Jim Thorpe was an amazing sports phenomenon. In 1999, he was ranked seventh on the AP list of top athletes of the 20th century, but from his accomplishments, I think “seventh” might be selling him short!
He was born in Oklahoma (most biographers think he was born on May 22, 1887) in extreme poverty to parents who were each part Native American. The public largely identified Thorpe as wholly American Indian, making him alternately a source of pride (for his seeming assimilation into America) and the target of bias. He was raised as a Sac and Fox Indian and as a Catholic, with his native name being Wa-Tho-Huk, or “Bright Path.”
Thorpe began his athletic career at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania in 1907 when he walked past the track and watched the high jumpers. Still in his heavy overalls, he said he could do that, and proceeded to beat the school’s team with an impromptu 5-ft 9-in jump. He was invited to join the team, but also competed in football, baseball, lacrosse and even ballroom dancing, winning the 1912 inter-collegiate ballroom dancing championship! At the time, Carlisle’s athletic coach was Glenn Scobey “Pop” Warner, later to become famous himself. Reportedly, Pop Warner was hesitant to allow Thorpe, his star track and field athlete, to compete in a physical game such as football. But Thorpe convinced Warner to watch him run some plays against the school’s defense; Thorpe ran around past and through them not once, but twice. He then walked over to Warner and said, “Nobody is going to tackle Jim,” while flipping him the ball.
He ended up playing as running back, defensive back, placekicker, and punter for his school’s football team. In 1911, he scored all of his team’s points—four field goals and a touchdown—in an 18–15 upset of Harvard. His team finished the season 11–1.
The following year, he led Carlisle to the national collegiate championship, scoring 25 touchdowns and 198 points. Carlisle’s 1912 record included a 27–6 victory over Army, in which Thorpe scored a 92-yard touchdown that was nullified by a penalty incurred by a teammate; he then scored a 97-yard touchdown on the next play. (In this same game, future President Dwight Eisenhower injured his knee while trying to tackle Thorpe. Eisenhower recalled of 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.”) Thorpe was awarded All-American honors in both 1911 and 1912.
In 1912, Thorpe decided to enter the Summer Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden, and trained aboard the ship on the way over! He set records for both the pentathlon and decathlon. The story goes that after King Gustav V presented Thorpe with his gold medals for both accomplishments, he grabbed Thorpe’s hand and said, “Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world.” Thorpe is reported to have replied, “Thanks, King.”
Thorpe also played in one of two exhibition baseball matches held at the 1912 Olympics. But in January, 1913, U.S.newspapers published stories revealing that Thorpe had played two semi-professional seasons of baseball in the Eastern Carolina League. The Amateur Athletic Union decided to withdraw Thorpe’s amateur status retroactively, and asked the International Olympic Commission (IOC) to do the same. Later that year, the IOC unanimously decided to strip Thorpe of his Olympic titles, medals, and awards and declared him a professional. His name was removed from the record books.
Thorpe went on to play professional baseball, football, and basketball, sometimes all in the same year. In 1920 he became the first president of the American Professional Football League, which would evolve into the National Football League.
Thorpe’s last pro game was in 1928. Thereafter, he took various, often low-paying jobs to support his family. He died in poverty of a heart attack on March 28, 1953. The New York Times ran a front page story, stating that Thorpe “was a magnificent performer. He had all the strength, speed and coordination of the finest players, plus an incredible stamina. The tragedy of the loss of his Stockholm medals because of thoughtless and unimportant professionalism darkened much of his career and should have been rectified long ago. His memory should be kept for what it deserves–that of the greatest all-round athlete of our time.” In 1950, the nation’s press selected Jim Thorpe as the most outstanding athlete of the first half of the 20th Century and in 1996-2001, he was awarded ABC’s Wide World of Sports Athlete of the Century. Thorpe’s Olympic medals were finally restored to him posthumously in 1982. In addition, and most importantly to his family, his name was put back into the record books.
Some interesting facts about Thorpe:
• Thorpe once hit 3 home runs into 3 different states in the same game. During a semi-pro baseball game in a ballpark on the Texas-Oklahoma-Arkansas border, he hit his first homer over the leftfield wall with the ball landing in Oklahoma, his second homer over the rightfield wall into Arkansas and his third homer of the game was an inside-the-park home run in centerfield, which was in Texas!
• Thorpe is one of two men in history who played for the New York Giants in two different sports. In football, he was the New York Giants’ running back and in baseball he was the New York Giants’ outfielder.
• Often Thorpe would demonstrate his football kicking prowess during halftimes by placekicking field goals from the 50-yard line, then turning and dropkicking through the opposite goal post.
• Thorpe would earn enshrinement in the pro football, college football, U.S. Olympic and national track and field Halls of Fame.
You can learn more about Jim Thorpe and see additional pictures on a website devoted to him, here.
Books on Thorpe for Young People
In addition to biographies for adults, there are a number of books about Thorpe’s life and accomplishments for young people, no doubt owing to his inspirational achievements.
A very nice graphic book on his life is Jim Thorpe: Greatest Athlete in the World, by Jennifer Fandel and illustrated by Rod Whigham.
The Native American author Joseph Bruchac has two books on Jim Thorpe: for younger readers, there is Jim Thorpe’s Bright Path illustrated by S.D. Nelson.
For teens, he has written Jim Thorpe: Original All-American.