Ken Bowen, the author of Big League City: 100 Years of Football in Jacksonville, shares the story of Jacksonville's first professional football game.
Harold Edward "Red" Grange (nicknamed "The Galloping Ghost") in 1925. (Wikipedia)
On an usually warm January morning in 1926 Prohibition-era Jacksonville, a Seaboard Airline train pulled into the city's monolithic main terminal. Peering out the window of a lavishly furnished Pullman sleeper car was the most beloved athlete in the National Football League's short history, Red Grange. The "Galloping Ghost" was barely a month removed from his historic debut with the Chicago Bears, a game that saw 36,000 Chicagoans pack Cubs Park (now Wrigley Field) to standing-room only capacity on a snowy Thanksgiving day.
That must have seemed a lifetime ago to the Ghost.
Since late November, Grange and the Bears had played ten games in just 18 days to conclude the regular season. And now, with less than two weeks to recover, the team was two games into the southern leg of a sixteen-game exhibition barnstorming tour that would eventually take them across 7,000 miles of America.
A streetcar headed from the Jacksonville Terminal towards downtown and Fairfield.
Looking drawn and haggard and nursing an injured left arm, Grange placed his bowler hat atop his head and stepped off the train beneath the 80-foot barrel-vaulted ceiling of the Jacksonville Terminal. To onlookers, the station's four-story Doric columns likely looked a bit smaller that day as
30 members of the Chicago Bears organization exited the terminal and marched out into the sunlight in matching sweaters, slacks, and socks.
The Bears boarded one of the city’s long-forgotten street cars and headed south toward Fairfield Stadium - a structure which would evolve over 90 years to become what is now Everbank Field.
Fairfield Stadium eventually became the Gator Bowl, which is now EverBank Field. (State Archives of Florida)
Flanking Grange, as usual, was controversial Illinois theater owner and promoter Charles Pyle. Pyle – derisively referred to as "Cash and Carry Pyle" because of his huckster tendencies – was pro football's first sports agent. Just months prior, Pyle had cornered Grange at an Illinois movie theater and persuaded him to cut short an unprecedented collegiate career (ESPN named it the greatest of all time in 2008) to join the then-turbulent NFL.
A standout at the University of Illinois, Grange found himself catapulted to national stardom in October 1924 after scoring four touchdowns in 12 minutes against Michigan, totaling a staggering 262 yards. Legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice immortalized Grange's feat in verse:
“A streak of fire, a breath of flame
Eluding all who reach and clutch;
A gray ghost thrown into the game
That rival hands may never touch;
A rubber bounding, blasting soul
Whose destination is the goal.”
Pyle saw tremendous box-office potential in Grange, and convinced him that he could make enough money in three years to pay back his father for his college education, provide permanent financial security for his family, and escape the suffocating public spotlight that was making him increasingly anxious and uncomfortable (Grange had already received in excess of 200,000 letters from female admirers).
Pyle with Suzanne Lenglen in 1926. (Wikipedia)
Ken Bowen is a Data Scientist and digital marketer living in Jacksonville, and the author of Big League City: 100 Years of Football in Jacksonville. You can contact Ken at KenBowen242@gmail.com.