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You could redeem some serious prizes. ChumbaCasino.com. Live the Chumba life. This is Lee Habib and this is our American Stories. And we tell stories about everything here on the show. And one of our favorites, well, one of your favorite subjects, America's favorite subjects, is sports. In the year 2000, a poll was conducted by ABC Sports recognizing the greatest athlete of the 20th century. The winner was not a man named Ali, or Ruth, Jesse Owens, Wayne Gretzky, Jack Nicklaus, or even Michael Jordan. A man today we have never heard of.
Most of us. An Indian from Oklahoma named Jim Thorpe. Here to tell the story is Sally Jenkins and Steve Shanken. Sally is a veteran sports writer for the Washington Post. She wrote The Real All-Americans, the national bestseller about Jim Thorpe. Shanken is a three-time National Book Award finalist and the author of Undefeated, Jim Thorpe, and the Carlisle Indian School football team.
Here's Sally and Steve, beginning with Sally, telling us why she wrote a book about Jim Thorpe. He's the greatest athlete who ever lived. He's been named the athlete of the century. I think he probably is the greatest athlete ever. He was a two-time gold medalist at the 1912 Olympics in Oslo.
And really, his claim to fame is that he's greatest all-around athlete this country ever produced. He ended up at Carlisle the way so many of the kids ended up at Carlisle. He was essentially sent away to boarding school by his parents. His father was a bootlegger and kind of a rowdy Hiram Thorpe.
His mother died when he was fairly young, so his father really shipped him off. Carlisle is in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, which is right near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Carlisle was founded in 1879, just three years after Little Bighorn. There was still a lot of tension and unrest on a lot of the reservations. And so one of the things that the U.S. government and the U.S. Army decided to do was, rather than fight Indians, they decided to try to educate them. And so they decided to fight a smaller, more subtle war against American Indians in the name of civilizing them and absorbing them into American society.
Carlisle was the brainchild of Richard Henry Pratt, who was a tough, gallant U.S. cavalry officer who served in Indian Territory, which is now Oklahoma, for about eight years. He actually fought in the Indian Wars. He fought in the Civil War quite gallantly, had two horses shot out from underneath him at Chickamauga. He then goes out to Indian Territory, where he basically fights these very difficult, very arduous series of campaigns. General Sherman called Indian, and he said, Indian fighting is the hardest kind of war. It was a guerrilla war, as you know. It was an insurgency in some respects. It was in difficult terrain.
Pratt is affected by these campaigns in two ways. It toughens him. It also, however, it gave him an enormous amount of compassion and sympathy for the tribes that he was fighting against. He actually was an abolitionist, and he was a literalist who believed that the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence meant what it said. He had a lot of faults, but he also believed in total equality. He did not believe in racial inferiority in any shape or form, and he really believed that Indians were every inch the equal of white men. And so he went to the government. He went to Carl Schurz. He went to Ulysses S. Grant, and he said, let me have a school, and let me take the children of some of these combatants, and let me take them back east, and let me show you what I can do with them.
Let me show you how I can turn, I can prove that an Indian boy or girl is the equal of a white boy or girl. There are moments when I find him truly inspiring, and there are moments when I go, he was an unthinkably cruel. All I can tell you is that he is a very American. He represents what this country was in the 1880s, and so you have to stare very hard at him and try to understand who he was.
And if you love your country, you have to love your country for its faults and its flaws, and Pratt to me sums up some of the mixed feelings we can often have about the history of this country and all of our legacies. They rebel against this experience in a number of ways, and one of the ways in which they rebelled was to start playing football and to start proving that they could whip white boys on the football field. And that's where this incredibly inventive Carlisle football program comes from. They began taking this distinctly new American game, played by Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, and began playing it in their own way.
It was faster, fleeter, more inventive. They tended to be smaller than these hulking, chop-fed Yale boys. They had to find a different way to win because they couldn't take on these Ivy League boys head to head. Football in the 1880s and early 1890s especially was a dull, brutal game. The game was just unrecognizable.
