In the earliest part of the 20th century, when golf, horse racing, boxing and baseball ruled the sporting universe, Jim Thorpe (1887-1953) emerged as maybe the greatest athlete the world had ever known. Some might argue, more than a century later, that he still is.
What places Thorpe in that conversation, still — and, yes, he should be there — is something more than his incredible skills. It’s more than the fact that he excelled in many sports, both on the amateur and professional levels. It’s more than that he had a huge hand in getting America’s favorite sport, professional football, off the ground and running.
Thorpe, a Native American who wasn’t even considered an American citizen when he stunned the world at the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, Sweden, should be listed among the greatest athletes ever (if not the greatest) for everything he went through simply to compete. And for what that meant to millions around the world.
“He glamorized the Olympics and glamorized sports by being this phenomenon that came from out of nowhere and astonished the world,” says Kate Buford, the author of “Native American Son: The Life and Sporting Legend of Jim Thorpe,” a 2010 biography. “He became this gold standard of the perfect athlete who could do anything. Anything. We won’t see his likes again.”
A Rough Road to Greatness
To appreciate how Jim Thorpe became the greatest, you have to understand where he started. Born to parents of European and Native American heritage, Thorpe was raised in Indian Territory — what is now Oklahoma — as a member of the Sac and Fox tribe. It was a hard upbringing during which he was sent away to school (and ran away from school) several times. His twin brother died when he was 9. His mother died in childbirth a couple years later.
After leaving school altogether to work on a horse farm, Thorpe’s no-nonsense father finally sent his son away to the Carlisle Indian School, a government-sponsored boarding school in Pennsylvania. The Native Americans who lived there were stripped of the vestiges of their old lives — their hair cut, clothed in Western garb, forbidden to speak their native languages — in an attempt to assimilate them into white culture.
Separated from his family, hundreds of miles from home, and forced to learn a different culture, Thorpe thrived. The reason was simple: athletics. Specifically, the fledgling sport of American football.
Thorpe had played football in one of his previous schools, but under Carlisle’s legendary coach, Glenn “Pop” Warner, he became a sensation. Though initially considered too small to play, Thorpe grew into a big, punishing runner and kicker. Warner would later say of Thorpe:
No college player I ever saw had the natural aptitude for football possessed by Jim Thorpe. I never knew a football player who could penetrate a line as Thorpe could, nor did I ever know of a player who could see holes through which to break as could the big Indian. As for speed, none ever carried a pigskin down the field with the dazzling speed of Thorpe.
Carlisle became a national powerhouse, and Thorpe a two-time All-American. In November of 1912, Thorpe led Carlisle in a game against Army and a young cadet named Dwight D. Eisenhower. The importance of the game — one in which a school of Indians faced off against a team filled with the sons and grandsons of the soldiers who killed thousands of Indians and forced them from their homelands — was not lost on anyone there. Carlisle won, 27-6.
By that time, Thorpe already had become a worldwide hero at the Stockholm Olympics — representing the United States though Native Americans did not have citizenship — after winning both the decathlon and the pentathlon by unprecedented margins. His performance prompted Sweden’s King Gustav V to tell him, “Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world.”
But Thorpe’s performance at the Olympics unveiled more: With his dominance, Thorpe showed that athletics were no longer the sole purview of rich, white Europeans.
“In an era when White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, WASPs, governed everything — they governed the Olympic committee, they governed the Ivy League colleges, they called the shots, they were seen as the elite — anybody who was not a WASP in general, whether you were Indian, Jewish, Italian, Irish, Catholic, Asian, you were not seen as part of the power structure,” Buford says. “Part of the reason that people embraced Thorpe so much is that they loved guys who could come out and beat the big boys at their own game.”
Making the Argument
Thorpe’s Olympic medals would be stripped less than a year after he won them when it came to light that he had played baseball in the summers for piddling pay, against the Olympic rules of amateurism. The decision was considered an outrage by many, even then. It finally was overturned in 1983, 50 years after his death.
He was named the first president of the American Pro Football Association in 1920 (the forerunner to today’s National Football League), played 12 years as a pro, was named to the all-decade team of the 1920s and was in the inaugural class of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He also played professional baseball and, though he wasn’t considered quite as good at that sport, he steadily improved over a six-year career, mostly with the New York Giants. He even had a short career on a barnstorming professional basketball team.
The acclaim did not translate into much success in his post-athletic career. After his playing days, he kicked around in several jobs, including a lot of mostly uncredited parts as an Indian in Hollywood westerns. Still, his athletic achievements, despite all the challenges he faced throughout his life, live on. In 1950, the Associated Press polled hundreds of sportswriters across America, who named him the greatest athlete of the first half of the 20th century.
“He was such an amazing athlete … he was so good, [people] were in awe of him. His athletic power trumped whatever lingering prejudice there may have been about him being an Indian,” Buford says. “He proved what he could do on the field. And nobody could argue that.”