Jim Thorpe was a legend during his time, and most of us know the name today, more than 100 years after he was given the nickname of “World’s Greatest Athlete.”
This is a 2-part series podcast of Jim Thorpe on The Football History Dude podcast. You can listen to both episodes below, and if you’re interested, we have the article of Jim’s life before his stint with the NFL below.
This time as we step off our DeLorean, the date is June 25th, 1876. Which is basically 100 years after the Declaration of Independence. And we are in Little Big Horn valley. You see, this was the scene of the most decisive victory for the Native Americans in the Plains Indian War, which was a very long war.
And most of you know it as the Battle of Little Big Horn, or you might also know it as the famous Custer’s Last Stand. And why am I talking about wars that happened all these years ago? What’s the reason for it? Well, as I said, today is the day of our independence. And part of that was the independence for all peoples, and the guy we’re going to talk about in this episode, Mr. Jim Thorpe.
He was born 12 years after this battle. So you gotta say, there were not that many years between when America was still fighting with Native people of this land. Jim Thorpe was born on a reservation, which we’re going to go ahead and take that DeLorean back to May 28th, 1888.
We are in Prague, which is present-day Oklahoma, and it was the Indian Territory at the time. Jim Thorpe was born with the name James Francis Thorpe. But that wasn’t really the name that he recognized as a young boy. He was a predominately American Indian, and this came from his mother’s side. Who was a descendant of Sauk and Fox Chief, Black Hawk. According to the ESPN Classic video that I saw, and I’m going to provide links to you.
When a Native American mother had a baby, she would name the baby after the first thing she saw, and they mentioned how she saw the sun rising and there was a path. Kind of like through the trees or something. She named him Wah-Tho-Huk, which translated into Bright Path. And the name Bright Path for Jim Thorpe was an understatement. He would go on to have one of those once in a millennium type of careers, and no one else could rival him. And he was Native American.
As I said, there was that war that was going on, and there wasn’t a whole lot of getting along back in 1888. He was born on a reservation. This is where we start the journey of Jim Thorpe, and what turned him from an Indian on a reservation into what would become the World’s Greatest Athlete. The first major adversity Jim had to deal with was he had a twin brother that passed away at the age of 8. He was one of Jim’s best friends.
Then 6 years later his mother passed away. So Jim was kind of this kid that was losing his way, didn’t quite understand in the world, and they spoke in the video how he still had that running with the feet and his heart to the ground. His beat and path and the warrior self inside of him.
They were trying to put him in these schools that would have him lose sight of his Native American heritage. And when he went to these schools he would run away. His partial Irish father just couldn’t understand what was going on. He didn’t want to deal with it anymore.
Carlisle Industrial Indian School
So what ended up happening is his father sent him away to a federally funded Carlisle Industrial Indian School in Pennsylvania in 1904. This is one of those schools where they were trying to, what they said, bring out the Native American of him. And bring him more into the “American way of life.” It wasn’t just a grade school or high school.
It was all the way up to college. And that ESPN video we talked about kind of described this Carlisle Indian school was like a prison for these kids. They had horrible conditions. You might as well have sent them to prison. Out of this would come the legend of Jim Thorpe. He was just gifted athletically. He was head and shoulders above the rest. There was not even a person that had a chance as far as athletic, just pure raw talent.
There was a specific event that kept coming up in all the articles and videos and such. Pretty much the time when Jim Thorpe was recognized as a guy who might have some potential. Just some dude, a random guy. He happens to be athletically gifted and possibly more talented than anybody this famous coach had seen before. It was kind of like this coach was randomly wandering around and fell upon this “Lost City of Atlantis.” This mythical city that would just give you all this wealth and gold and whatever it is. And this legendary coach went by the name of Glenn Pop Warner.
Yes, Pop Warner. Pop Warner football. That guy. He was just mouncying around and sitting there. I guess there were some kids trying to do this high jump, and Jim Thorpe in street clothes started walking by. They said he just looked at it and saw what they were doing. Studied their approach and seeing what they were doing. He kind of hands his books over to this guy. You know kind of like the “hold my beer” kind of thing.
He just waltzed on over there, proceeded to get to the approach, jump, lean back, and clear the 5’8” mark. So then Pop Warner summoned Thorpe over. He said, “Come here, son.” Of course, Jim probably thinking “am I getting in trouble?” Thinking I’m not supposed to be doing here, and all Pop could say was “Hey, son, you’ve only broken the school record in the high jump. That’s all.” So Pop Warner says, “you’re hired for the team.”
