Thorpe, Jim (1888-1953)

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Thorpe, Jim (1888-1953)

Few would argue that Jim Thorpe is one of the most accomplished American athletes of the entire twentieth century. His time in the National Football League (NFL) and Football Hall of Fame enshrinement data attests to this fact. Here, it is noted that he was an "All-America halfback at Carlisle [and] 1912 Olympic decathlon champion … First big-name athlete to play pro football, signing with the pre-NFL Canton Bulldogs in 1915 … Named 'The Legend' on the all-time NFL team … Voted top American athlete of first half of 20th century. …" Additionally, Thorpe won Olympic gold in both the decathlon and pentathlon. That his medals were ingloriously stripped away because he had briefly played professional baseball is one of the less-than-honorable deeds of the International Olympic Committee.

James Francis Thorpe, a Sac and Fox Indian, was born in the Oklahoma Territory. His indian name was Wa-tho-biuck (or "Bright Path"), and he, his twin brother Charles, mother, and rancher father resided in a one-room cabin near the small town of Bellemont. Young Jim was a natural athlete who loved and excelled in all sports. His early life, however, was laden with disappointment and tragedy. When he was eight, his brother was stricken with fever and subsequently passed away. Five years later, his mother died of blood poisoning. In 1904, at age 16, he headed east to Pennsylvania's Carlisle Indian School. His small size—he was 5 feet 5 inches tall and weighed 115 pounds—prevented him from finding a spot on the Carlisle varsity football team. This frustration, coupled with the death of his father, resulted in declining grades, alienation, and eventual sequestering in the Carlisle guardhouse.

By his late teens, Thorpe had grown five inches, adding bulk and muscle. Pop Warner, Carlisle's legendary coach, first took note of his track-and-field skills, and eventually recruited him for the football team. He started out as a kicker, became the starting halfback during the 1908 season, and his athletic career began to blossom. During that season, his running, punting, place-kicking, and occasional passing guided Carlisle to a 10-2-1 record; Walter Camp, America's reigning football expert, cited him as a third-team All-American.

After playing professional baseball in the Carolina League, Thorpe returned to Carlisle and solidified his legend as an all-time-great college gridiron star. In 1911, he was involved in two out of every three of Carlisle's offensive plays. His 50 and 60 yard punts soared through the sky. In the year's penultimate contest, an 18-15 victory over Harvard, he carried the ball on 40 percent of all plays and kicked four field goals. Carlisle ended the campaign with an 11-1 record; the following season, Thorpe added to his luster by leading Carlisle to a 12-1 mark. In both years, Camp cited him as a first-team All-American.

Perhaps Thorpe's greatest triumph came in the 1912 Olympics, held in Stockholm. He was set to compete in two punishing events: the pentathlon, made up of five track-and-field competitions (javelin throw, discus throw, running broad jump, 200-meter dash, and 1,500-meter race); and the decathlon, consisting of 10 events (javelin throw, discus throw, long jump, high jump, pole vault, shot-put, 400-meter run, 1,500-meter run, 100-meter dash, and 100-meter hurdles). He won gold medals in each, and King Gustav of Sweden proclaimed that Thorpe was the "greatest athlete in the world."

Thorpe returned to the United States a bona fide hero. But the cheering was to be short-lived. A journalist soon discovered that Thorpe had played professional baseball. Therefore, he could not be classified an amateur athlete; only amateurs could compete in the Olympics. In a letter to the Amateur Athletic Union, Thorpe wrote, "I did not play for the money … but because I like to play ball. I was not wise to the ways of the world and I did not realize this was wrong and that it would make me a professional in track sports."

Back when Thorpe was in his athletic prime, it was a common practice for college athletes to pass their summers playing pro ball to pick up a few extra bucks. They played under assumed names—so no one was the wiser—and they could retain their amateur status. Had Thorpe done so, his indiscretion would have remained a secret. When confronted with the accusation that he had played ball for money, he was honest enough to admit the truth. Nevertheless, he was divested of his medals by the International Olympic Committee. This dishonor is particularly ironic considering that, today, professionals with million-dollar salaries are allowed to compete for Olympic gold. For the "crime" of playing pro baseball, Thorpe pulled down a salary of $25 to $30 a week.

Thorpe was to be the Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders of his day, as he went on to play major league baseball and pro football. His debut in the majors came in 1913, when he patrolled the outfield for the New York Giants. From then through 1919 he played in 289 games, mostly for the Giants, but with brief stints in Cincinnati and Boston. In 1915, Thorpe made his pro football debut with the Canton Bulldogs. Between 1915 and 1928, he played halfback for the Bulldogs (where he spent the bulk of his career), Cleveland Indians, Oorang Indians, Rock Island Independents, New York Giants, and Chicago Cardinals. In 1916, he was the Bulldogs' starting halfback and head coach, guiding his team to an undefeated season. In 1920, he became the first president of the American Professional Football Association, the precursor of the NFL. Thorpe also was an innovator; during his pro career, he conceived the style of tackling in which the tackler attempts to halt the runner with his shoulder, rather than arm.

Jim Thorpe was 40 when he retired from football. For the next two decades he held various menial jobs—often, ironically, working under an assumed name because of the humiliation. He toiled as a B-movie actor in Hollywood. He accepted public speaking engagements in which he would be garbed in Indian gear as he discussed athletics and the plight of the American Indian. During these hard times, he also became an alcoholic.

In January 1950, the Associated Press surveyed 391 sportswriters and broadcasters to determine the greatest athletes of the first half of the twentieth century. Thorpe was cited as the top football player, and bested Babe Ruth as the finest all-around athlete. A year later, his life story was told in the Hollywood movie Jim Thorpe—All American, with Burt Lancaster in the title role. Thorpe died in 1953, after suffering his third heart attack. The following year, his remains were placed in a mausoleum in Mauch Chunk, a Pennsylvania town of 5,000 located at the foot of the Pocono mountains, which was summarily renamed for Thorpe.

Since his death, his honors have multiplied. In 1955, the NFL's Most Valuable Player trophy was named for Thorpe; the trophy awarded to college football's top defensive player also was named for him. In 1958, he was admitted into the National Indian Hall of Fame, and in 1961, he was chosen for the Pennsylvania Hall of Fame. By 1963, he had become a charter inductee in the Football Hall of Fame—and, when arriving at the Hall, located in Canton, one is greeted by a statue of Thorpe. Most importantly, in 1982—29 years after his death—Juan Antonio Samaranch, the new president of the International Olympic Committee, reestablished Thorpe's amateur status. The following year, his children were presented with facsimiles of his Olympic medals.

—Rob Edelman

Further Reading:

Nardo, Don. Jim Thorpe (The Importance Of). San Diego, Lucent Books, 1994.

Newcombe, Jack. The Best of the Athletic Boys: The White Man's Impact on Jim Thorpe. Garden City, New York, Doubleday, 1975.

Schoor, Gene, with Henry Gilfond. The Jim Thorpe Story: America's Greatest Athlete. New York, Messner, 1951.

Wheeler, Robert W. Jim Thorpe: World's Greatest Athlete. Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 1985.

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Thorpe, Jim (1888-1953)

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