At first there were 25 men on the field at once, and it was whittled down eventually to 11. But there weren't many rules, and there was no creativity at all. It was two walls of humanity running into each other basically. Every play was the same. No passing is allowed, and every play is a running play. The quarterback either keeps it or hands it to somebody, and then the two sides just ram into each other.
And eventually the guy with the ball gets knocked down, but in those days that wasn't even the end of the play because the guy with the ball might be squirming forward underneath the pile. And guys would just be punching each other and gouging each other's eyes, and there was no 15-yard penalty for roughness or anything like that in those days. As a result, it was much more violent. The injuries were much more serious, head and neck injuries and deaths.
In 1907, the big thing that happened then, passing, was finally legalized. And the reason is that people were dying. So many kids died playing football, up to 18 in one year, that colleges started banning football, and there was a huge movement nationally to ban the game. Teddy Roosevelt, as president, was a big football fan, and he wanted to save the game. This is how the NCAA was formed.
He urged the leaders of the elite universities to get together and say, you guys better make a plan or this game is going to be gone. And so they got together and formed this organization and rewrote the rules of football. And the big change that they made was to allow the forward pass. And the reason they did is because it would make the game spread out a little bit and be a little more creative and not these giant walls of humanity, hopefully, and fewer injuries. And that was the goal.
And it did work. And Carlisle and Pop Warner, they were some of the first people to realize the potential of it. And you've been listening to Sally Jenkins and Steve Shankin tell the story of Jim Thorpe and, in their own way, tell the story of America and tell the story of modern football and how it came to be. When we come back, more of the story of Jim Thorpe here on Our American Stories. Folks, if you love the great American stories we tell and love America like we do, we're asking you to become a part of the Our American Stories family. If you agree that America is a good and great country, please make a donation. A monthly gift of $17.76 is fast becoming a favorite option for supporters. Go to OurAmericanStories.com now and go to the donate button and help us keep the great American stories coming.
That's OurAmericanStories.com. Leftovers or the DMV or house cleaning or Chumba Casino always brings the fun. Play over 100 different games online for free from anywhere.
You could redeem some serious prizes. Go to ChumbaCasino.com. Live the Chumba life. And we return to Our American Stories and our storytellers Steve Shankin and Sally Jenkins telling us the story of Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian football team. And really the first high profile game where the forward pass made a big difference and just so literally changed the game of football forever was that year 1907 when Carlisle visits Philadelphia, plays the University of Pennsylvania. That's huge underdogs, as always, when you go into a school like that and they uncorked these passing plays right.
I mean, right off the bat, it just blew everybody's mind. I mean, they crushed Penn that day. And in those days, when you set your sights on being the best team in the country, it didn't mean playing Alabama and Clemson. It meant playing Harvard, Yale, Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania. If you look at the list of national champions in college football, those four teams, the Big Four, as they were called, they have at least the first 30.
I don't know what the exact number is. Look it up. So Carlisle's goal was to start playing the Big Four, of course, on the road. And Pratt thought that was at first absurd because how could they possibly compete? And it was impossible.
What they set out to do was impossible to become the best team in the country. And yet they did. And so they began to play hide the football. They invented the reverse. They invented the forward pass. They invented the trick play. They started running around teams instead of through them.
So they were very fleet, very agile, highly experimental. And they loved playing football that way. They loved putting their own stamp on the game. Carlisle football, every time now you watch a quarterback in a shotgun formation in the NFL, every time you watch the ball go airborne, any time you watch the ball go around end on a reverse, a dead is owed to the Carlisle Indians. Yeah, somehow the history books got messed up where Notre Dame had this game where they passed the ball and this is where the forward pass began.
I've seen this in books, too. And I guess they have such a big fan base. This is what people want to hear, but it's completely wrong. The game looks at the box scores and the articles about games and it was years before that it was Carlisle, in fact, who revolutionized the game with their forward passing, especially in 1907 at the University of Pennsylvania. And not only that, they would run what we would call a no huddle offense.
I mean, this was just it was devastating, but it was also brand new. They would call their plays at the line of scrimmage. And the defense just couldn't get set.
