Interview: Chris Willis, Author of “Red Grange: The Life and Legacy of the NFL’s First Superstar”

| October 10th, 2019

The Vaudeville posters of Red Grange.

Chris Willis is the head of the Research Library at NFL Films. He is the author of multiple books on early pro football, including The Man Who Built the National Football League: Joe F. Carr (2010), Dutch Clark: The Life of an NFL Legend and the Birth of the Detroit Lions (2012), A Nearly Perfect Season: The Inside Story of the 1984 San Francisco 49ers (2014), and Walter Lingo, Jim Thorpe, and the Oorang Indians: How a Dog Kennel Owner Created the NFL’s Most Famous Traveling Team, all published by Rowman & Littlefield. Willis was nominated for an Emmy in 2002 for his work on the HBO documentary The Game of Their Lives and won an Emmy in 2016 for his work on HBO’s Hard Knocks: Training Camp with the Houston Texans. He was awarded the Professional Football Researchers Association’s Ralph Hay award for Lifetime achievement in pro football research and historiography in 2012.

Folks, I rarely recommend books to you. So you know when I do it’s a damn good. This is a damn good book. You can order it HERE. And I recommend you do.


DBB: I don’t like to give too much of the book away in these interviews because we want people to go out and buy the damn thing. So first, a process question. This book is huge. It’s dense. So where do you start with a subject like Red Grange? And feel free to get super literal. Like, what did you actually do first, second…etc.?

CW: When writing a biography I usually start from the beginning with the individual. With Red Grange I started with his family tree and worked my way to him. The process usually starts with interviews, and since Red passed away in Jan. 1991 there were some individuals around who could talk about knowing Red and giving me their experiences with Red. Those interviews are sprinkled throughout the book. Second, it was off to visit the places where Red lived. So I visited his birthplace, Forksville, PA; his hometown where he grew up and went to high school, Wheaton, IL; then University of Illinois for college; and then the city of Chicago where he played the majority of his NFL and pro football career.

Retraces these stops were vital to telling the story of Red and getting to know him in a deeper form. Third, it was going through research material that included books, magazines, photos, game footage, old interviews with Red and the most important element, newspapers.

I spent hours and hours going through microfilm and on-line, trying to find any articles on Red and going through every game he played in high school, college and the pros. I know there have been a few previous volumes on Red but I wanted this To be the definitive bio on him so I covered his entire career and life, some parts (like his mother, post-NFL career in radio & TV, acting) had never been covered before. So that’s why it’s a very detailed biography.

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