Manataka American Indian Council
Time to Remember
PROFILE: JIM THORPE, 1888-1953
by Whit Canning,
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
"Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world." - King Gustav V of Sweden.
"Thanks, King." - Jim Thorpe
When the above exchange took place on an Olympic stage at Stockholm in 1912 it was perhaps more notable for its cultural irony than a celebration of athletic excellence.
The laconic youth conversing with a European monarch was a Sac and Fox Indian, born to modest circumstances on a farm near Prague, Okla., on May 28, 1888.
His birth preceded by 12 years the advent of "The American Century" - and came two years before the slaughter at Wounded Knee in South Dakota ended, forever, the native American dream of independence.
Yet, before a generation had passed, Jim Thorpe was the idol of a nation fast becoming obsessed with sports and sports heroes.
Thorpe's achievements during the second decade of the 1900's make him perhaps the greatest all-around athlete of the century.
A storied football All -American on Glenn "Pop" Warner's teams at the Carlisle Indian School and a double gold medal winner in the 1912 (Olympics, Thorpe - who later played baseball for the New York Giants and became a founder of the NFL - was indeed an American hero.
"He had an exceptional life," said Bill Thorpe, 70, a retired aircraft worker living in Arlington, Texas, and one of four children from Thorpe's second marriage. "I think that, because of his great athletic achievements, he never personally suffered any discrimination from being an Indian. And because I was his son, neither did I."
In 1950, three years before his death of a heart attack, Thorpe was voted the greatest American athlete of the century's first 50 years in -a poll of sports editors conducted by the Associated Press. Babe Ruth finished second.
Grace Thorpe figures the result should be the same for the century as a whole. The youngest of four children from Thorpe's first marriage, she has drafted a petition and resolution presenting her father's case as the greatest athlete of the century.
"I think I have pretty good evidence," said Thorpe, 77, who lives in Prague, near where her father grew up. "Name somebody else who played Major League Baseball and professional football and won two gold medals in the Olympics.
"Go up to the Pro Football Hall of fame in Canton, and the first thing you see when you walk in is a statue of my father - like he's coming right at you." Thorpe's life, however, was hardly a grand procession of triumphs.
The son of Hiram and Charlotte Thorpe, his Indian - name Wa-Tho-Huk - meant "Bright Path," and in the beginning, Thorpe had a great friend and playmate; a twin brother, Charlie. They were inseparable, and the first great blow of Thorpe's life came at age 9 when CharIie dies of pneumonia.
"He told me once that he thought some of that tremendous energy he had might have rightfully belonged to his brother," Grace Thorpe said. "He felt he had somehow taken it away from Charlie, and it haunted him."
As a teen-ager, he lost both of his parents and eventually was sent to the great Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pa.
"The Indian schools of that day were the brainchild of Richard Henry Patt," Grace said. "He was army lieutenant back in the 1870s who captured a large number of Apaches and was amazed at how quickly they picked up the English language.
"He eventually founded Carlisle, and the idea was to create a comfortable atmosphere for assimilating the native peoples into the white culture .The schools were remarkably successful in their purpose, but they also totally destroyed the family."
At Carlisle, Thorpe found a mentor in Warner, a future bride in class-mate Iva Miller and great fame as America's premier athlete
Warner's Carlisle teams were among the most amazing in history: famed far annually taking on a gauntlet of Eastern powers - then the cream of collegiate football - and defeating all but one or two per year. 'Their triumphs were legendary; a 1911 victory over mighty Harvard and a 27-6 victory in 1912 army team featuring halfback Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Extremely swift and noted for a running style that sometimes knocked opposing tacklers cold, Thorpe was an All-American in 1911 and 1912 when he scored 25 touchdowns and 198 points.
In between those two seasons, he represented his country in the Summer Olympics. Traveling with him was Carlisle teammate Louis Tewanima, a distance runner so formidable he once won a 2-mile race after running the 18 miles to Harrisburg, Pa., for the event.
But it was Thorpe who excelled in Stockholm, winning the Games most grueling events - the pentathlon and decathlon. To win the two medals that would soon be taken from him, Thorpe had to compete in 15 events - five in the pentathlon (broad jump, javelin, discus, 200 meters and 1,500 meters) and 10 in the decathlon (100 meters, broad jump, high jump, shot put, 400 meters, 110-meter hurdles, discus, javelin, pole vault and 1,500 meters).
Thorpe accumulated enough points - including 8,412.96 points in the decathlon, then a world record - to win, two golds and the admiration of a king.
In the years after his departure from Carlisle, Thorpe played six major league seasons - mostly with John McGraw's Giants - and 15 years of pro football with the Canton Bulldogs, Oorang Indians, Chicago Cardinals and others. He was the first president of the league that eventually became the NFL. Two marriages dissolved, and he filled his later years with work in Hollywood and speaking engagements.
Bill Thorpe remembers his father as "happy-go-lucky,'' a generous man with many, many friends. Grace has a different recollection.
"He really had a rather unhappy life," she said, "very sad personally, if you think about it. His twin brother died as a child, and he never completely got over it.
"He lost his mother when he was 15, and later, when his father died, he was away at school and no one even bothered to tell him. He became an orphan, and later his own first-born son (Jim Jr.) died as a child. He married the love of his life my mother - but she' finally left him, and so did Freeda (Bill's mother). He had a lot of sadness."