They couldn't even catch their breath between plays. And so everything that makes the game exciting, these guys were doing it 100 plus years ago. Pop Warner comes into the Carlisle story in 1898 and he stays there until about 1913. So with one brief absence, he goes back to Cornell, which was his alma mater, for a couple of seasons. He craved the approval of the Ivies and was always sort of looking at the idea that he was coaching at this school that wasn't an Ivy League school. But Pop Warner was a meeting of minds with his Carlisle players. He had a very inventive mind and he arrived at this school where these kids wanted to play a different brand of football.
And together they create the game that we watch today. But even Pop Warner couldn't really control his players to the degree that he wanted to. Coaches weren't allowed to call plays from the sidelines back in those days. Coaches could prepare teams for the game, but then once they sent them onto the field, the players called their own plays. And Warner, in account after account in his own memoirs, talks about his frustration standing there on the sideline and watching these Indian kids run the plays that they wanted to play, rather than plays that he would tell them to play. He was constantly fighting with his own players. Jim Thorpe was one of the players who frustrated him. Thorpe literally said to Pop Warner one day, Warner was trying to get Thorpe to run up the middle of the field, and he said, Pop, why should I run through him when I can run around him?
Thorpe arrives there early, 1906. He comes in as a woebegone, underweight boy of about 16 years old who has just lost his mother, who died in childbirth, and his father dies within his first six months at the school. He's effectively orphaned by the age of 16 when he's at Carlisle. Yeah, Thorpe was always just a natural athlete. He spent his childhood outside running around. At first with his young brother, they would do these freeform obstacle course marathons where they would run a few miles, climb trees, swim a river, and Jim was just unbeatable at anything like that right from a young age, even before he played any kind of organized sports. And so when he showed up at Carlisle, and he was walking across campus one day and saw the track team practicing the high jump, and the athletes couldn't jump over this bar, which was about six feet high, and Jim was in his overalls and work boots, and he said, hey, let me give it a try. And they kind of laughed at him, because who is this skinny kid who wasn't on any team? And Jim wasn't the kind of guy who's going to trash talk you, but he also wasn't going to ever back away from a challenge.
But he just jumped over it like it was nothing, picked up his stuff and walked away. And it was the next day that the coach of the track team happened to be this guy named Pop Warner, who he was also the coach of the football team, too. But he recruited Jim for the track team. But after he joined the track team, and did very well there, just basically every week, he would set a new record for the school in running and jumping. Probably my favorite story from the early part of his rise as a football player was the tryout scene.
It's so cinematic. This is how you would start a movie, is that the football team was practicing. This was 1907 now, and Carlisle is already a really good team, a top ten team, and there were top ten rankings in those days.
And they were, and they would play the hardest schedule by far, because they played everybody good and they played all their games, their big games on the road. And so Pop Warner and his team are gearing up for another really tough, brutal season of games. And Jim walks onto the football field and says, I want to play football. Top's got the cigarette dangling out of the corner of his mouth, cursing up a storm.
You know, it's a classic football coach image. And he goes, Jim, get out of here. We don't need you. We don't want you. Basically, you'll die playing football. You're too skinny.
He was he was still really, really thin. And Jim, again, he's not going to talk back to you, but he's not going to take no for an answer. So he just said he just kept saying, I'm going to play. I want to play. Give me a chance. And Pop eventually said, all right, here's what we'll do.
Well, you can you can help us with a drill. It's called tackling practice. You stand at one goal line with the ball and everybody will tackle you.
And this just makes such a beautiful scene, because if you're a football fan, you could see it. Here's this this kid standing there at one end. The rest of the team is kind of laughing at him.
They like him, but he has no business being out there. And Pop blows his whistle and they all charge at Jim. And in that moment, that beautiful moment, Jim reveals this combination of speed and agility and power that had never existed in a football player all at once before. He fakes out some guys. He stiff arms some guys. He sees a yard of daylight and he's just gone. He turns on the sprinter speed and he's just gone. And of course, Pop said, all right, that was just you guys weren't trying. Let's do that again.
And Jim does the exact same thing again. And so, yeah, of course, now he's he's on the team. He played five different positions. I mean, the great one of the reasons why Thorpe is the greatest football player who ever lived is because he was the greatest halfback on the field. He could throw the ball. He was the best defender on the field. He played the equivalent of the cornerback position today. He was a terrific blocker and he just was really far and away the greatest drop kicker who ever lived also.