You are now enlisted for the track and field team. And the first track and field match he had without any prior experience, Jim Thorpe went out and won 7 gold and 1 bronze. Pretty much just won the entire meet for Carlisle without anyone else competing. An interview with Jim Thorpe’s son, he said “pops could compete in 8 different events and win 6 or 7 or so and basically win the entire thing by himself. And they didn’t even need to show up”.
Introduction to Football
But this is a football podcast, and you don’t want to talk about track and field all the time. You want to talk about some football.
Carlisle was his college as well. It was one of those things was the whole time you’re there. Pop Warner didn’t want him to play football, because he knew he had this star. The guy who could basically win every track meet by himself. But finally, he would give in.
So I guess one day he said, “Here, here’s the duke. Here’s the football, man. You take that ball, try to run through those guys, and we’ll see what you got.” So then Jim Thorpe proceeds to pop that ball in his, I don’t know if he was right-handed or left-handed, I guess we could figure it out.
But he would pop that ball in his arm and he would end up running over the entire team. So then Pop stops the practice. You know he was beside himself. He said, “How did that guy who never played football run through my entire defense?”
He proceeded to take those guys on the sidelines and ripped them a new one all up and down the scene, and said “You know what? This is the dude who had never played football in his entire life and you’re going to let him run through all of you? I’m disappointed.
You better step up, ship up, and you’re going to stop this guy.” So, Pop decides to give him the ball again. Jim Thorpe proceeds to just stomp all over everybody in his way. Elbows. Stiff arms. Spins. Stomps, smash, run go. Gets through the entire defense all by himself. So then Pop said, “I guess you’re on the team then.”
And he would end up having an illustrious college career, but one of his best games came against Harvard. You know, Carlisle, a little school. Harvard, a dominant powerhouse. Who ended up winning the championship in the specific year I’m talking about? But they had to go through Carlisle. And Carlisle was the only team that ended up beating them.
And he ran for 173 yards, kicked 4 field goals, and the last one was a 48-yard field goal for the win. And he did all this on a swollen ankle. As I said, he was just by far and away from the best athlete on the field at any given point in time. But he also had like a bad reputation.
Like you know, like a guy who was tough. Just you know, “I grew up on a reservation and I had some problems, and I don’t feel like dealing with you, so I’m just going to take all my anger and aggression on you”. Better get out of the way. And here’s a quote from his son from that ESPN Classic video. It went as such. “These guys would come charging in and Dad would just drop the ball and kick anybody that came close to him. So he put some of these guys in the hospital. And he had such a bad reputation for that, that nobody wanted to charge in on him.”
His biggest college season ended up happening after he came back from the Olympics, where he led Carlisle to a 12-1-1 record. He had 1,860 rushing yards on 191 attempts. For some reason, this Smithsonian article I was reading, said 2 of these games Thorpe played in. So it was possible he was the first-ever 2,000-yard rusher in College, which would have been the first 2,000-yard rusher ever.
He also had 25 touchdowns and 198 points scored for the Carlisle Indians that year. So, again, of course, he was an All-American. All teams wanted Carlisle on their schedule, because of Jim Thorpe. He would bring the crowds. He would bring the money. He would make College football just continue to grow ever so more.
I had a great interview with Steve Sheinkin, the author of the book covering Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian Team if you’re interested.
1912 Stockholm Olypmics
But that was not what he was most famous for at this time. As I said, he had this season after he came back from the Olympics. You’re like Olympics, what are you talking about here? This is a football podcast.
Like I said, remember he was a track and field guru, like a juggernaut? Well, let’s say that’s a good way to begin to explain what he was when it came to him in track and field. For it was at the Olympics where Jim Thorpe would rise to become a world-renowned, international sports superstar.
But before we get into the event that made Jim Thorpe go from a standout football player at a small college, to the world’s greatest athlete.
But now we’re going to take the DeLorean to May of 1912. See this is when the Olympic trials were being held in New York City. So basically, the story goes that Jim Thorpe went to these Olympic trials. He proceeded to win 3 of the 5 pentathlon events, and they told him “hey, you don’t even have to do these trials anymore. You’re in.” In that ESPN Classic video, it’s possible he was one of the only guys, if not the only guy in the history of American Olympics to not have to go through the trials.
Because he was that much better than everybody. They’re like “we don’t want to waste your time guy.” Normally they were recruiting from colleges because at the time it was a little bit different. It was pretty much just the wealthy families that would be able to take their kids and put them in college.
