In the modern era of athletics it is widely believed that, the more sports one plays, the better all-around athlete that person is.
Thus, it is no surprise to read about young prep stars playing multiple sports while in high school.
However, except for the very rare circumstances, those same prep stars are forced to focus on their primary sport in college.
It is even more rare for an athlete to play more than one sport as a professional.
Due to the toll a professional sport can have on one’s body (let alone the time spent for media requests and marketing projects) professional athletes do well to stick with their best sport.
In the modern era, Deion Sanders and Bo Jackson are most notable for playing both professional baseball and football.
However, both men eventually gravitated to one sport due to the physical and mental tolls on their body.
The ability of one person to achieve success in more than one venture is commendable.
If a person somehow finds great success in a handful of endeavors, that person is indeed exceptional.
Jim Thorpe was such a person.
Not only was Thorpe a stellar football player, but he was also an Olympic champion, pro baseball player, and could hold his own on the basketball court.
Overcoming a difficult upbringing, Thorpe would become world famous.
However, by the time of his death, Thorpe was broke and struggling with addiction.
This is the story of the exhilarating, yet sad, life of Jim Thorpe.
Jim Thorpe, 1920 pic.twitter.com/4blRIhpVhs
— Chris Mason (@mason4922) March 9, 2021
James Francis Thorpe was born on May 22 (or May 28 according to some records) 1887 near Prague, Oklahoma.
Thorpe’s parents consisted of an Irish father and a mother who was a member of the Sac and Fox Indian tribe.
At his birth, Thorpe was also given a native name, Wa-Tho-Huk, which is loosely translated as “Bright Path.”
Initially, Thorpe’s path was not bright. When he was nine, Thorpe’s twin brother, Charlie, died of pneumonia.
After Charlie’s death, Thorpe frequently ran away from school.
Eventually, his father sent him to the Haskell Institute in Kansas that served as an Indian boarding school.
A few years after arriving at Haskell, Thorpe’s mother died of complications due to childbirth.
Thorpe returned home soon after, but numerous heated arguments with his father led to Thorpe leaving home and finding work on a horse ranch.
When he was 16, Thorpe returned home again. He then decided to attend Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
While at Carlisle, Thorpe displayed athletic talent and was coached by Glenn “Pop” Warner.
Warner would eventually become known as one of the pioneers of the game of football.
“I never was content,” Thorpe said years later, “unless I was trying my skill in some game against my fellow playmates or testing my endurance and wits against some member of the animal kingdom.”
Just when Thorpe was finding his way at Carlisle, tragedy struck again.
While he was hunting, Thorpe’s father was accidently wounded and developed gangrene.
The gangrene spread quickly and eventually took his life.
With his father’s passing, Thorpe became an orphan.
He left Carlisle soon after and found work on a farm.
Return to Carlisle
By 1907, Thorpe returned to Carlisle.
This was no easy feat as Carlisle had a reputation as a school where Native Americans went to die (figuratively).
Founded in 1879 by General Richard Henry Pratt, Carlisle became a boarding school for young Native Americans.
General Pratt believed that Native Americans were equal to European Americans and, therefore, should be given every opportunity to assimilate into white American culture.
Part of this process included cutting the long hair of the students brought to the school, depriving them of their religious and spiritual beliefs, and giving them new names.
In order to prepare the Native students for acceptance into regular society, Pratt attempted to “Kill the Indian: Save the man.”
This was accomplished through whatever means necessary.
Pratt was known to use physical punishment to force the students to behave “correctly” and become dependent only on themselves.
Meanwhile, Thorpe was doing his best to abide by the school rules and find avenues to test his athletic abilities.
One day while walking by track practice, Thorpe watched as the high jumpers on the team failed to clear a jump of 5’9.”
Still clad in his work clothes, he approached the high jump area and asked the coach for an opportunity.
With no formal training in the event, Thorpe cleared the bar easily.
Thorpe’s agility and ability in clearing the high jump was only the catalyst of the achievements to come.