And so you really never knew where he was going to be on the field. He could do anything and everything. And he did it better than anybody else. And he played both ways on offense and defense.
Jim really came into his own in 1911 and 1912. Those two seasons were the high point of his of his career and of Carlisle's career, where they really became just undoubtedly the best team in the country. Those two seasons, he gained over 2000 yards rushing each of those years. He personally scored more points than most teams because he was. Oh, he was their field goal kicker, too.
I should point that out. He was their punter and their place kicker. So he was scoring more than just about every other team in the country, just by himself.
There's just nobody like him. Like I said, there was no there was never a player with that combination. You know, you're either fast or you're really strong. You just don't see that combination. Some people will remember Bo Jackson and had that combination.
We just don't see that combination of speed and agility and power all in one player. And Jim was the original Bo Jackson. He was the original guy who could do anything. And he did like, oh, he played other sports. He ended up being a professional baseball player and he could do anything. And you're listening to Our American Stories and the story of Jim Thorpe when we come back.
More of the remarkable story of Jim Thorpe here on Our American Stories. Leftovers or the DMV or Housecleaning or Chumba Casino always brings the fun. Play over 100 different games online for free from anywhere. You could redeem some serious prizes. Chumba casino dot com. Live the Chumba life.
No purchase necessary. And we return to our American stories and to our storytellers, Steve Shinkin and Sally Jenkins, both telling us the story of Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian football team. The stories are a legend of how many amazing plays that Jim did, Jim made. And they're credible because, you know, these were eyewitness accounts by sports writers, not stuff that someone said at a banquet 50 years later.
And so I spent a lot of time reading articles. It was the closest. There's no ESPN. You know, there's no there's no highlight reel. So you go back and look at articles from people who were there when they would go to Georgetown, Pittsburgh, Syracuse.
You know, just crisscross. They went and played a game against the University of California. They played anywhere.
They'll take on anyone. And there was a game that was at Pittsburgh where and this was another rule change. But in those days, the punt was a live ball, you know, like a kickoff. So it wasn't that someone had to touch the ball. It was just anybody's ball as soon as you punted. And Jim got this idea that he was the punter, of course, because why not? He did everything that if he kicked it high enough, he could catch it himself. And he and he did it in this game in front of this the whole stadium of players. So it became another one of his incredible famous plays where he kicked this high, booming punt, sprints down the field.
Because he's also the fastest guy in the sport. And this poor receiver is just kind of standing there making his arms into a basket, waiting, waiting for the ball to come down. And Jim just leapt over him, caught the ball and just rambled at that point.
There's no one in front of him into the end zone for a touchdown. And it was the kind of thing that he would do in every game. There was some kind of highlight real play that it's of course, it's film was in its very, very early days. But there's no film at all of the Carlisle team in action, which is such a shame because we can picture it. Any football fan can picture these kind of plays, but it's just priceless stuff.
It would be so cool to see some of these plays in action. Audience responses to Carlisle are fascinating. Carlisle went to the Polo Grounds in New York in 1896 to play a YMCA team. And the first big crowd to come out to watch Carlisle play football really expects to see something like a Wild West show.
There was a great deal of coverage of Carlisle by the New York newspapers or the Philadelphia newspapers and the Boston newspapers. Carlisle was a novelty to a lot of these early football audiences. And the audience is somewhat disappointed when this team of neatly shorn boys in sweaters runs out onto the field. And they look like, in fact there's a comment from a young woman sitting in the grandstand at the Polo Grounds in 1895.
She's disappointed and she says why they look, they don't look any different from our boys. And those first audiences would war whoop when they ran onto the field and make tomahawking motions. And it really, really didn't view them as people or as students. They viewed them as artifacts almost.
That changes very quickly. By 1896 Carlisle comes back to the Polo Grounds. And by then they've really kind of charmed the country with this innovative brand of football that they're trying to play. And they come back to the Polo Grounds in 1896 to play Yale. And they play Yale an epic game. In 1896 Carlisle did something that no other school had ever done.
