Once dubbed by the Associated Press as the greatest athlete of the first half of the 20th century, Jim Thorpe was one of America’s most versatile athletes. He excelled at professional baseball, football, and basketball. Thorpe grew up in Oklahoma and spent most of his career traveling the nation to play for different franchises. The Hoosier state can lay claim to a speck of Thorpe’s athleticism, as he memorably graced Indiana’s gridiron in 1915.
Thorpe was born in 1887 in the Sac and Fox nation in Oklahoma. The son of two parents with the mixed Native American ancestry, Thorpe was sent to Pennsylvania as a young man to attend the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. He enrolled in 1907. There, he developed a reputation as a talented athlete. Thorpe became a two-time All-American running back for the school’s football team. He also played baseball and track.
In 1912, Thorpe was selected to compete on the American Olympic team. He easily won two gold medals in the pentathlon and decathlon, becoming the first Native-American to win gold for the United States. A few months later, Thorpe was stripped of his medals when it was determined that he did not meet the qualifications of an amateur athlete. While in college, Thorpe had accepted money to play semi-pro baseball over the summer (roughly $2 a game, or $50 a game in 2022). His medals were later returned posthumously in 1983, although he was listed as co-champion with Hugo Wieslander and Ferdinand Bie (for the decathlon and pentathlon, receptively).
In 1913, Thorpe was signed by the New York Giants and proceeded to play major league baseball for the next seven years. In 1915, he began playing football in the off-season for the Canton Bulldogs. During his career, Thorpe played football for six NFL teams. He even played two years of professional basketball (1927 to 1929) as part of the “World Famous Indians,” a Native-American team.
It was during his early career in professional sports that Thorpe took a position at Indiana University as assistant coach of the football team. In 1914, Indiana University hired C. C. Childs as its new head coach. Childs had competed in the 1912 Olympics with Thorpe and invited him to come to Bloomington to take a position as an assistant coach. Despite the college’s enthusiasm for Thorpe’s presence, the team finished the season with a disappointing record of one win and two ties.
While working at Indiana University, Thorpe was invited to play football with Warren County‘s Pine Village professional team. Thorpe played one game, on Thanksgiving Day 1915, in West Lafayette, Indiana. Thorpe was paid $250 for his appearance. The Villagers played the Purdue All-Stars, beating their opponent 29-0. The team had just turned pro, and their willingness to pay a premium for Thorpe’s appearance was likely an attempt to draw a big crowd. With 2,800 spectators in attendance, the gamble paid off. The Villagers went on to become a highly successful professional team: in 20 years, they only lost six games.
Thorpe retired from professional sports at the age of 41 in 1929. Without a steady income, the Depression years were not kind to the athlete. He died, penniless, in 1953. Ten years later, in 1963, Thorpe was inducted into the Professional Football Hall of Fame.
Today, Thorpe is remembered as one of the 20th century’s greatest all-around athletes. In 1999, Senator Rick Santorum sponsored a United States Senate resolution to name Thorpe the Athlete of the Century. A historical marker commemorating the Pine Village Football Team and Thorpe’s legendary 1915 appearance was erected in Warren County in 2002.
On July 14th, 2022, the International Olympic Committee reinstated Jim Thorpe’s gold medals, making him the sole winner of that year’s pentathlon and decathlon. the co-founder of the Native-American activist organization Bright Path Strong, Nedra Darling, told ESPN, “”We are so grateful his nearly 110-year-old injustice has finally been corrected, and there is no confusion about the most remarkable athlete in history.”