Jim Thorpe, one of the greatest athletes of all time, will be highlighted for the first edition of Native American Heritage Month.
Jim Thorpe’s early childhood
The chaos surrounding Jim Thorpe’s childhood likely formed the man he grew up to be.
No one is quite sure when Jim was born, it was almost certainly in May of 1888. The location of Jim’s birth is unclear as well – it is thought to be what was referred to as a Native American Territory, that later became Oklahoma, in a city near Prague. Thorpe appears to not have a birth certificate.
Born to Hiram Thorpe and Charlotte Vieux, Jim was one of six children. He was christened in the Catholic faith as “Jacobus Franciscus Thorpe,” although a few sources indicate his name was actually “James Franciscus Thorpe.”
Jim was also named Wa-Tho-Huk which translated means “Bright Path Lightning Makes As It Crosses The Sky.” Although he was often acknowledged for his father’s tribal background due to being a enrolled member of the Sac and Fox Nation, Thorpe was also Potawatomi on his mother’s side. Jim also is French and Irish.
Thorpe showed athletic prowess in his young age – he was swimming and riding horses by age three. The young boy was also learning how to hunt and set traps on a farm.
Jim Thorpe’s schooling
By age six, Jim Thorpe was in school with his twin brother, Charlie. They attended a nearby Sac-Fox Nation boarding school. Jim was never much of a student, and his brother helped him study until Charlie died of pneumonia at age nine. This was the catalyst for Thorpe’s penchant for running away. Jim ran away from school many times, running the entire 23 miles home to see his parents.
Hiram Thorpe made the decision to send his son to a boarding school further away in Kansas so he would remain at school and get an education. This can be a bit difficult to understand due to the atrocities that occurred at these boarding schools, but some parents felt their children’s only chance at becoming educated was worth it.
Jim experienced another loss at age 11, when his mother died of childbirth related complications. It appears at this time that Thorpe returned to his home, depressed and argumentative. Jim ran away from his father to a horse ranch where he worked until age 16.
Recruited into the Carlisle Indian Industry School – a vocational school for Native Americans in Pennsylvania, Jim left home and went for the first time when he was 16 to study electricity and participate in athletics. His father died that same year of gangrene poisoning from a hunting accident. Thorpe ran away from school again, finding solstice in farm work.
The athletics begin!
Jim Thorpe dabbled in track at the boarding school in Kansas, but his athletic career didn’t take off until he returned to Carlisle three years later, in 1907.
Thorpe was a small guy, he was stocky and strong, but was considered short despite being 6’1′. This kept Jim from being considered for sports at the school. That was until he saw the practicing track team, asking for a chance to try the high jump. The players raised the bar to a comical height at 5’9′ and were shocked when Jim cleared the jump in his street clothes. He was immediately a member of the track team.
Thorpe left Carlisle from 1909 to 1911 to play minor league baseball and returned to Carlisle in 1911. Jim participated in many sports there – baseball, lacrosse, and ballroom dancing, and football. Thorpe was named “First-Team All American” in 1911 and 1912, dominating the football field, particularly with his speed. Jim was a man of many positions on the field – he was a place kicker, running back, defensive back, and punter.
Jim Thorpe goes to the Olympics
In 1912, Jim Thorpe tried out and was accepted onto the US Olympics Team. Jim was going to do the decathlon and pentathlon that summer in Stockholm, Sweden. Did them he did – even with stolen shoes and a mismatched pair of replacement shoes, one found in a trashcan. Thorpe took the gold home for both events, setting records for points obtained in the decathlon that lasted for 20 years. King Gustav of Sweden said Jim was the greatest athlete of all time. The king knows best, so we can safely say Jim Thorpe is in fact the greatest athlete ever.
Thorpe said his time at the Olympics was the proudest moment of his life. Until his medals and records were stripped away 6 months later. The Olympics should have consequences as well as they broke their own rules to do this. Jim’s accomplishments were reinstated in 1982. Thorpe indicated he didn’t know he was breaking the rules at the time, and he had seen other athletes do the same thing. People feel Jim was treated unfairly, and unnecessarily targeted due to his race.