They scheduled Harvard, Princeton, Yale and Penn, the fourth Ivy League power, in succession. No one had ever tried to play all four of those teams in the same year, much less in a row in the space of four to five weeks. Football was an absolutely lethal game at the time. There were deaths on the field all the time because of dangerous power formations called the Flying Wedge.
It was actually dangerous to try to play these big, massive, hard-hitting teams all in a row. And here was this little plucky boarding school with just a few hundred students between the ages of 12 and 25, trying to take on these massive national football powers. Well Carlisle almost beats Princeton and then comes and plays Yale at the Polo Grounds in 1896 and scores a touchdown that would have won the game against Yale.
Only it's called back by an official who happened to have gone to Yale. And the next day the New York World, which was Joseph Pulitzer's newspaper, which had a really great sports section that I spent a lot of time reading, they wrote that Carlisle could beat 11 Yale men but they couldn't beat 11 Yale men and a Yale referee. Well at that game the audience becomes really so enchanted by the Carlisle team and what a great, courageous game they play that they are incensed when this touchdown is called back and they boo for several minutes. It incensed the crowd. It incensed every newspaper in New York, which then conducts a long press campaign over the next few weeks, basically singing Carlisle's praises and vaulting them into national prominence.
So even though they lost that game, they won something in the larger context. It really humanized the Carlisle football team's two American readers and American audiences. Pratt understood this. Pratt was at the game and was as infuriated as anybody by this referee's decision. His team, as he's watching the game, he sees that his team, Pratt sees they're about to walk off the field.
They're so outraged. He gets out of his seat and he runs through Grandstand and across the field and he stops him and he says, don't leave the field. You've got to come back onto the field. Don't you understand that if you leave the field, they'll call you quitters and you've got to go back out there and you've got to make a record for your race.
You're going to lose this game but you're going to win something greater if you'll go back out there and play like gentlemen. And the team goes back on the field and they do exactly that and the effect is exactly what Pratt predicted. Pratt said, don't you understand that if when they cheap shot you or cheat you, if you retaliate, they'll say, see, that's the savage in them, that's the Indian in them.
He said, you've got to overturn all those stereotypes and prove them wrong. And so Carlisle football in some sense was really an exercise in eroding stereotypes. Pratt knew that and so did the players. They were always conscious, highly conscious of the racial stakes in those games. From that game on, that 1896 Yale game on, there's a whole different perception of Carlisle football.
Now, when Carlisle starts to win these games, which they do in about 1907, the press and the public turn against them because, as it turns out, the public loves Carlisle as a plucky little underdog but once Carlisle becomes a dominant football team, it made everybody incredibly nervous. And Jim Thorpe really paid the price for that. Thorpe played baseball.
Thorpe was a bolter. He ran away from school on more than one occasion. He'd get tired of the discipline and the bad meals, and he ran away to play semi-pro baseball. A lot of Ivy League athletes, to make some money in the summer, would go down south and play in the Carolina League under assumed names.
Thorpe ran away from Carlisle to do the same. He went down to play some summer league baseball in which you basically made meal money. You didn't get rich doing it. It was a way to get out of farm work. He was sick and tired of being farmed out to local farmers for slave wages. So he decided to run away and play baseball in Carolina for a couple of summers.
He tired of that very quickly, too, because he didn't make a whole lot more money playing baseball than he had working on farms. He returns to Carlisle and plays two more seasons in 1911 and 1912. One of the top teams in 1911, you could easily have argued, I would argue that they should have been ranked number one at the end of the year.
You can look at the records and decide for yourself. I mean, I think it was one of those things where they just played by far the hardest schedule, had the most quality wins. And in 1912, they're going to come back and try one more time. So Jim was on the Olympic team between those in the summer of 1912 and came back for one more year. What would essentially be a senior year, you know, if there had been an NFL and a draft in those days, of course, he would have probably left to join the NFL. But he goes back for one more year and has another dominant 2000 yard year. Harvard had decided by this point they'd seen enough of Jim Thorpe and Carlisle and said, you know, we're not going to schedule.