Within the next few years, Thorpe sought more challenges for his athletic prowess.
Not only was he able to perform well in track and field events, he could play other sports and activities with remarkable talent.
For instance, Thorpe participated in ballroom dancing and won the 1912 Intercollegiate Ballroom Dancing Championship.
Before that feat, Thorpe won six events during a track meet against Lafayette College in 1909 which almost single-handedly won the meet.
“After it was all over, Thorpe couldn’t tell you how he did it,” Lafayette coach Harold Anson Bruce said. “Everything came natural.”
Where most collegians worked during the summers, Thorpe spent the summers of 1909 and 1910 playing baseball.
He was a member of a team based in Fayetteville, North Carolina as part of the Class D Carolina League.
Thorpe was paid between $2-$35 for his services.
In 1911, Thorpe wanted to try his hand at football.
Initially, Pop Warner was reluctant to allow Thorpe to play such a rough and violent game.
However, after Thorpe continued to pester Warner for an opportunity, Warner finally acquiesced.
Thorpe took the pigskin during a Carlisle practice and proceeded to run over, through, and around his fellow classmates.
After a number of such plays, Thorpe bounded over to Warner and referred to himself in the third person while remarking, “Nobody is going to tackle Jim,” while handing Warner the ball.
Non-Contact Tackling Drills have always been a part of football practices.
⚖️ This is Jim Thorpe in 1912 tackling a dummy attached to a wire on a weighted pulley system.
⏱️ The tackling system was created by Carlisle coach Pop Warner to improve safety & practice efficiency. pic.twitter.com/h5rCWai1I4
— Coach Dan Casey (@CoachDanCasey) July 20, 2020
Indeed, most opponents did experience a hard time tackling Thorpe on the gridiron (or anything else for that matter).
As a running back, defensive back, kicker, and punter, Thorpe was everywhere on the field.
He was soon making national headlines with his seemingly superhuman skills on the field.
In a game against Harvard, Thorpe kicked four field goals on the way to an 18-15 upset.
Harvard, at the time, was frequently a top ranked team in college football.
Thorpe and Carlisle, announced their arrival as one of the elites when they finished the 1911 season 11-1.
Harvard lost to Carlisle, with Jim Thorpe, in a football game on November 11, 1911. A date that looks like this (111111) won't come around again for a while. pic.twitter.com/AeZIQXnXGV
— John Thorn (@thorn_john) October 21, 2020
In 1912, Thorpe scored 27 touchdowns and 224 total points on the way to a national championship.
That season, he also rushed for 1,869 yards on 191 carries.
During a game against Army in 1912, Thorpe competed against future president Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Thorpe so thoroughly dominated Army that day that Eisenhower still talked about him with great awe years later.
“Here and there, there are some people who are supremely endowed,” said Eisenhower in 1961. “My memory goes back to Jim Thorpe. He never practiced in his life, and he could do anything better than any other football player I ever saw.”
Thorpe was named a First-team All-American after the 1911 and 1912 seasons.
Before Thorpe ran roughshod on the football field in 1912, he decided to partake in an event of world renown during the summer of that year.
By 1912, Thorpe had not competed in track and field for two years.
That didn’t stop him from training for the upcoming Olympic games in Stockholm, Sweden.
Thorpe trained for the high and long jumps, hurdles, shot-put, javelin, pole vault, discus, and hammer throw.
His ability to compete in all these events earned Thorpe a place on the United States Olympic team.
— Raúl Gómez Samperio (@RaulGSamperio) March 4, 2021
Thorpe’s uncanny ability to compete in numerous track and field events was perfect for the relatively new events of the decathlon and pentathlon.
He was entered as a member of the U.S. team for both events and would also compete in the long and high jumps.
During the pentathlon, Thorpe won four out of five events and placed third in the javelin (an event he had not competed in before the Games).
Thorpe won the gold medal for the event and would later finish fourth in the high jump and seventh in the long jump.
In the decathlon, Thorpe finished in the top four in all of the events.
His total point value of 8,413 would stand for nearly 20 years.
