Posted: August 4, 2012 in INTERESTING PEOPLE, thomas t fields jr.
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We have looked at several unique individuals that were instrumental in forging the fabric of our great country.  It would be appropriate during our Olympic season to look at an individual that has been referred to as the greatest athlete of the century and how  appropriate it is that he is a Native American.

I was first introduced to this individual in Coach Ogden’s eighth grade English Class.  We sat and listened as our coach read of the exploits of an American named Jim Thorpe, an American Indian born and raised in Oklahoma who eventually set records in the Olympic decathlon that stood for generations.

Thorpe was born in 1888.  His childhood was full of tragic experiences.  His twin brother died of pneumonia when they were nine.  He ran away from home several times and his father sent him to an Indian boarding school in Kansas.  Two years later his mother died in childbirth so Thorpe again left school. He finally returned to school at the Carlisle Indian Institute in Pennsylvania and there he had his life changing moment.  “Pop” Warner, now known for the youth football program that carries his name, was the track coach at Carlisle.  He recognized Thorpe’s ability and quickly developed him into a world class athlete.

Carlisle played in a strong conference for that time which included Army, Harvard and   Yale.  A strong athlete would soon be recognized and all the press would be recording the feats.  Thorpe soon gained attention as he participated in football, baseball, lacrosse and ball room dancing.  In 1912 be won the national collegiate ball room dancing championship.  In 1911 he scored all the points to upset nationally ranked Harvard in football.  In  1912 he scored 25 touchdowns in route to a national championship.  The legend was being built.  He was awarded All American honors in 1911 and 1912.

One win in 1912 was against Army.  A young Dwight Eisenhower was playing in that game and later stated “Here and there, there are some people who are supremely endowed. 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.”

In 1912 he competed in the Olympics and won both the Pentathlon and the Decathlon.  The amazing thing is that he had his shoes stolen.  Thorpe found two shoes of different styles and makes and wore them to victory in Stockholm.  His score was so high in the decathlon that it would take 20 years to break it. Today professionals are allowed to participate in the games.  Not so in in 1912.  Thorpe had played semi-pro baseball for a few dollars prior to the Olympics and was subsequently stripped of his medals.  Still he lived for sports and the legend continued to build.

Following the Olympics.  He joined the New York Dodgers and played seven baseball seasons.  During the off season he played professional football and was the first president that was to become the NFL.  Accolades for football were awarded to Thorpe.  He one of seventeen inducted into the first NFL hall of fame ceremony.  He was also inducted into the college football hall of fame, the American Olympic team hall of fame, and the national track and field competition hall of fame.  His college induction was the first set of inductees and included immortals such as Sammy Baugh, Knute Rockne and Thorpe’s Coach, Pop Warner.

Life isn’t all ways kind to the retired athlete.  The American Indian has a gene that can lead to alcoholism.  Thorpe was no different and he fell into menial jobs following sports while suffering from alcoholism until he died in 1953.  Still he is considered to be the finest overall athlete of the century and he had his medals reinstated in the 1980s.  A true American hero that lifted the heads of many a Native American.


I will be dispatching my story next week from Lake Tahoe, my mother’s birth place.  I will have the fun opportunity to introduce little Ava to her Nevada relatives.  No telling what I will be writing about.

  1. Teddy Souter says:

    Interesting in that Mr. Thorpe was mentioned prominently in this article from today’s NY Times:

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