Don't come this year. You know, we could play other teams instead. And you've been listening to the story of Jim Thorpe and equally important, the Carlisle Indian School football team. When we come back, more of this remarkable story. Again, a piece of American history, but also, well, a piece of college football. The NCAA in the end is spawned because of this. And my goodness, the beginning of the forward pass, the option, the spread and so much more.
It all happens way back in the beginning of the 20th century when we return more of this remarkable story, the Jim Thorpe story and the story of the Carlisle Indian School football team here on our American stories. With Lucky Land Sluts, you can get lucky just about anywhere. This is your captain speaking. We've got clear runway and the weather's fine, but we're just going to circle up here a while and get lucky.
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Let's return where we last left off. It was Jim Thorpe's senior year on the Carlisle Indian football team. Eight-time national champion Harvard decided they'd seen enough of Jim Thorpe and refused to schedule a game against the Indians.
Here's Steve Sheinkin and Sally Jenkins. So Pop and the team were looking around for other really big games to play, and they ended up scheduling a game at West Point against Army. And that's just loaded dripping with symbolism.
Obviously, you know, some of these guys, their parents or grandparents would have fought, physically fought against the soldiers' grandparents in the West. And so you could read a lot into the meaning of the game and the press certainly did. They made it sound like this was basically another war. The players didn't really see it that way. They, of course, wanted to win. It was it was a big game for them because they were undefeated going in and Army was a top team. They had one of their big great players was Dwight Eisenhower. Omar Bradley was also on that team. And so it's just a showdown, you know, a classic showdown.
If you were making up a movie, you would make this up and the audience wouldn't believe it because it's just too perfect. Carlisle comes in late in the year, undefeated to West Point in the fall. And the whole country is watching to see what's going to happen in this game. But Carlisle was just just a much, much better team and had way too much offense. Dwight Eisenhower was was looking forward to playing against Fort. Eisenhower was a good player.
He was, you know, borderline All-American kind of talent. And he was really looking forward to it. In fact, he says, quote, he said, I was thoroughly enjoying the challenge that Jim was presenting on the football field. There was no one like him in the world.
And after the game, another of the Army stars, this guy named Leland Devore, was asked about Thorpe. And his response was that Indian is the greatest player I have ever stacked up against. He is superhuman. That's all.
There's no stopping him. He was so obviously the best athlete in the country that that pop suggested that Jim join or try out for the Olympic team. In 1912, the Olympics were in Stockholm. And remember, Jim was a track star first before a football star. So Jim went to an Olympic trial event and did really well, made the team and sailed across to Sweden to join the team.
And the ship itself is really interesting. Everyone is practicing and run. There was a track on the deck.
People are running around the track. There is the rifle team, including George Patton, were shooting guns. Thorpe did something that just was way ahead of its time. People didn't get it. He would sit in a chair and visualize the events. People would say, what are you doing? He said, I'm doing the high jump.
I'm doing the long jump. People didn't get it. They thought he was lazy or accused him of it. He was, you know, Michael Jordan would do this and no one thought it was weird. He was meditating.
He was visualizing exactly what he was going to do. And when he got to the Olympics in Stockholm, he did the events that were considered in those days the biggest events at the Olympics. The decathlon especially was the biggest one because it has 10 events and it's how you determine who's the best athlete in the world. And the Europeans had this idea that they were really better at those kind of multi-sport events.
The Americans, sure, they were good at specializing in things, but Europeans had the best all-around athletes. And Jim just went there and completely dominated the pentathlon and decathlon and won by wide margins, won gold medals in both of those events. And as he did everywhere he went, he won over the crowd.
He always spent a lot of time hanging out with kids, signing autographs, talking to people super down to earth about that kind of thing. There's even a story that when the King of Sweden reached up to put the gold medal around Thorpe's neck, he said, sir, you're the greatest athlete in the world. And Jim simply said, thanks, King.
And that was kind of, that's the most that he would ever say in that kind of a situation. Jim was kind of on top of the sports world in 1912 as he's leading Carlisle to another great season. And it was near the end of the season when this huge controversy exploded. Some reporters who saw him at practice recognized him as a baseball player, as a guy who had played semi-pro baseball over the summers in the south. But the problem was that that made him a paid athlete. And so was he therefore ineligible for the Olympics? And this became a huge controversy and a completely needless and stupid and frankly racist one, because so many Ivy League kids did this and then competed in so-called amateur track or Olympic events with no problem.
