stops to do research was at Wheaton College, who house the Red Grange Papers, located in the College’s Special Collections,” Willis said. “I spent a week there doing research and the staff went beyond the call of duty to get me the material I requested. I went through over 50 boxes of material and with the help of the staff I made over 1,200 scans of material—most of it was used in writing the book. With help from Katherine Graber and especially Keith Call, my time spent there, and the material I found in Special Collections, made the book so much better. It was a biographer’s dream.”

253x380 Red GrangeAlthough Grange didn’t attend Wheaton College, Grange did have connections at the College—taking a few summer classes, playing games of basketball in Adams Hall, and speaking in at least one chapel service in 1978.

Willis is coming to Wheaton College on Wednesday, October 9 for a reception, meet-and-greet, and book signing, starting at 6 p.m. He will deliver a lecture on Grange starting at 7 p.m. The event, which is free and open to the public, will be held in the Phelps Room of the Todd M. Beamer Center, located at 421 N. Chase St. on the campus of Wheaton College. 

“In this book, Chris Willis tells the story of the rise of this game of football through one of the pioneers of the game,” said Wheaton College Associate Professor of Communication Dr. Emily Langan, who teaches a class titled "Sport and Communication" at the College. “Red Grange is an early celebrity in a sport that has continued to be popular one hundred years later.”—Emily Bratcher