On September 7,1963, the National Football League enshrined its first Hall of Fame class. Among the seventeen original inductees, Jim Thorpe stands as both a paragon of competition and an example to learn from. Born in 1887 to parents of Native-American descent Thorpe grew up in the territory that would eventually become known as Oklahoma. He would go on to experience great success in several areas of athletics.
Jim Thorpe was the twin son of Hiram Thorpe and Charlotte Vieux. His twin brother, Charlie, died at the age of eight of pneumonia. His mother, a descendant of the Sac warrior, Chief Black Hawk, died two years later. In 1904, at the age of seventeen, he traveled to Carlisle, Pennsylvania and enlisted in the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. Later that year Hiram Thorpe also passed away.
Thorpe’s sports career started to take shape in Carlisle. The coach of the school’s football team was none other than Glenn ‘Pop’ Warner. Thorpe played running back, linebacker, place kicker, and punter for Warner’s squads. With Thorpe leading the way Carlisle defeated Harvard and an Army team led by eventual President Dwight Eisenhower. Thorpe made such a profound impression that Eisenhower would refer to Thorpe and his talents in a 1961 speech. Thorpe earned All-American honors in both 1911 and 1912.
Thorpe did not limit his exploits to the football field. As did many college athletes of that time, Thorpe earned money during the summer by playing minor league baseball. Unknown to Thorpe the other college athletes competed in these leagues under assumed names in order to maintain their amateur status. This naivete would lead to another of Thorpe’s misfortunes.
Thorpe would also take an interest in track and field. Again he proved his talents by qualifying for the United States Olympic team that competed in the Stockholm Summer Olympics of 1912. Thorpe won the Pentathlon (long jump, javelin throw, 200 meter dash, discus throw, and 1500 meter run) by a 400 point margin over the next closest competitor. Thorpe won the decathlon by 700 points. The gold medals he received would remain in his possession for only a brief time.
Despite a letter written by Thorpe admitting his transgression and the reasoning for that mistake, one year later the IOC declared that he violated his amateur status by playing minor league baseball. Thorpe was ordered to return his medals. Not until 1983(three decades after his death), through the efforts of his surviving children, did the IOC reinstate Thorpe’s amateur status and return his medals to his family.
Ironically the controversy aided Thorpe’s sports career. Recognizing Thorpe as a popular sports figure John McGraw and the New York (baseball) Giants signed him to contract. Thorpe experienced only modest success with baseball. Although he continued playing until 1919, Thorpe also signed a contract in 1915 to play with the Canton Bulldogs. The Bulldogs competed against the likes of Curly Lambeau’s Green Bay Packers in what would eventually become known as the American Professional Football Association. (The Rochester Jeffersons competed in this league).
In 1922 the APFA changed its name to the National Football League. Jim Thorpe served as the original commissioner, and he played for the Oorang Indians. The Chicago Staleys changed their moniker to the Bears, and football as we know it came into existence.
Thorpe would compete until the age of 41. In his later years Thorpe would participate in the barnstorming activities that many athletes of that time took part in. Players would form teams and travel throughout the country and the world earning their money from the take at the gate.
He retired into an all too familiar existence for the early twentieth century pioneers of American sports: a life lacking both financial stability and the thrill of sports. In 1953, with his third wife by his side Thorpe suffered a massive heart attack and died in the family mobile home. Ten years later he would be inducted into the hall of fame. Thirty years later his name would be exonerated, and his Olympic medals returned.
Thorpe leaves behind a legacy of competition. He participated professionally in the sports of baseball and football. He also participated in lacrosse and track and field. He thrived on the battle engaged between competitors.
Tonight I’ll cozy up next to the better half on our sofa sectional. The fire will crackle and hiss in the background. I’ll wash down pizza and wings with some libations. I’ll look on with interest and hope for great plays from Marvin Harrison and Bob Sanders, Brian Urlacher and Devin Hester (Prynne).
What would ol’ Jim think of today’s NFL? Would he approve of the spectacle that the Super Bowl has become? What would Jim think of million dollar athletes who hold out for more money? What would he think of the modern day player who needs a day off? How would he feel about ‘amateur’ athletes receiving money from boosters? What would Jim think of million dollar athletes involved in criminal activities? How would the original commissioner of the NFL view the sack dance? Or touchdown dances?
Rain’s in the forecast. So much for a climate-controlled Super Bowl. Ol’ Jim’s smiling his Chippewa grin: time for a li’l rough ‘n’ tumble on the gridiron.