Jim Thorpe: The First Great American Athlete

December 1, 2015

Every so often you will hear Jim Thorpe’s name in a sports discussion, but it is very rare. He is much heralded, but little is known about or who he even is to the younger generation of sports fans. In my younger days he was the type of guy I would write a book report about. Do kids still write book reports?  Why do I need to bring up an athlete 90 to 100 years ago?  Because I often hear discussions about whom the best player of this is and that sport. Jim Thorpe was a natural gifted athlete that excelled at multiple sports. There have been athletes that have excelled at a couple of different sports, but Jim Thorpe was the first to successfully crossover and compete against the best of his generation.

He was born in the late 1880’s in Pottawatomie County in Oklahoma Indian Territory to mixed raced parents. His father, Hiram Thorpe, had an Irish father and Sac and Fox Indian mother.  His mother, Charlotte Viex had a French father and a Potawatomi mother. He had a rough childhood with his mother and brother dying of illnesses. This left him depressed and was the reason he ran off from home numerous times. In 1904, he returned to his father to attend Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. He was sixteen and his athletic abilities were noticed by the legendary Glenn Scobey “Pop” Warner, one the most influential coaches of early American football.

The legend began at Carlisle when he walked up to the track field in his street clothes and high jumped 5 foot 9 inches to beat all of the other jumpers. Also, at Carlisle, he went on to compete in football, baseball, lacrosse and ballroom dancing. Oddly he won the 1912 intercollegiate ballroom dancing championships.

Pop Warner was reluctant for Jim to play football because he was such as good track runner but finally relented when he saw him show up for football practice day and ran a few plays. The team was unable to tackle him on every play. The legend continued on in 1911, when he gained nationwide attention for the first time. In a game against the powerful Harvard, he played running back, placekicker and punter, scored all of his team’s points, four field goals and touchdown for an 18-15 victory. Jim’s was such a force to be reckoned with and went on to become a collegiate All-American for the 1911 and 1912 seasons.

Football was Thorpe’s favorite sport and would also compete in track and field which brought him his most fame. He was so good at track and field that he was able compete in both the running and the field events. This would eventually lead him to the 1912 Olympics trails then on to Olympic Games in Sweden. He competed in both in the Pentathlon and the Decathlon and won eight of the individual events and both gold medals. He came home to the US to a tickertape parade on Broadway in New York.

Thorpe’s story didn’t sidestep controversy and shame, for he was stripped of his medals for being declared a professional athlete for making a meager sum playing professional baseball for one summer. This was a shameful act by the Olympic commission to do this because they didn’t even follow their own protocol for protesting athletes and amateur status. Protests and disqualification must be done within thirty days of the closing of the games, this was done six months later. On the contrary, Thorpe’s family would see the day when his medals were reinstated in 1983.

After the Olympics, Thorpe went on to play both professional baseball and football for numerous teams throughout the rest of decade and into the 1920’s. He even dabbled in basketball for a while barnstorming for a couple of years with an “All Indian” team. Thorpe’s pro baseball career ended in 1922 and he finished his football career at the age of 41.

What makes Jim Thorpe’s story so unique and amazing was the obstacles that were constantly put in his way and like any great human endeavor, he did what he loved and excelled with grace.  He was just a humble man that was so gifted and loved by most of the public.  Unfortunately, there was the ugly side of his story with relentless racism because of his heritage. He was able to keep moving forward, trying new things and never giving in to false celebrity. In today’s day and age his path would be easier in some regards, but the money would be thrown at him in truckloads. Today’s great athletes have to be coddled and protected by staffs of lawyers and accountants. It is very rare to find an athlete so good that he hasn’t got an agent and big money controlling them. Jim Thorpe’s story is one of a kind and should never to be forgotten.