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Native American Son: The Life and Sporting Legend of Jim Thorpe
It is late on a cold afternoon in November, about seven years since his world collapsed. His name was struck from the record books of the 1912 Olympics, his gold medals stripped from him. For playing minor league professional baseball for two summers he was expelled from the elitist stratum of Olympic sports, branded a pariah among simon-pure amateurs. The shock remains in his head, a nightmare that never ends. Though hardly an innocent, he would never understand exactly what he did wrong.
He radiates sadness, though there’s a hint of a good-natured smile. His stance seems to say that a photograph is beside the point; his life is about movement, not still poses for posterity. The sweater is scratchy and stiff and smells like sweat. The big white “C” stands for the Canton, Ohio, Bulldogs, a rough, early professional football team. His leather pants are crude and loose and held up by laces tied together at the waist. His body is solid and compact. He has big shoulders, hips thrust slightly forward, feet pointed straight ahead like, as whites said back then, an Indian’s. The top of the face also triggers old white preconceptions of what Indians are supposed to look like: cheekbones like Mount Rushmore and eyes that squint with the all-seeing gaze of the warrior, the noble savage.
He is the Indian transposed to the playing field of sport, and it’s a mythic transfer at that: Jim Thorpe, consumed by sports, just as they now consume us, was the first world-class celebrity sports figure and perhaps the finest all-around athlete America ever produced. His example prompted countless collegiate teams to choose the Indian as their mascot for the game that was seen, when he played, as a symbolic reenactment of the territorial wars that had so recently won the American land for the whites.
A mixed-blood Indian, partially white, he grew up on the often lawless, wide-open frontier of Oklahoma. He would internalize that chaos to make his own perpetual frontier, a no-man’s-land of conflicting identities and permanent unrest that found expression – and relief -- on the playing field of sport.
When Jim Thorpe was named the best football player of the half-century on January 25, 1950, by an Associated Press poll of 393 national sportswriters and radio broadcasters, there was the usual grousing about comparing “old-timers and new-timers.” In response, some who had seen Jim play football in his glory days forty years earlier spoke up. “Jim was a man,” wrote Kyle Crichton in Collier’s magazine, “and the rest are children. I mean that Jim Thorpe was monumental, Brobdingnagian, colossal and perfect; the others are only shadows in his wake.”
The next day, when Jesse Owens was named the top track and field athlete with 201 votes and Jim was the runner-up with 74, Jim, sixty-two, spoke at a testimonial dinner in his honor in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He kept the audience laughing as he reminisced happily about his days at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. At a sportswriters’ banquet in nearby Harrisburg soon thereafter, the crowd rose when he was introduced and applauded him for five minutes. Overcome at the warmth and welcome extended to him by the people who had seen him at his best, there were tears in his eyes. He had been stoic for so long, and the sadness, anger and helplessness that had been festering for years now flooded over him.
The AP, polls continued into February, recognizing the greatest achiever in each major sport, until Sunday, February 12, when sports page headlines across the country announced: “Jim Thorpe Selected as Best Male Athlete of Half Century.” He had received 252 first-place votes; Babe Ruth, in second place, had received 86. New York Times sportswriter Arthur Daley, ever a Thorpe fan, raved that “[t]he Sac and Fox Indian is almost a legend now. Unlike most legends, though, he never needed any fictional embroidery to add luster to his accomplishments. The truth was breathtaking enough and hard to believe, because it seems inconceivable that any one man could be so overwhelmingly endowed by nature with all the skills and talents the Indian had in superabundance.”
The annulment of Thorpe’s Olympic performance had fueled a grassroots hunger for vindication. He had become a folk hero, one of the last before what Swedish sports historian Leif Yttergren called “the massive media exposure and commercialization” of the celebrity culture that took root in the 1920s. Taciturn, poor, relatively uneducated, clearly ill at ease at public events, the victim of personal tragedy and misfortune self-inflicted and accidental, a man who never had peace, Thorpe was someone with whom all people could identify.
While some of his life story is certainly pegged to larger developments in Indian history and U.S. policy, particularly in his early years, it is impossible to fit him into a preconceived pattern. He was sui generis, “not,” as his daughter Grace Thorpe once said, “a traditional Indian.”
His life is defined in large part by the man people expected him to be, good and bad, as well as the man he really was. His unique fame as the central figure at the dawn of American and international popular sports is clouded by the question of how much he was the victim of racism and how much he was his own worst enemy.
A gentle person, intelligent and funny, with many flaws, Jim Thorpe was not a complicated man. But what happened to him was.