What is most notable about Thorpe’s performances during the Olympic Games was the fact that he was using mismatched shoes.
Before the Games began, someone had absconded with his shoes.
That left Thorpe scrambling to find replacements, which he did when he found one replacement in a garbage can and made due with another shoe he found.
This is Jim Thorpe. Look closely at the photo, you can see that he's wearing different socks and shoes. This wasn't a fashion statement. It was the 1912 Olympics, and Jim, an American Indian from Oklahoma represented the U.S. in track and field. pic.twitter.com/gcKUZnyzDO
— The13thPanther (@13thPanther) March 3, 2021
After the Games ended, King Gustav of Sweden was awarding Thorpe his two gold medals along with two ‘challenge prizes’ when he remarked, “Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world.” “Thanks, king,” Thorpe responded.
When Thorpe returned to the states, he and the Olympic team were feted with a ticker tape parade in New York City.
“I heard people yelling my name,” he said then, “and I couldn’t realize how one fellow could have so many friends.”
Controversy Due to ‘Amateurism’ and the Olympics
About six months after the Olympics, the Worcester (Massachusetts) Telegram published a story detailing the fact that Thorpe had received pay for playing baseball in the Carolina League in 1909 and 1910.
This was against the strict amateurism rules at the time that forbade Olympic athletes from competing in the games if they had already received pay as a professional athlete.
Unfortunately, Thorpe did not know that many college athletes who played professional ball during the summers changed their name to protect their college eligibility and amateur status.
When Thorpe played in the Carolinas, he had used his birth name.
When interviewed about the issue, Thorpe pleaded ignorance.
“I hope I will be partly excused by the fact that I was simply an Indian schoolboy and did not know all about such things. I was not very wise in the ways of the world and did not realize this was wrong,” Thorpe said at the time.
Thorpe’s appeal meant little to the International Olympic Committee and the IOC stripped him of his two gold medals.
The Amateur Athletic Union also took away Thorpe’s amateur status retroactively.
Thorpe Begins his Professional Career
After the Olympic fiasco, Thorpe was now free to pursue his interests in professional sports.
The Carolina League team he had played for in 1910 had disbanded, so Thorpe became a free agent.
Several teams pursued Thorpe and he eventually signed a $6,000 annual contract to play for the defending National League champion New York Giants in 1913.
“There can be no denying that he (Thorpe) is a great prospect,” wrote one observer after the signing, “and many critics would not be surprised if, under [John] McGraw‘s careful tutelage, he developed into another Ty Cobb.”
Meanwhile, McGraw admitted during Thorpe’s signing ceremony that he had not actually seen Thorpe play, didn’t know what position he would play, or even if Thorpe hit right or left handed.
That season, it became obvious that Thorpe had trouble tracking and hitting breaking balls, especially a curveball.
Thorpe spent most of 1913 as a pinch runner and hitter and finished the season with a .143 average and two stolen bases.
“I felt like a sitting hen, not a ballplayer,” Thorpe said about his playing time that year.
Following the Giants loss in the World Series, the team joined with the Chicago White Sox for a world tour.
Thorpe was the main attraction on the tour with fans flocking to see him wherever the team played.
1923 First-team All-Pro
NFL 1920s All-Decade Team
2X Olympic Gold medalist (pentathlon and decathlon) pic.twitter.com/wdHyDNj7bl
— Carolyn Muse (@NLCarolynMuse) May 28, 2020
For the next three years, Thorpe bounced back and forth between the Giants and the minor league Milwaukee Brewers.
By 1917, Thorpe (after spending the first part of the season as a Cincinnati Red) and the Giants were back in the World Series.
However, Thorpe did not get a chance to play in the Series as McGraw went with other Giants players he believed would give the team the best chance to win.
After the series, renowned sports writer Ring Lardner wrote a scathing assessment of Thorpe.
“Jim stayed in the batting order until it was his turn to bat. Then he put his ugly brown sweater back on and resumed his habitual seat in the wigwam.”
