May 28, 2010
Long before Bo knew anything and Deion was Neon, there was Jim Thorpe, the original 20th-century world-class, multi-sport athlete. He set the standard for others to follow, dominating college football, winning Olympic gold medals in the decathlon and pentathlon, and then following those up with a Hall of Fame professional football career. Oh yeah, and he played a little major-league baseball, too.
Thorpe was born 123 years ago today to a mixed-race couple in Prague, Oklahoma. Jacobus “Jim” Franciscus Thorpe was of Irish, French, and Sauk and Fox Native American ancestry. His parents raised him as a Sauk and Fox, and the translation of Thorpe’s Native name, Wa-Tho-Huk, “Bright Path,” foreshadowed the formidable athletic achievements he would make.
Within the collections of the Smithsonian Institution, a rather unique artifact honors the memory of the great athlete—the famous 2001 Wheaties cereal box bearing his portrait. A grass roots campaign began in 2000 to get Thorpe the honored cover position and today, one of the cereal boxes resides at the National Museum of the American Indian.
At age 16, Thorpe was sent to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, where he began exhibiting his legendary natural athletic prowess in track and field. But football would eventually capture his attention and become his true love. Under the tutelage of innovative coaching great Glenn Scobey “Pop” Warner, Thorpe used his combination of speed and power to dominate at several positions on offense and defense, leading Carlisle to a championship while earning All-America honors in 1911 and 1912.
Warner described the six-foot-one, 200-pound Thorpe as “the most complete athlete in the world” and suggested that he compete in the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden. It turned out to be an excellent suggestion, as Thorpe put on a show, utilizing his all-around athletic abilities to rack up gold medals in the pentathlon and decathlon. “You, sir, are the world’s greatest athlete,” King Gustav V of Sweden congratulated Thorpe during the presentation ceremony. To which Thorpe famously responded, “Thanks, King.”
However, the hero who had returned home to a ticker-tape parade was stripped of his Olympic gold medals in 1913, when it was found that he had violated amateur status rules by playing semi-pro baseball before competing in the Olympics. This wasn’t something new, by any means. Many college players of the time did the same thing to pick up money on the side; but most did it on the sly, using aliases to protect their identities. Unfortunately for Thorpe, he had used his own name. Due to the commonality of the practice, there was little public outrage, but the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) came down hard anyway, retroactively revoking his amateur status, prompting the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to strip Thorpe of his medals.
Now formally declared a professional, Thorpe signed with the New York Giants (baseball), and ended up playing sporadically over the next six years for three different teams. He spent his summers on the diamond and his winters on the gridiron, signing with the Canton Bulldogs in 1915. Thorpe was dominant on both sides of the ball, leading the Bulldogs to three unofficial world championships in 1916, 1917 and 1919, while raising the status of professional football with his world-class athletic reputation. And when the American Professional Football Association—which would go on to become the NFL—was first organized in 1920, Thorpe was named league president.
By the end of his sports career, Thorpe was struggling with alcoholism and health problems. He died of a heart attack in 1953. Following Thorpe’s death, the Pennsylvania boroughs of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk merged, renaming the town Jim Thorpe. They purchased Jim Thorpe’s remains from his third wife, and erected a monument in his honor.
While Thorpe’s athletic exploits increased the visibility of the Native American people, ironically not all Native Americans were even recognized as citizens of the United States as he was winning those gold medals. At that time the US government required certain concessions to be made by Native Americans in order to be granted citizenship. There were also some unproven rumblings that his medals were stripped due to his Native American heritage.
After many years of efforts by Thorpe supporters, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) restored the athelete’s medals in 1983, 30 years after his death. His legendary reputation stands today, and as recently as 1999 he finished third in an Associated Press poll of the top athletes of the century, behind only Babe Ruth and Michael Jordan.
Perhaps 1912 Olympic silver medalist Abel Kiviat summed up Jim Thorpe’s talents the best, “What he had was natural ability. There wasn’t anything he couldn’t do. All he had to see is someone doin’ something and he tried it…and he’d do it better.”
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