He played in the MLB, he was a football star and he won two Olympic gold medals. Jim Thorpe’s is the story of a native American and one of the best athletes of all time.
A beam of light, a golden whip that emerges from the sun, like a premonition, it lit up the road that led directly to the cabin in which a little half-blood- Native American and half European- was protected by the Sac and Fox tribe of Oklahoma. He was named Wa-Tho-Huk (“Bright Path” in the Algonquian language), but they baptized him Jacobus Franciscus and in the annals of history he is remembered as Jim Thorpe.
Today, we again reflect on this great sports figure as November, is Native American Heritage Month.
Unofficially, May 28 of 1888, is recognized as Jim Thorpe’s birthday, who from a very early age, was put to the test to overcome adversity. He suffered the death of his twin brother, Charlie, and then he lost his mother, who passed away during the birth of a child.
Depression and loneliness sunk Jim. He ran away from home to elude the shadows that chased him. He got temporary jobs taking care of horses in nearby ranches. Nevertheless, when he turned 16 years old, he returned home to get reunited with his father. Thorpe was sent to study in Pennsylvania, where he attended the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. This was a very particular institution in which only young people from native American tribes attended. There, he met legendary coach Glenn Scobey “Pop” Warner, who changed his life.
COACH GLENN ‘POP’ WARNER TRAINING JIM THORPE. PHOTO: WIKIPEDIA.
Sports, his light
Jim Thorpe started to practice sports when he was 19 years old. He possessed a balanced combination of speed and endurance. He stood out among the other students because of his size -6 feet and 200 pounds- considered large at the time, and outstanding physical abilities that allowed him to dominate in multiple sports: Baseball, Basketball, Lacrosse, Swimming, and Archery. When he wasn’t studying, he dedicated all of his time to training.
While he was on the running track one day, Thorpe witnessed a football practice. The sport got his attention and decided to try it out, but coach ‘Pop’ Warner didn’t feel like risking the track star athlete to injury. Nonetheless, the coach allowed Thorpe to play for a few snaps. Right from the get-go, he became an unstoppable force that no one could tackle. Jim Thorpe became an instant starter in various positions: Running Back, Defensive Back and kicker. The Wa-Tho-Huk legend was born.
THORPE IN HIS CARLISLE UNIFORM. PHOTO: WIKIPEDIA
Dazzled Harvard and a Future United States President
The passion for football flourished in Thorpe and 1911 was a year that was marked for posterity. With Jim’s leadership on the field and Pop Warner’s from the sidelines, the Indians achieved one of the biggest milestones in College Football.
That year, on a November afternoon at Harvard Stadium in Cambridge, in front of 25 thousand fans, the Carlisle Indians defeated the Ivy League team by score of 18 to 15. At the time, Harvard was a college football powerhouse. The myth has that Jim Thorpe scored all the points for Carlisle, the truth is that he made four field goals and one extra point, while his teammate Alex Arcasa, scored a touchdown (that were worth five points back then) for his team.
That victory raised the Indians to a record of 9-0, and they finished that season at 11-1. The only loss for Warner’s team happened a week after the Harvard match, when Syracuse defeated them by a single point 12-11.
On December 31st of 1911, Jim Thorpe was recognized as the “most valuable player” of the season by the Houston Post.
A year later, on November 9 of 1912, when the Indians clashed against Army, in West Point, New York, there were bigger stakes than just the victory of the game. In some regions of the United States there were still armed clashes between the native American tribes and the military.
Wha-Tho-Huk and his teammates showed a lot of grit and pride on the gridiron, as they defeated the Army cadets 27-6. During the match, a young linebacker named Dwight Eisenhower, blew up his knee by trying to tackle Thorpe. Eisenhower, would later become a prominent general during the Second World War and in 1952 elected the 34th President of the United States.
During the match, Thorpe scored a 97 yard touchdown and ended up tallying up a total of 22 points. Eisenhower, during a speech in 1961, said the following:
“Here and there, there are always people who are supremely gifted. My memory brings me to the memory of Jim Thorpe. He never played [football] in his life, and he could do anything better than any other player I’d ever seen”.