But with Jim, all of a sudden it was a problem that, oh, he's a professional. He shouldn't have been at the Olympics after all. And this broke just at the end of the 1912 football season when he was really on top of the world. And now all of a sudden there's this terrible controversy that he was ineligible for the Olympics and should therefore return his gold medals. And they did. They took the Olympic Committee. The American Olympic Committee took back. They physically stole, went into his room and stole his gold medals and sent them back to Europe. And the joke was that the people, the athletes that Jim had competed against in Sweden didn't want them. They acknowledged that Jim had won them. There was an athlete named Hugo Weislander from Sweden who had won the silver medal in the decathlon.
So now all of a sudden he's eligible for the gold. And his quote was, I don't know what your rules are in regard to amateurism. And apparently Thorpe didn't either. But I do know that we met in honest competition and he beat me fairly and decisively. I didn't win the Olympic decathlon. Jim Thorpe did.
It took until the 1980s, but they eventually did acknowledge that they were wrong. And couldn't return the medals to Jim, who wasn't living anymore, but did give replica gold medals to his daughters. Thorpe leaves Carlisle to play Major League Baseball then. He finally leaves Carlisle after this final great season of 1912 in the midst of this scandal. And it really leads to the closing of Carlisle's doors. A lot of people had been gathering resentment against Carlisle. The student body had turned against their teachers and against Pratt.
The Carlisle experiment is really fraying in every way. Pratt had been forced to resign by Teddy Roosevelt. He's succeeded by some true incompetence. Pratt, whatever you may think of him, ran a tight ship and kept the students decently fed and kept the school in decent condition. The guys who come after him really could have cared less about the students or about the condition of the school. The school really deteriorates.
So the school closes its doors finally in 1918 to become a hospital for returning wounded from World War I. If there had been professional football, that would have been the obvious choice. But it simply didn't exist at that point. And he was such a good athlete that even though he wasn't a great baseball player, he was good enough still to make a Major League team. And he got signed by, a lot of teams wanted to sign him. He ended up signing with the New York Giants. He did hit.329 in his last year in 1919, which is very respectable obviously.
But he was never a great ball player. But at the same time, finally, football kind of began to form a professional league. It began with just kind of these locally owned teams based mostly in Ohio. And they got together to eventually make it official and form a league. This was going back to 1922.
And so Jim decided to get in on that action. By that point though, he was 30 years old. So for a running back, that's an old man at that point. But he was still good.
He could still hold his own out there. But the other way he contributed was that the NFL was nothing back then. Baseball was a big deal on track and boxing. No one really knew about the NFL. And so they said, the owners of these teams, mostly businessmen in Ohio said, We need a celebrity.
We need somebody who's going to be our first president. This is a good trivia question if you want to ask your friends. Who was the first president of the NFL? And they asked Jim Thorpe to do it because they knew that that name carried, that meant everything. He was the greatest athlete, the most respected athlete in the country. And so he may have been past his prime as a player, but he contributed off the field as well as the president of the league to get them going and give them a lot of credibility as they were starting out.
He eventually died of a heart attack at a fairly young age. I feel like in the years since, he's sort of been forgotten. I remember as a kid hearing the name and associating it with being Native American and a great athlete of some kind, but I didn't know anything more than just those two facts. And so part of the reason I really wanted to write Undefeated was to just help tell this story again to a new generation of fans to know, especially if they're football fans, to know the history of who helped make the game what it is. And a special thanks to Steve Shankin, also a special thanks to Sally Jenkins, and thanks as always to Greg Hengler for getting us this great story. And my goodness, what a story about America, American history, about college football too.
Jim Thorpe's story, the world's greatest athlete, here on Our American Stories. Leftovers or the DMV or house cleaning or Chumba Casino always brings the fun. Play over a hundred different games online for free from anywhere. You could redeem some serious prizes. Chumba casino.com. Live the Chumba life.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-04-02 00:34:45 / 2023-04-02 00:51:03 / 16