In 1918, Thorpe continued to find little playing time and he was traded to the Boston Braves in May of 1919.
That season proved to be his best as a professional baseball player when he hit .327 in 60 games.
In 289 major league games, Thorpe hit a combined .252, seven home runs, and had a fielding percentage of .951.
He continued to play minor league baseball until 1922, but did not return to the majors.
One of the greatest athletes of all-time, Jim Thorpe, with one of the best baseball players of all-time, Ted Williams pic.twitter.com/IZN6gsc2Y2
— BaseballHistoryNut (@nut_history) March 9, 2021
Thorpe and Professional Football
Even though Thorpe was playing baseball, he also found time to play professional football.
In 1913, he was a member of the Pine Village Pros, a successful team based in Indiana.
In 1915, he signed with the Canton Bulldogs, who paid Thorpe the sum of $250 per game ($6,318 in today’s currency).
Thorpe continued to play for the Bulldogs in 1916, 1917, and 1919.
During the ‘19 championship game, Thorpe reportedly punted the ball 95 yards that was aided by a strong wind.
— Lakota Man (@LakotaMan1) November 1, 2020
Canton joined together with 14 other teams to become the American Professional Football Association in 1920.
The APFA would become the NFL two years later.
Thorpe was named the president of the APFA but continued to play for the Bulldogs that season.
Joseph Carr would take Thorpe’s place as APFA president a year later.
In 1921, Thorpe founded the Oorang Indians, a Native American team.
Oorang sported a 3-6 record in 1922 and was 1-10 in 1923.
Thorpe played the next few seasons for Rock Island (Illinois) and The New York Giants football teams before returning to Canton during 1926.
After briefly retiring, Thorpe signed with the Chicago Cardinals on November 30, 1928 to play in a game against the Chicago Bears.
Unfortunately, it was clear Thorpe’s best days as an athlete were behind him.
“Jim Thorpe played a few minutes but was unable to get anywhere,” one reporter wrote of Thorpe’s Chicago debut. “In his forties and muscle-bound, Thorpe was a mere shadow of his former self.”
After the game, Thorpe retired as a professional athlete.
— NFL Alumni (@NFLAlumni) October 31, 2016
Difficult Life in Retirement
As with many current retired professional athletes, Thorpe had trouble adjusting to life away from the glamor of pro sports.
He drifted around from job to job, never lasting long in any specific position.
Thorpe found work in Hollywood during the Depression as an extra in many films where he was typecast as an Indian chief in westerns.
In 1931, he sold the film rights to his life story to MGM for $1,500 ($25,000 in today’s currency).
Most of the time, however, Thorpe found the going difficult.
At various times, he was a bouncer, painter, construction worker, ditch digger, security guard, and deck-hand.
Thorpe had consumed alcohol as an athlete, but in retirement, his drinking became worse.
There were numerous reports of fights involving the former star where alcohol was the primary factor.
In 1950, Thorpe was hospitalized for lip cancer.
Before the procedure, his wife shared with the world Thorpe’s serious health and money woes.
“We’re broke … Jim has nothing but his name and his memories. He has spent money on his own people and has given it away. He has often been exploited.”
A year later, Thorpe found renewed fame when Burt Lancaster portrayed him in the movie “Jim Thorpe All-American.”
Thorpe was paid $15,000 for the film plus an extra $2,500 donation in an annuity for him, given by the head of the studio.
— Eddie Connors (@econnors22) March 3, 2021
On May 28, 1953, Thorpe died from a heart attack in Lomita, California while having dinner with his wife.
He was 64 years old.
After Thorpe’s passing, officials in Oklahoma made arrangements for Thorpe’s body to be returned to Shawnee, Oklahoma.
Before his death, Thorpe had told family members that he wanted to be buried on the Sac and Fox land in Oklahoma.
