“Before the turn of the [20th] century, a star rose into prominence and radiated with so much splendor that nothing was able to eclipse it. In the late spring of 1888, this star was born, not in heaven, but in a one-room cabin made of cottonwood and hickory, south of the town of Bellemont in Plains country of Oklahoma Territory. The time was six-thirty in the morning of May 28.
"The nine-and-a-half pound infant, a member of the Sac and Fox tribe, was called Wa-tho-huck, which meant “Bright Path.” To the world, however, he became known as Jim Thorpe.
Excerpt from Jim Thorpe: World’s Greatest Athlete by Robert W. Wheeler, p.3. All quotations in this section are from Wheeler’s book, unless otherwise noted.
The early life of the man who was to be proclaimed “the greatest athlete in the world,” began in much the same way as that of many Indian children of the late 1800’s. He was taught to hunt at an early age. At age seven, his father allowed him to take aim at his first deer. It was a magnificent buck, and the boy brought it down with his first shot (p.8). "Our lives were lived in the open, winter and summer,” Jim remembered. “We were never in the house when we could be out of it. And we played hard. I emphasize this because the boys and girls
who would grow up strong men and women must lay the foundation in a vigorous
youth. Our favorite game was ‘Follow the Leader.’ Depending on the ‘leader,’ that
can be made an exciting game. Many a time in following I had to swim rivers, climb
trees, and run under horses. But our favorite was climbing hickory or tall cedar trees,
getting on the top, swinging there and leaping to the ground, ready for the next
As he grew older, these games proved to be merely pastimes because, by the time
he was nine, “major” hunting trips averaged 30 miles a day. And then there were
“chores.” “I had to feed all the livestock and learn how to rope and break wild horses
on the open plain. At ten, I could handle the lasso and, at 15, I had never met a wild
one that I could not catch, saddle, and ride (p.10).”
Most importantly, his parents instilled in him the importance of fair play, respect,
and love of family and God: “They thanked Him in their daily prayers for their eyes
to see the beauty He had made. They saw His power in all things. Before their meal,
they first drank water because it was life. They gave thanks for food
which gave them the strength to live and to learn about all things (p.11).”
Following two years of education at Haskell, an Indian school in Lawrence, Kansas (currently, Haskell
Indian Nations University), Jim, now 16, enrolled at the Carlisle Indian School, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
Jim’s father “was very much in favor of his son’s going to Carlisle. ‘Son,’ he said, ‘You are an Indian. I
want you to show other races what an Indian can do’ (p.20).”
The rest is well documented history. Jim Thorpe:
• was selected to Walter Camp’s All America football team in 1911 and 1912 while leading Carlisle to
wins over two of the top college teams in both seasons, Harvard in 1911 and West Point in 1912. The Cadets
starting halfback was future President, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who said: “He [Jim] was able to do everything
that anyone else could, but he could do it better (p.141)!” And in one memorable play against Pitt in 1911,
“he kicked a beautiful long spiral (70 yards) almost into the midst of five Pitt players and got down the field
in time to grab the pigskin, shake off three or four would be tacklers and dart 20 yards across the line for a
• was proclaimed “the greatest athlete in the world” by King Gustav V of Sweden, the host of the 1912 Olympic Games, after his unprecedented gold medal victories in the five-event pentathlon and ten-event decathlon.
• was illegally stripped of his gold medals and had his name stricken from the record books by the International Olympic Committee in 1913.
• turned down an offer by Jack Dempsey to become a professional boxer in 1913.
• accepted a contract from the New York Giants to play Major League baseball in 1913 (He subsequently was a member of the Cincinnati Reds and finished his career in 1919 with a .327 batting average with the Boston Braves).
• began his professional football career with the Indiana-based Pine Village Pros in 1913. Later starred with the Canton Bulldogs, Cleveland Indians, Oorang Indians, Rock Island Independents, New York Giants and Chicago Cardinals.
• co-founded and was elected first president of the American Professional Football Association (now the National Football League) in 1920.
• was named to Knute Rockne, Grantland Rice, and “Hurry Up” Yost’s All-Time, All America (Football) Teams (1943).
• was voted Greatest Athlete and Greatest Football Player of the Half-Century by the Associated Press (1950).
• was honored by the NFL when it named its “Most Valuable Player” award, “The Jim Thorpe Trophy” (1955).
• was elected to Helms Hall Professional Football Hall of Fame (1950) (in addition to previous induction into its College Division), to the National College Football Hall of Fame (1951), and to the National Indian Hall of Fame (1958).
• was voted World’s Greatest Athlete by the editors of El Universal, Caracas, Venezuela (1961).
• was enshrined as a charter member in the National Professional Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio (1963).
• was enshrined as a charter member of the American Indian Athletic Hall of Fame at the Haskell Indian Nations University (1972).
• was named The Greatest American Football Player in History in a national poll conducted by Sport Magazine (1977).
• biographer, Robert W. Wheeler, and his wife, Dr. Florence Ridlon, founded the Jim Thorpe Foundation dedicated to the restoration of the Olympic awards of Jim Thorpe and the education of the public about his accomplishments (1982).
• had his Olympic gold medals returned to his children and his name restored to the record books by the International Olympic Committee after they were presented with proof by the Jim Thorpe Foundation that the honors had been illegally taken away (1982).
• legacy honored by founding of the Jim Thorpe Association, by W. Lynne Draper and the family of Jim Thorpe, and the Jim Thorpe Award, which the Association annually bestows upon the best defensive back in college football (1986).
• was voted, in a national poll, ABC’s Wide World of Sports Athlete of the Century in 2001.
“Jim Thorpe has permanently emblazoned his name upon the pages of the sporting world’s ledger of champions. No athlete has ever surpassed his genius for versatility. Besides being the mightiest all-around football and track and field competitor in history, he was the captain of the Carlisle basketball team, playing all positions. He was a member of the school’s lacrosse team, and its acknowledged superior tennis and handball performer. He was a fine swimmer, a standout in billiards, and could bowl in the 200’s. Baseball, gymnastics, rowing, hockey, and figure skating round out the known list of sports in which he excelled. As if to prove the point, he was even a dancing champion (p.141)!”
After his retirement from competitive athletics, he fought tirelessly for Indian rights, especially in the motion picture industry; championed the cause of education and physical fitness from thousands of lecterns at school assemblies from coast to coast; and even enlisted and served in the Merchant Marines during World War II, when he was 57 years old!
His own children remember his laugh and his smile, “the most beautiful and widest” they had ever seen and his personal integrity. “He never uttered a bad word about anyone.” “He didn’t think badly so how could he talk badly about anyone?” Nor did he swear. “The four letter words were foreign to his lips.” “His posture was always erect and his manner mild. He exuded manliness and warmth.” “’Just remember you’re a Thorpe,’ we can remember him saying many times. We were proud of him and proud to be with him. We loved him very much!”
Jim Thorpe in traditional regalia
©2012 Rob Wheeler All Rights Reserved