Original publish date: February 27, 2020
So, are you going through football withdrawals yet? It’s been three weeks since the Kansas City Chiefs won the Super Bowl, the team’s first in half a century. Ironically, that victory came just over a century after the most famous Native American Indian athlete in our country’s history landed on a gridiron in the Hoosier state. Notre Dame? Nope. Purdue? Nope. Jim Thorpe, the world’s greatest athlete, was once an assistant coach for the Indiana University Hoosiers in Bloomington.
If you’ve never heard the story, then its worth a visit. If you already know it, then let us refresh. Thorpe began his athletic career at Pennsylvania’s Carlisle Indian Industrial School in 1907 (a stone’s throw from the Gettysburg battlefield) where he played baseball, football, and was the star of the track team. He learned the game of football at the foot of a legend: Glen Scobey “Pop” Warner. Coach Warner was hesitant to allow Thorpe, his best track and field athlete, to compete in such a physical game as football. Thorpe, however, convinced Warner to let him try some rushing plays in practice against the school team’s defense. According to author Glen Jeansonne, Thorpe “ran around, past and through them not once, but twice” before walking over to Warner and saying “Nobody is going to tackle Jim”, while flipping him the ball.
In 1911 Thorpe made headlines when, while playing running back, defensive back, placekicker and punter, he scored all of his team’s points in an 18–15 upset of highly ranked Harvard. The game is considered one of the greatest upsets in early NCAA history. With Thorpe moving the ball, the tiny Carlisle team was winning against powerhouses like Harvard and Yale. Carlisle finished the season 11–1. In 1912 Carlisle won the national collegiate championship largely as a result of Thorpe’s efforts. That season, Thorpe ran for 27 touchdowns and accounted for 224 points. Recorded stats show that Thorpe rushed 191 times for 1,869 yards in 12 games but those figures do not include statistics from 2 of Carlisle’s 14 games in 1912 because full records were not kept.
That 1912 season included a 27–6 victory over Army. In that game, a 92-yard touchdown by Thorpe was called back by a teammate’s penalty. On the very next play, Thorpe rushed for a 97-yard touchdown. Future General and President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who played against Thorpe that day, recalled Thorpe in a 1961 speech: “Here and there, there are some people who are supremely endowed. My memory goes back to Jim Thorpe. He never practiced in his life, and he could do anything better than any other football player I ever saw.”
In the spring of 1912, Thorpe started training for the Olympics in Sweden. He had confined his efforts to jumps, hurdles and shot-puts, but soon added pole vaulting, javelin, discus, hammer and 56 lb weight throw. At Stockholm, Thorpe smashed many records and won gold medals for the pentathlon and decathlon (the first time both events were held at any Olympics). In 1912, the medals were presented to the athletes at the closing ceremonies of the games. Along with his two gold medals, Thorpe also received two challenge prizes, which were donated by King Gustav V of Sweden for the decathlon and Czar Nicholas II of Russia for the pentathlon.
Legend states that, when awarding Thorpe his prize, King Gustav said, “You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world”, to which Thorpe replied, “Thanks, King”. On his return to the United States he was honored in New York City with a ticker-tape parade down Broadway. Thorpe recalled later, “I heard people yelling my name, and I couldn’t realize how one fellow could have so many friends.”
Along with his standout track and field appearances, Thorpe also played in one of two exhibition baseball games at the 1912 Olympics, a decision that would come back to haunt him. In late January 1913, the Worcester Telegram published a story revealing that Thorpe had played professional baseball, and soon, U.S. newspapers followed up on the story. In 1909 & 1910, Thorpe had played professional baseball in the Eastern Carolina League for the Rocky Mount Railroaders. For his efforts, Thorpe was reportedly paid $2 ($55 today) per game and as much as $35 ($960 today) per week. College players, in fact, regularly spent summers playing professionally but most used aliases, unlike Thorpe.
In a letter to the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) secretary Edward Sullivan, Thorpe explained, “I hope I will be partly excused by the fact that I was simply an Indian schoolboy and did not know all about such things. In fact, I did not know that I was doing wrong, because I was doing what I knew several other college men had done, except that they did not use their own names.” The letter did not help. The AAU withdrew Thorpe’s amateur status retroactively. Later that year, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) unanimously decided to strip Thorpe of his Olympic titles, medals and awards and declare him a professional.
Thorpe played professional football in 1913 as a member of the Indiana-based Pine Village Pros, a team that had a several-season winning streak against local teams during the 1910s. Also that year, Thorpe signed pro contracts to play baseball with the New York Giants and football for the Chicago Cardinals and Canton (Ohio) Bulldogs. The Bulldogs paid Thorpe $ 250 per game ($5,919 today) a huge sum for the time. Overnight, the Bulldogs went from drawing 1,200 fans per game to 8,000. Thorpe was front page news, leading the Bulldogs to league championships in 1916, 1917 and 1919. In 1920, the Bulldogs and 13 other teams formed the APFA (American Professional Football Association) the forerunner of today’s NFL and Thorpe was elected the league’s first president. You might say that Jim Thorpe was a big deal.
What is perhaps the least known era of Thorpe’s career was the season he spent at Indiana. In 1914 IU hired Clarence Chester Childs as its head football coach. C.C. Childs, captain of the Yale track team, competed for the United States in the 1912 Summer Olympics alongside Jim Thorpe. Childs won a bronze medal in the hammer throw. Childs was an interesting man in his own right. He served in France during World War I and afterwards was appointed by President Warren Harding to a position within the U.S. Treasury Department. However, he was fired after he attacked a US Secret Service agent, who was following him on suspicion that Childs had illegally removed sensitive documents.
After being hired at I.U., Childs contacted his fellow Olympic teammate Thorpe, who was wrapping up a season with the Giants. Thorpe was asked to assist with IU’s 1915 football season. He was paid a salary of $1000 plus a room for his family at a Bloomington hotel and ftoke his meals on campus. The students were thrilled to learn that the World’s Greatest Athlete would be joining their team on notoriously soggy Jordan Field, a gridiron famous for its inability to shed water. Often, Coach Childs had to move practice to the school’s track oval, which recently had been fitted with temporary high-power electric lights. Now, with the hiring of Jim Thorpe, the Hoosiers were moving up a notch. Not only is C.C. Childs best remembered for the man he hired as an assistant coach, but also for the man he passed over to do it.
Next Week: Park II of Jim Thorpe-Indiana Hoosier.