THORPE, THE "GREATEST"
by Stan Griffin
"Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world!"
These were the words of King Gustav V of Sweden as he participated in
ceremonies at the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm.
He had just presented two gold medals to Jim Thorpe, an American Indian.
Later, when American sportswriters were asked to select the best sports
performers of the half-century (1900-1950), Jim Thorpe was chosen twice:
first as top American football player and later as best male athlete.
James Francis Thorpe was born on his father's farm in Indian Territory
(soon to be the state of Oklahoma) on May 28, 1888.
His mother was a granddaughter of Chief Black Hawk of the Chippewas.
Jim (whose tribal name was Bright Path) was a member of the Sac and Fox
tribe. (Once separate Indian
nations, the two finally came to be classified as one tribe.)
Thorpe attended Sac and Fox Reservation School from ages 5-10 and
Haskell Institute for Indians in Kansas (ages 10-13).
At the age of 16 he was sent to Carlisle Industrial School in
Pennsylvania, the leading American school for Indian young people.
Jim was 5 feet 11 inches tall and weighed 185 pounds.
He participated in track and eventually football.
At one track meet, he was entered in seven events:
he won five and placed third in the sixth!
Thorpe was a starter on the football team for the first time in
1908. He was a skilled runner with
power, speed, and shiftiness; he also was a fine kicker.
"Bored and restless," he dropped out in the spring of 1909 and
spent two years in North Carolina, working as a manual laborer and playing
baseball for the Rocky Mount team in the Eastern Carolina League (classified as
a professional--or semi-professional league).
He was paid $15 a week. Unfortunately
he used his own name instead of using an alias (false name) as other college
players often did.
Jim was persuaded to return to Carlisle in 1911.
He starred on the football team that season and was named an
In the summer of 1912, Jim became a member of the U. S. Olympic
team. He competed in (and won) the
pentathalon (pen-TATH-ah-lahn) and the decathalon (dee-CATH-ah-lahn).
Both of these contests consist of several individual events:
the pentathlon had five events; the decathalon has ten events.
So instead of using only one track-and-field skill (running, throwing,
jumping, etc.), competitors in these events had to use several.
Thorpe returned to Carlisle that fall.
He had an outstanding football season and was again named All-American.
Shortly afterwards, his activities in North Carolina were revealed.
It was ruled that he had been a professional when he won his Olympic
medals. Only amateurs (those never
being paid) were allowed to take part. Olympic
authorities demanded that he return his medals, and Jim complied.
Jim left Carlisle a very unhappy man.
He joined the New York Giants major league baseball team and spent six
years in the National League, mostly as a part-time outfielder (1913-1919).
He also played with the Cincinnati Reds and the Boston Braves.
Professional football was loosely organized at this time.
For six years (1915-1921) Thorpe played for the Canton (Ohio) Bulldogs
and was one of the league's top performers: running and kicking.
For a short time, he was involved in both football and baseball in the
In 1920 Jim helped form the American Professional Football
Association (APFA). That
organization eventually evolved into today's National Football League (NFL).
Jim continued to play football until his retirement in 1929.
He was a member of several teams during that time.
He spent his last season as a placekicker for the football New York
Giants; he was 41 years old!
Jim was eventually elected to membership in the National College
Football Hall of Fame and the National Professional Football Hall of Fame.
The remainder of Jim's life was spent in various activities such
as "pick-and-shovel" manual labor,
lecturing, being a sports promoter, and movies (to name a few).
In films, he was an "extra" (an actor hired to play a minor
part, as in a crowd scene).
Thorpe's life was made into a movie in 1949.
"Jim Thorpe, All-American" starred Burt Lancaster.
The film was shown for the
first time at Carlisle in 1950.
Jim's third heart attack, on March 28, 1953, was fatal.
He was buried in Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania.
In return, the city's name was changed to "Jim Thorpe,"
Almost thirty years later, after "decades of petitions, pleas
..." and a lot of hard work by Thorpe's daughter, Grace, the International
Olympic Committee agreed to return his medals and restore his name in the
recordbooks. In 1984 Bill Thorpe Jr. (Jim's grandson) carried the Olympic
torch on one leg of its journey from New York City to Los Angeles.
When the time comes to choose the 20th Century's most outstanding
athletic performers, the name of Jim Thorpe will doubtless be given prominent
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