As I look back over the last half century, I can say I've been privileged to have a front seat at a lot of important political events, and I've been able to watch a number of our nation's leaders in action. But I've seen only one of what could be called a "greatest happening of the century" - or, for that matter, of the millennium - actually unfold fully before my eyes. And it was in sports, not politics. It turns out that some football experts now are ranking the game when Illinois' Red Grange "ran wild" against Michigan in October of 1924 as the greatest college football game ever played.
And so it was that a film unit of the National Football League tracked me down last month to hear my first-hand report of that contest. "But I was just a little kid," I protested to Chris Willis, the producer of a show that will feature the spectacular running back, Red Grange, who ran for four touchdowns in the first 12 minutes through a team thought to be one of the best in the country.
Willis had found on the Internet an article I wrote about that game for the University of Illinois alumni magazine. He wanted me to talk about it for his film, which will be aired later this year. I gathered that I was the only one he'd found who had actually seen that game and could give him an on-the-scene play-by-play account. I was all he had!
I had just turned 9. Illinois was dedicating its new stadium and it was packed with nearly 70,000 fans. My father, a loyal Illinois alum, had taken me to the game. We sat near the 50-yard line, halfway up the lower stands - where I had a clear view of an event that seemed unbelievable at the time. And still does.
Red Grange, 6 foot, 166 pounds, had already shown he was an elusive running back in several earlier games. But he hadn't yet convinced the nation's sports writers that he was the best open-field runner to hit the field. This game against mighty Michigan was to be the big test. The sports world was watching.
Michigan, winning the toss and choosing the south goal where a slight wind would be behind its back, kicked off deep to Illinois. Grange, catching the ball near the north goal posts, weaved his way through the Wolverine defenders for a touchdown.
Illinois quickly got the ball again after a Michigan fumble on Illinois' 30-yard line. On the second play Grange ran for a second touchdown. Then Illinois kept getting possession of the ball quickly and Grange kept running for touchdowns - four in less than l2 minutes. The first touchdown run was for 95 yards, the second for 70, the third for 56, and the fourth for 44 - and all this against a Michigan team that had not lost a game the previous year and had not been defeated in 20 consecutive games.
Some people remembered how noisy the Illinois fans were after those runs. My memory is of a stunned crowd not really being able to comprehend what was happening. I remember a strange hush in that big stadium.
Grange later ran for another touchdown and passed for another in Illinois' one-sided 39 to 14 victory. In fact, Coach Robert Zuppke took Grange out of much of the rest of the game.
As I saw it, Grange wasn't even touched as he made those runs. Later, the captain of that Michigan team, Todd Rockwell, wrote in a sports column of his that, miraculously, the elusive redhead had never been touched.
After the game the sports writers dubbed Grange "the Galloping Ghost." They had become believers.
Dad somehow got me into the Illinois dressing room after the game. It was bedlam in there.
I saw Grange across the room, surrounded by reporters. I couldn't get much beyond the door. But one of the players nearby saw me and asked if I'd like one of his rubber cleats that had just fallen off. I grabbed it.
When I went to school the following Monday I proudly showed the cleat to a number of my fourth-grade friends. But I somehow got carried away and told them that Grange had given it to me. And after a while I got to believing it myself.
Please forgive. I was just a little kid!
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society