Jim Thorpe: An American Legend

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.

7 Responses to "Jim Thorpe: An American Legend"

  1. Aaron   February 6, 2007 at 1:43 pm

    When you have conversations about the greatest athletes of all time, Jim Thorpe has to be one of the top names..

    But reading about how he died.. Is there another sport comparable to the NFL that just discards its stars of yesterday into oblivion and throws its heroes of the past onto a scrap pile? Recent names of guys like Mike Webster, Andre Waters and now Ted Johnson.. Guys who people cheered and worshipped during their playing days.. Suddenly now, they can’t function – can’t open their hands, their brains don’t function as a product of too many hits..

    Jim Thorpe ended up penniless and died in a trailer park. Mike Webster was in soo much pain that he too died on the streets by his own hand. Andre Water’s brain was that of a 90 year old when he shot himself.. Only problem he was 42-44 years old.

    For all of the money the NFL is making, the NFL needs to start investing money into helping players with life after football. Help pay for surgeries, help pay for programs that allow them integrate into a normal work environment, or help them with their finances or cope with no longer being in the spotlight.

    The NFL made millions with former players sacrfices. Built an empire on players sacrificing their bodies.. They shouldn’t now become famous for tossing them aside and moving on to the next “star”.

    Does any other sport forget its stars fast as the NFL?

  2. Pete   February 7, 2007 at 4:46 pm

    Devon Hester(Prynne)!; only an English teacher.
    As to Thorpe: Red Grange once
    said to Pudge Heffelfinger, “Sir, I don’t think you could break my stride.”
    I’ll let you research who Pudge is (start with Yale at the turn of the
    century.) At any rate, Thorpe could probably say the same thing to most modern day NFL defenders. He was a man apart. As I already told you, he entered a ballroom dancing contest and became a champion. Did you know that
    he once beat the entire Ohio State track team in a meet – just him, he was the only one competing for Carlisle that day.

  3. Fred333   December 18, 2007 at 9:07 pm

    Great write up on Jim Thorpe.

  4. Casey   December 18, 2007 at 11:48 pm

    Fred 333,

    Thank you for stopping by and the kind words.


  5. Michael Moran   January 3, 2008 at 9:16 pm

    As to the question of what Jim Thorpe would think of the spectacle of the NFL today, the Oorang Indians put on a pretty good spectacle in their day – real showmanship for Walter Lingo and the Oorang kennels with dances, dogs, and exhibitions. My dad played against Thorpe in the NFL but later played with him on a barnstorming basketball team called The World Famous Indians. They were like the Harlem Globetrotters. I bet they’d all like to get a cut of the cash that gets handed out now –

  6. Casey   January 3, 2008 at 9:20 pm


    Thank you for stopping by and adding to the Clipboard – it is an honor. Please come back and add to more of our discussions.


  7. Casey   January 3, 2008 at 9:24 pm


    When you get a chance, check out the link Michael has provided us with: http://pages.prodigy.net/revmoran/index.html

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