The National Football League is such a dominant force in American culture that it’s hard to imagine it ever suffering growing pains. After all, this is the same league whose games are a Sunday ritual for millions. But in the 1920s, professional football didn’t resonate with the public. It was the victim of poor organization and a bad reputation. In his terrific The First Star: Red Grange and the Barnstorming Tour that Launched the NFL, Sports Illustrated staffwriter Lars Anderson examines how three men put the NFL on the path to legitimacy.

During his time at the University of Illinois, nobody could match Grange’s incendiary talent. According to Anderson, he “made plays on the field when it mattered most, not when the game was a blowout.” Grange entranced George Halas, coach/co-owner of the Chicago Bears, who knew that Grange could save the struggling league. Halas worked tirelessly with Grange’s agent, C.C. Pyle, and secured pro football’s first superstar.

The deal made Pyle—a smooth talker and sharp promoter—and Grange barrels of money. Grange then had to earn it by playing with the Bears on a gruesome 19-game barnstorming tour consisting of 10 games in 18 days on the East Coast. After a Christmas break, the team played nine games in five weeks, starting in Florida and ending in Seattle.

Though it’s fascinating, Anderson doesn’t just recap the horrors of the tour; he also offers rich portraits of the men who saved a sport. Grange, the product of a less than affluent childhood, turned pro because he needed money. But he earned it, legitimizing the game and making its players fashionable, Anderson explains. Halas eventually became a football legend and multimillionaire, but in the early years his mother urged him to return to his old railroad job. And Pyle, simply put, is the character Mark Twain never created.

Brought to life by Anderson’s storytelling prowess and biographical flair, The First Star is a gripping account of the creation of an American institution.

Pete Croatto is a freelance writer based in New Jersey.

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