For a second straight year, Jim Thorpe was named All-American. Football was one of his biggest passions, but he became a household name thanks to his accomplishments on track and field.
Jim Thorpe’s ascent to Olympus
The 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm were approaching. While Jim was inactive for a couple of years in track and field disciplines, he resumed sprinting, hurdling, pole jumping and throwing the javelin, discus and hammer.
The qualifying rounds for the United States Olympic team were held at Celtic Park in New York. His solid performance guaranteed him his pass to Sweden, along with the rest of his country’s Olympic delegation.
“Bright Path” won gold medals in the pentathlon and decathlon, something unheard of, a feat that became much greater when it was revealed that he competed with much larger shoes that he found lying around, since his were stolen before the jousts.
Jim Thorpe was praised for his quality and his triumphs as an athlete, however, the medals that he won with sweat and effort, were stripped from him by the bureaucracy and “the regulations”. Athletes who received professional pay could not compete in the Olympics. Thorpe was a salaried baseball player when he played in 1909 and 1910 for the Rocky Mount team of the Eastern Carolina League, which paid him $ 35 a week. Upon learning of this, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) withdrew his medals.
THORPE, WEARING MIS-MATCHED SHOES AND SOCKS AT THE 1912 OLYMPICS. PHOTO: WIKIPEDIA.
With humility, Jim Thorpe offered an apology because he was unaware of the Olympic regulations, however, this setback did not stop his career as an athlete. He was a baseball star and played in the Major Leagues beginning in 1913. He was part of the New York Giants, Cincinnati Reds and Boston Braves. In 1915 he played professional football with the Canton Bulldogs and in 1920 he was named the first president of the American Professional Football Association (APFA), which two years later became the NFL.
Posthumous (partial) Recognition
His glory days as an athlete behind him, hard times beset Thorpe, as he sadly faced poverty. He carried out various types of jobs: movie extra, nightclub “bouncer” and was also a United States Merchant Marine. The light that once made him “the best athlete in the world” had faded.
In 1950 he was diagnosed with lip cancer and in 1951 was admitted to a hospital in Philadelphia.
Jim Thorpe died on March 28, 1953, at the age of 64 of a heart attack in Lomita, California.
After his death and after many debates and discussions, in 1983 the International Olympic Committee (IOC) finally voted to reinstate the medals to Wa-Tho-Huk, who declared back when they were taken away, that “he was only a Native American who did not know the rules”.
The IOC Executive Committee agreed to return the medals, but only declaring him co-champion along with Ferdinand Bie and Hugo Wieslander, although both men always and repeatedly stated that Thorpe was the sole champion.
On January 18, 1983, in an emotional ceremony the IOC made a “symbolic return” of Jim Thorpe’s medals to two of his sons, Gale and Bill. They received a couple of commemorative medals because the originals were stolen and to date have not been recovered.
Another shot at vindication
Following his death in 1953, as a result of Oklahoma’s failure to raise funds for a proper memorial, Thorpe’s remains were laid to rest in a mausoleum east of the Lehigh River in Pennsylvania, surrounded by monuments to his career, and built on earth brought from the Sac and Fox lands and from the Stockholm Olympic Stadium where he became the world’s greatest athlete. The town which is 100 miles from where he began his sports career as a student at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, was renamed to bear his American name, Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania.
In July 2020 a new request to the IOC began to circulate with the aim of claiming Jim Thorpe as the only true Olympic pentathlon and decathlon champion of Stockholm 1912. This request was also supported by Pictureworks Entertainment, which currently is making a biographical film ‘Bright Path Strong’ of the man who is considered one of the most gifted athletes and best sportsmen in history. These efforts finally were successful, as on July 2022, the International Olympic Committee in Lausanne, Switzerland, finally reinstated Jim Thorpe as the sole winner of the 1912 Olympic pentathlon and decathlon.