In 1913, Thorpe was stripped of his Olympic records and medals because he had received money for playing semi-pro baseball. Although the rules of the day were -- "Basically, they used me as a guinea pig to make up the rules," Thorpe once said - the decision stood until long after his death March 28, 1953.
"The notion that he was a 'professional' at the time of the Olympics is ridiculous," Bill Thorpe said. "He competed in athletics for the sheer exhilaration of it. He was a natural athlete and he just loved doing it - all of it. He grew up in the country, breaking wild horses and playing a kind of follow-the-leader game with the other boys, in which they all learned to excel at a lot of different things."
The records and medals were restored in 1982 through the efforts of the Thorpe family and others - notably Robert Wheeler, who became president of the Jim Thorpe Foundation and author of the book Thorpe, World's Greatest
"I asked him about it once," Grace said, "and all he said was, 'I never wrote a letter to anyone trying to get them back.'
"But his eyes burned when he said it, and it obviously bothered him all of his life. When the metals were finally restored, we all had a great feeling of accomplishment."
The breakup of her parents' marriage, Grace says, was an early manifestation of a now-familiar syndrome.
"Let's just say that a profession athlete does not usually make a great husband," she said. "On the road, he would go out and drink with the others after a game - so did McGraw for that matter - and because they were famous men, there were always women available. It was just tough an my mom, and she' finally ended it."
Thorpe's relationship with John McGraw was never easy either, and his career with the Giants ended because - take your pick - he drank too much and was not ready to play; McGraw wanted him to give up football; or, the relationship ended one day when Thorpe chased McGraw around the field after the famous manager called him a "dumb Indian."
Grace Thorpe simply remembers that, "McGraw's wife, Blanche, was very kind to my mother and remained her friend for years.'' As far her father, she said, "He didn't talk much normally, and you had to pull things out of him.
"He was an honest, serious man ... stoic, ...who worked hard to take care of his family. The most money he ever made a- an athlete was maybe $10,000 - it's ridiculous what they make today - and there were always financial needs."
At the moment, Grace Thorpe's world revolves around making sure that the 1950 vote holds true for the century. "Well, he never had a big PR machine back when he was alive," she said, or he might have made more money flow. Right now I'm it - a 77-year-old lady livin' on Social Security. But I get a lot of mail. "The other day, a guy from Japan sent me a book he wrote about my dad. It looks good, but it's written in Japanese, so I realy can't read it."She also has received a call from Tom NcNabb, author of Donovan's Run. Who is working on a new book.
"The hero of the book is a black track star," she said, "trying to win the greatest race of his life.
"Running against the ghost of Jim Thorpe."
Athlete of the Century Campaign
James Francis Thorpe accomplished arguably what no other athlete in history has. The Sac and Fox Indian won gold medals in the pentathlon and decathlon in the 1912 Olympic games in Sweden and played both professional football and professional baseball. His feats on the football field put him on the 1911 and 1912 All-American football teams. In 1920 he became the first president of the American Professional Football Association (later to become the NFL).
Jim Thorpe, the football star and Olympic legend whom Sweden's King Gustav V called "the greatest athlete in the world." was named, in 1950, by the Associated Press the greatest football player and greatest all-round athlete for the first 50 years of this century. Grace Thorpe believes that there will be a naming of the greatest athlete of the century.
When others fail to give her father his due, Grace Thorpe doesn't hesitate to take them on.
In 1982, Grace won her five-year battle to get the International Olympic Committee to return the two gold medals - for the decathlon and pentathlon - that her father had won in Stockholm in 1912. The medals were stripped from him after it was discovered that he had played semiprofessional baseball as a student at Carlisle Indian Industrial School.
"The modern day Olympics started in 1896, and they had no hard and fast rules on mixing professional and amateur sports. They sort of made the rules on Dad," said Grace.
With four years to go until the year 2000, Grace Thorpe doesn't think she started the athlete-of-the-century drive too soon.
"Things take a long time." she said, "I don't want any mix-ups like the one where they've proposed having the 1996 Olympic Torch Relay-Run coming through Yale, which they had been calling Dad's birthplace. Dad's birthplace was near the town of Prague (Oklahoma)."
As she travels around the country to Indian ceremonies and environmental gatherings, she frequently sets up booths and asks people to sign two petitions - one declaring her father athlete of the century and another for a ban on nuclear activities. Grace, whose Indian name is No Ten O Quah (Wind Woman), is president of the National Environmental Coalition of Native Americans (NECONA) which fights efforts for the burial of nuclear wastes on Indian Lands.
This information was compiled from articles printed in People Weekly Magazine, 01/08/96 Vol.45, No.1 and Tulsa World Newspaper, 12/10/95.
World's Greatest Athlete" by Gregory Richards. Foreward by Grace Thorpe
who is spearheading a campaign declaring Jim Thorpe "America's Greatest
All Around Athlete of the Century". Excellent for Jr. High ages up.
Personally autographed and inscribed by Ms. Thorpe to the recipient.
Hard cover. $23.00 (tax/mailing included) Proceeds go toward the "Jim
Thorpe for Athlete of the Century" Campaign.
Send check or money order
to: NECONA, 2213 W. 8th St., Prague, OK 74864, ph(405) 567-4297,
National Environmental Coalition Of Native Americans NECONA
Our thanks to: http://www.alphacdc.com/necona/jimthorp.html
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