Jim Thorpe goes professional
Thorpe was a lot of things, but being a great baseball player wasn’t one of them. Jim was great for sales, he was a popular guy, but not for stats. He played for 3 different major league baseball teams, and one minor league team. His career was six years long.
Thorpe started baseball the same year he played football, but his football career would be much longer. Rumor has it he was going to try his hand at Hockey in 1913 as well, but didn’t. Call Jim Thorpe the Real Tom Brady because he played football until he was 41 back in the day when practically murdering each other on the field was acceptable. Jim was considered exceptionally good at football, and brought popularity to the sport. He also helped his team, the Canton Bulldogs, earn titles in 1916, 1917, and 1919. Allegedly, football was his favorite sport.
Thorpe was the first Native American President of the NFL during 1920. He also began his head coaching career with the Bulldogs in 1920. He was an organizer, player, and head coach for another team from 1921-1923 (more information on that in future articles). Jim would be post-humorously inducted into the NFL Hall of fame in 1963.
Jim did have a short career in basketball, although information is limited on his achievements in this sport.
Thorpe ended up playing for 6 different NFL teams, and retired from football and basketball in 1928.
Jim Thorpe hit the big screen
Thorpe had many different odd jobs, particularly through the Great Depression, but one constant was his appearance in the movies. He was an extra in the debut of his career on screen, but continued to play in different roles such as an athlete and coach in different movies all the way up until the early 1950’s.
Jim also dappled in other careers like being a construction worker, bouncer, security guard, Marine, and ditch digger.
Jim Thorpe’s story ends
Jim had 3 wives and 8 children. His wives always divorced him, his first wife asking for an out due to “desertion.” Not everyone is cut out for marriage. He was better at fatherhood.
Thorpe struggled with his addiction to alcohol in later life, and was broke by 1950. Jim’s wife begged for assistance, saying that Jim had nothing but his name and his memories. Pensions and health insurance post-career were not around in those days.
Jim Thorpe passed away in 1953 at age 65. His heart failed for the third and final time.
Jim Thorpe leaves a legacy
Thorpe was a multi-dimensional man. Jim survived a emotionally damaging childhood filled with loss, was a victim of racism, and was the best athlete of all time, accomplishing many firsts for Native Americans in athletics. He also was an actor, and had more side hustles than pyramid schemers to make ends meet.
On the other hand, Thorpe could never be accused of being a good husband. He also struggled with alcohol, and died in despair. Many of the behaviors Jim exhibited likely could be related to the progression of neurodegenerative decline from over 20 years of very hard contact football. We see former football players struggling with CTE now, and that’s with all the awareness, education, and increased medical technology we have today. Jim had none of these things. He likely suffered with the signs and symptoms, alone and afraid, a prisoner in his own mind.
There’s just this one other thing…
Jim Thorpe does racism
That’s right – Jim Thorpe both experienced racism and perpetuated it.
It has been reported that Jim Thorpe called an African American football player in 1920 the N word. The player called him the racial epithet back. Jim allegedly threatened to kill him, and the player told him where he would be on the field if he wanted to come and do so.
Thorpe also approved of the ban of African American players from 1934-1946, protesting racial integration with many other owners and coaches at the time.
A full and honest look at the life of a person includes their faults. Jim had many, and this was his greatest shortcoming.
Jim Thorpe gets no peace
Jim was incredibly firm about his wish to be buried in Sac and Fox land in Oklahoma. He was even going to get a fancy monument paid for by the government. But he couldn’t ever have peace, even when he was dead. Thorpe’s third wife thought Oklahoma just wasn’t good enough, and she had his body stolen during his burial ceremony, instead burying him in Pennsylvania. Jim did not have luck with his wives.
Thorpe’s children, along with the Sac and Fox Tribe, fought to get Jim back to his rightful burial place citing the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. In 2015, the Supreme Court denied the family and tribe’s request, calling it absurd (can we have legal elaborations on that, because their ruling sounds absurd). The city in Pennsylvania he was buried in was renamed after him.
Is the statue of limitations up for convicting his wife of being a thief? Most notably stealing her husband, during a burial ceremony. That is one of the most absurd things in this article.
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