Many or most Illinois fans have undoubtedly heard of the great Red Grange’s performance against Michigan in 1924, when he first became a household name. On the October afternoon that dedicated Illinois Memorial Stadium, the Galloping Ghost thoroughly destroyed an unbeaten Michigan team by scoring six touchdowns, doing so while sitting on the bench for the better part of the game. It was arguably the greatest performance in the history of college football.
But what many of these fans may not know is that just a year earlier, the Illini had played another “inaugural” game in this same stadium, with the once-mighty (don’t laugh) University of Chicago as their opponents. The Maroons haven’t played a big time varsity game since 1939, but in the first decades of the last century they were among the most powerful teams in the country, winning two national championships and seven Big Ten titles under the guidance of their Hall of Fame coach Amos Alonzo Stagg. At the time of their meeting, neither they nor the Illini had suffered a loss since 1922.
Thirty special trains brought fans from all over the Midwest to witness history being made, with local residents putting up the majority of out-of-towners who couldn’t find hotels. A drenching rainstorm forced many of the 61,319 spectators underneath the stands in search of oilcloths with which to make improvised raincoats. A contemporary account of the game described a crowd decked out in “dazzling yellow, some white, some brown, and some of colors beyond description”.
And when the game began, mud was the story. Although Grange broke off runs of 15, 23, 30 and 60 yards, and added a 42 yard interception return to his afternoon’s resume, the only score of the day was a humble 5-yard plunge through the middle of the Maroon line that gave the Illini all the points they needed.
Racing through rest of their schedule, by the end of the year the men from Urbana were crowned the unofficial national champions, a fitting crown to one of the greatest years in their gridiron history.
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