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Jim Thorpe

Athlete. 1888 - 1953

Jim ThorpeBorn May 28, 1888, in Indian Territory (near Prague, Oklahoma), Jim Thorpe’s given name suggested that he was destined for great things. His mother was Citizen Band Potawatomi, his father was Sac and Fox, and he also had French and Irish ancestry. He was given a Sac and Fox name, Wa-Tho-Huk, meaning “a path lighted by a great flash of lightning” or “Bright Path.” His early life, however, was full of tragedy.

During his pre-teen and teenage years, Thorpe grieved the loss of his twin brother and his mother and father. Each time he coped by running away from home and school, including Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence. In 1904 Thorpe began working on a farm, then returned to school at Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, where he began his athletic career.

Thorpe excelled at every sport he played. He competed in track and field, football, baseball, lacrosse, hockey, golf, swimming, bowling, and wrestling. He even won the 1912 intercollegiate ballroom dancing championship.

As running back, defensive back, place kicker, and punter, Thorpe led the school’s football team in 1911. He scored all of his team’s points in an 18-15 victory over Harvard. The next year Thorpe led Carlisle to a national collegiate championship. One of the games that year was a victory over Army where Thorpe played against future President Dwight Eisenhower. Eisenhower injured his knee while trying to tackle Thorpe and he later recalled Thorpe in a 1961 speech.

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.

Thorpe was awarded All-American honors in 1911 and 1912. While football was his favorite sport, it was his performance in track and field that made him famous.

In 1912 Thorpe represented the U.S. in the Summer Olympic Games in Stockholm, Sweden. He competed in the long jump and high jump competitions, as well as the pentathlon and decathlon, for which he won gold medals. When it was later reported that Thorpe had played semi-pro baseball prior to the 1912 games, he was stripped of his amateur status and ordered to return his medals. Thorpe continued to pursue professional baseball and football careers. He played for the New York Giants, Milwaukee Brewers, Cincinnati Reds, and Boston Braves baseball clubs. He played football for the Pine Valley Pros football club and the Canton Bulldogs. While Thorpe played for the Bulldogs, the team won three championships and in 1920 was one of 14 teams to form the American Professional Football Association (now known as the National Football League). Thorpe was the first president of the association. He later played for an all-American Indian team in Ohio called the Oorang Indians. Thorpe retired from pro football at age 41, having played in 52 games for six teams. He died March 28, 1953, in Lomita, California. He was buried in Pennsylvania.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame inducted Thorpe in 1963. In 1982 the International Olympic Committee approved Thorpe’s reinstatement and presented two of his children with commemorative Olympic medals. The Associated Press poll of sportswriters and broadcasters named Thorpe among the top three athletes of the 20th century behind Babe Ruth and Michael Jordan.

Entry: Thorpe, Jim

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: August 2010

Date Modified: January 2016

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.