You’re talking about these prissy pants, ya’ know always been given everything to the kind of kids. You know, the upper class of society, and I’m holding my cup with my little finger in the air and that kind of thing. But Jim Thorpe was not one of these guys. He was just tough, coming from a poor background and a reservation and that kind of thing.
He was running through a forest and I got my heart pumping with the ground and the Earth and I’m just running wild and free. I’m not like one of these guys. So yeah, he was a little different. But part of the difference was he was just better than you. Physically talented and gifted. More dominant at any kind of sport than you want to put him in.
Physically, he was the Alpha. Let’s go with that. He was the Alpha physical specimen. So they said dude, don’t even bother showing up. Just get on that boat, and you’re going to go over to Stockholm for the 1912 Olympics. And at the time the Olympics were kind of more a European thing. They weren’t super popular in the states yet.
But I think Jim’s going to have a little bit to say about that. Even on the boat on the way over, there was an account where Mike Murphy found Jim in a hammock. And he was just sitting there. I guess he had his eyes closed. Mike’s like “dude, what are you doing here?” And Jim said, “I’m watching myself, I just cleared this high jump”.
And he’s just closing his eyes and envisioning it, which later on we call visualization and that kind of thing. But he was doing it back then when it wasn’t a thing. He had the IT factor, he had it going on. When he arrived in Stockholm, he was 5’11” and 185 pounds. He had this neck like a linebacker and they said when he would walk through the field he would just puff his chest out. He would like he was a monster, like a Minotaur or something like that.
Half-horse/half-man. They even called Jim a horse. He was an exotic looking American Indian, so he caught the eye of the Swedish fans. So they all started to come to watch him compete. You know, they gotta see this horse. Like I’m calling the Minotaur, half-horse/half-man.
And he is going to just stampede on the competition. But he had never competed in a decathlon in his entire life. He started off with a pentathlon, which he would win the gold. A little side note, his teammate at the time also competed in the pentathlon. This guy went by the name George S. Patton. Yes, that’s right, it was General George S. Patton, one of the greatest military generals that this country ever produced.
And he was on the boat, in fact, he was a teammate of Jim Thorpe, and they would compete together in the pentathlon. So after Jim wins the gold in the pentathlon, he’s all like “there isn’t no rest for the wicked man. I’m getting right back on the horse and I’m gonna go ahead and win that decathlon.” Well at the time we didn’t know, but he had the confidence.
In the first event, he wins the 100 meters. The second event, he wins the shot put, and he dominated. So basically by the 4th event out of 10, it was pretty much over. There was a quote from Frank Zarnowski, the author of The Decathlon, and it went as such. “He dominated the first event in the decathlon, which was the 100 meters. His shot put was better than anyone else in the field.
So by the time you get to the 4th event, it was pretty much over. He won by 700 points, and that‘s kind of like winning 15-0 in a baseball game, or 45-0 in a football game.” Jim had 8,412 points out of a total 10,000 total possible. Which this was basically unheard of at the time.
The video said they were still scoring this amount of points in the ’30s and ’40s, when maybe the athletes caught up to Jim, but not quite. The crazy thing is 2 days after the track part was done; he played in some baseball games. The dude was just a machine. He did not stop. So maybe what they called him earlier, the horse, was true. Because horses could pretty much run forever.
Well this horse, the Minotaur, he would end up coming home after the Olympics being praised beyond belief. He brought America 2 golds. He was going to become the World’s Greatest Athlete, but the only issue was he wasn’t an American citizen yet, because he was born in Indian Territory.
So even though he couldn’t vote, he was bigger than the President of the United States at the time. He was in magazines and penny novels and all sorts of things. They would end up creating this unrealistic, bigger than life image, of Jim Thorpe. But later on in the next episode, we’re going to find out that this is a good thing, at least for you and me sitting here as NFL fans.
They were going to use his fame and glory to try to put some traction into the NFL. We’ll get into that next week. And to kind of wrap up the whole Olympics saga that Jim Thorpe had, I don’t think I can even give it justice as far as telling you what he did. I think the only thing we could have done was watch how much more of a dominant person he was.
I guess maybe Usain Bolt, or something like that, where he was running and almost looked like he wanted to turn around and run backward waving to people. Maybe that was what it was like, but he did it in 15 events, just that much better than everyone else.
The Swedish King Gustav would say to him this, “sir, you are the Greatest Athlete in the World.” And the best thing about it is Jim just said, “Thanks, King.” The guy, he was swagger, by far the most athletically gifted person of the time.