During last night’s College Football National Championship game, Jim Thorpe (Sac and Fox Nation) was named number 5 (out of 150) best college football player ever! Congratulations to the Thorpe Family, as Jim Thorpe represents a legacy to our Native American communities. pic.twitter.com/IGJgIWhGpO
— Navajo Nation Vice President Myron Lizer (@NNVP_Lizer) January 15, 2020
Not long after the funeral, Thorpe’s wife hastily made arrangements for Thorpe’s body to be sent to the towns of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania.
In a deal with town officials, Thorpe would be buried in Pennsylvania, the towns would merge together and be renamed Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, and a statue commemorating Thorpe would be erected.
Jim Thorpe is amazing in any weather, but a blanket of snow adds a little something special. ❄️💙
— Pocono Mountains VB (@PoconoTourism) March 3, 2021
In 2010, Thorpe’s son, Jack, filed a lawsuit against Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania claiming that the agreement made between the town and his step mother were invalid.
Jack Thorpe sought to have his father’s remains returned to Oklahoma to be buried with other family relatives.
Three years later, a district judge ruled in favor of the town of Jim Thorpe, claiming that the town was considered a ‘museum’ under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
Under this ruling, Thorpe’s body would remain in Pennsylvania.
After numerous attempts at an appeal, the United States Supreme Court refused to hear the matter in 2015, therefore bringing the matter to a close.
Ten years after Thorpe’s death, he was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame based in the town he played for, Canton, Ohio.
His bio on the Hall of Fame site reads, “My earning days in athletics are at an end and while sports have been my livelihood, I have really played for the love of competition.”
Thorpe is primarily remembered as a track and field, baseball, and football star.
It wasn’t until 2005 that a ticket was found that showed Thorpe also played basketball.
Further digging found that he had been a member of the “World Famous Indians” of LaRue, Ohio.
The team traveled around multiple states between 1927-1928.
It was also revealed years later that Thorpe briefly considered playing professional hockey for the Tecumseh Hockey Club in 1913.
As famous as Thorpe was for his athletic exploits, he was also known for the extreme level of racism leveled at him throughout his life.
Among other instances, the disdain for Thorpe’s Native-American roots can be found in the way sportswriters described him at the time.
From the first mention of Thorpe in the The New York Times as “Indian Thorpe in Olympiad; Redskin from Carlisle Will Strive for Place on American Team” to Lardner’s “wigwam” comment in 1917 to the reference by papers of the “red-skinned marvel” after Thorpe’s signing with the Giants in 1913, it is apparent that Thorpe was seen not simply as an athlete, but as an Indian who also played sports.
To complicate matters of racism involving Thorpe, in a 2018 interview with the grandson of Fritz Pollard (a black pioneer of the NFL) Pollard’s grandson recalled a story his grandfather shared about meeting Thorpe.
“Jim Thorpe walked up to him and said, ‘Do you know who I am?,'” according to Pollard III. “And he (Fritz Pollard) goes, ‘Yes, I know who you are. I’ve heard about you’. And he (Thorpe) goes, ‘Well, I’ve heard about you, too’. And he (Thorpe) called him the N-word. And my grandfather, not to miss a step, called him the N-word. And Thorpe just sort of stepped back and looked at him. He said he was going to kill my grandfather.”
There was also contention that the IOC stripped Thorpe of his gold medals in 1913 because he was Native-American.
Although that could not be proven by his family, Thorpe did receive some measure of recompense regarding his lost medals 30 years after his death.
In 1982, a number of people, including Thorpe’s family and author Robert Wheeler, found evidence that the IOC made its decision regarding Thorpe’s amateur status after the 30 day time period for such a decision had passed.
After hearing the evidence, the IOC declared Thorpe a co-champion of his events along with the second place winners of both the pentathlon and decathlon.
During a ceremony in 1983, the IOC presented Thorpe’s children, Bill and Gel, with two replacement medals.
Despite the hate and criticism Thorpe faced while playing sports, he has since been regarded as one of the best all-around athletes in American history.
In 1953, he was recognized as such by the Associated Press who called Thorpe the greatest American athlete of the first half of the century.
Thorpe is also a member of the College Football and National Track and Field Halls of Fame.