James Francis Thorpe
Sac and Fox
James Francis Thorpe was born near Prague, Oklahoma. He was born to Hiram Thorpe, a farmer, and Charlotte Vieux, a Pottawatomie Indian and descendant of the last great Sauk and Fox chief Black Hawk, a noted warrior and athlete. Jim was actually born a twin, but his brother Charlie died at the age of nine. His Indian name, Wa-Tho-Huk, translated to “Bright Path.”
In 1904, Thorpe started school at Carlisle Industrial Indian School in Pennsylvania. Thorpe began his athletic career at Carlisle, both playing football and running track. He was selected as a third-team All-American in 1908, and in 1909 and 1910 he made the first team. Football legend Glenn “Pop” Warner coached Thorpe at Carlisle.
Thorpe competed in the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, Sweden. He won the pentathlon and the decathlon and set records that would stand for decades.
Thorpe’s glorious Olympic wins were jeopardized in 1913 when it surfaced that he had played two semi-professional seasons of baseball. Ultimately, it was decided that his baseball experience adversely affected his amateur status in the track and field events. His name was removed from the record books and his gold medals were taken away.
Thorpe moved on after the Olympic ordeal and signed to play baseball for the New York Giants. He played outfield with New York for three seasons before playing with the Cincinnati Reds in 1917. He played 77 games with the Reds before finally returning to the Giants for an additional 26 games. In 1919, he played his final season in major league baseball, ending on the Boston Braves team.
During much of his baseball years, Thorpe also played professional football for the Canton (Ohio) Bulldogs from 1915 until 1920 and with the Cleveland Indians in 1921. In the years following, he organized, coached and played with the Oorang Indians, a professional football team comprised of American Indians. Additionally, he was instrumental in forming the American Professional Football Association, and eventually became the president of the group. Through the years, the association evolved into today’s NFL. In all, Thorpe played with six different teams during his career in pro football, ending with a stint with the Chicago Cardinals in 1929.
Two monumental honors were bestowed unto Thorpe in 1950 when he was named “the greatest American football player” and the “greatest overall male athlete” by the Associated Press.
Thorpe died on March 28, 1953 of a heart attack. Thorpe’s medals were finally restored to him posthumously in 1982. In addition, and most importantly to his family, his name was put back into the record books.
In 1950, the nation’s press selected Jim Thorpe as the most outstanding athlete of the first half of the 20th Century and in 1996-2001, he was awarded ABC’s Wide World of Sports Athlete of the Century.