These Jim Thorpe Stats Are Still Unreal
Before Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders, there was Jim Thorpe. Thorpe starred in football, baseball, and Olympic track and field. He had such an amazing athletic career that his name still defines excellence almost 70 years after his death in 1953.
Thorpe was also an important part of Native American culture as a member of the Sac and Fox Nation. While he made history, reaching the highest of highs, he also suffered the lowest of lows. It's why he continues to be a source of inspiration. Not just during November's Native American Indian Heritage Month (which celebrates the contributions of Native people), but every day.
The Jim Thorpe stats and facts don't lie. They tell the story of the greatest athlete of all time. And the legend of this champion keeps getting bigger.
The Righting of Past Wrongs
In 1982, perhaps the greatest disservice in the history of Olympic competition was finally corrected. It was the end of a 70-year journey that began at the Summer Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1912, when American athlete Jim Thorpe won gold medals in the pentathlon and decathlon, only to see those medals taken away after the International Olympic Committee discovered he played semi-pro baseball for as little as $2 per day.
Seven decades later and after years and years of debate and arguments on Thorpe's behalf, the IOC finally did the right thing and gave Thorpe's family his gold medals back.
Thorpe, who died in 1953 at the age of 65, never saw his return to Olympic glory.
"I felt a certain cynicism, that he didn't get it before (he died)," said actor Burt Lancaster, who portrayed Thorpe in "Jim Thorpe — All-American," a 1951 film. "What the hell does it mean now? There's a feeling of bitterness, that it didn't get done in its own time."
Wa-Tha-So-Huk: Light After the Lightning
Like any great legend, the beginning of Jim Thorpe's life is shrouded in mystery and carries almost a supernatural air to it.
Thorpe's date of birth is the first big mystery. He and his twin brother, Charlie, were born on either May 22, 1887, or May 28, 1887, in Indian Territory close to Prague, Oklahoma, to an Irish-Sac and Fox father, Hiram Thorpe, and a French-Potawatomi mother, Charlotte Vieux. There was no birth certificate to confirm the date.
Thorpe, who eventually was baptized Jacobus Franciscus Thorpe in the Catholic church, was given the Native name Wa-Tho-So-Huk by his parents. The name means "path lit by great flash of lightning" or "light after the lightning" and sometimes is misinterpreted as "The Bright Path."
It was said that lightning strikes lit up the path to the cabin he was born in leading up to his birth. Sac and Fox customs dictate that a child be given a name that reflects circumstances surrounding their birth.
Tragedy Strikes at an Early Age
Thorpe's twin brother, Charlie, helped him make his way through a rebellious streak during their schoolboy days at the Sac and Fox Indian School. Then tragedy struck Thorpe's life for the first time. Charlie died after a bout with pneumonia when he was only 9 years old.
Thorpe began a pattern of running away from school and home after Charlie's death, and his father eventually sent him to the Haskell Institute, an Indian boarding school in Lawrence, Kansas.
When Thorpe was 14 years old, his beloved mother, Charlotte, died during childbirth. Her death sent him into a spiral of depression, and after an argument with his father, he ran away from home to work at a horse ranch.
Starts and Stops
In 1904, Thorpe returned home to his father when he was 16 years old and decided to enroll at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The flagship Indian boarding school in the United States at the time served elementary school through college-aged students.
At Carlisle, Thorpe had his first brush with greatness when he came into contact with Carlisle football coach Glenn "Pop" Warner, who quickly recognized Thorpe's athletic talents.
Thorpe wasn't long for Carlisle when he received news that his father, Hiram, had died of gangrene poisoning after an injury in a hunting accident.
Thorpe, now an orphan, left school and disappeared into a life of ranch work once again.
On the Right Track
Thorpe made the deft decision to give school and life on the straight and narrow another chance in 1907, when he returned to re-enroll at Carlisle.
Shortly after arriving back on campus, Thorpe wowed his classmates for the first time when he was walking by track and field practice, stopped to watch the goings-on, then promptly topped all of the school's high jumpers in street clothes.
Thorpe's foray into the sporting world had begun. He became a star in track, lacrosse, baseball and even ballroom dancing, where he was the 1912 intercollegiate national champion.
The sport that had the most draw on Thorpe, though, was one he had yet to conquer — football.
'Nobody Is Going to Tackle Jim'
Carlisle head coach Pop Warner was hesitant to let Thorpe play football. He worried that at 6-foot-1 and 155 pounds, his star track athlete was too slight and would end up severely injured.
Thorpe begged and cajoled Warner until he finally agreed to let Thorpe try some running plays in practice, believing the first hits on Thorpe would change his mind.
Warner ran two running plays for Thorpe, who ran "around and through" the defense twice, walked over to Warner and flipped him the ball.
"Nobody is going to tackle Jim," Thorpe said to Warner, giving us perhaps the first time an athlete referred to himself in the third person.
The Country's Most Famous Football Player
Thorpe's first taste of fame came after an 18-15 win over No. 1 Harvard in 1911, in which he kicked four field goals and ran all over the nation's best team.
In 1912, Thorpe led Carlisle to the NCAA championship in football, rushing for 1,896 yards and 27 touchdowns along with scoring 224 points. Those numbers don't include two games Carlisle lost the stats for.
In one of Carlisle's most notable victories that year, Thorpe torched Army in a 27-6 win and left a lasting impression on one of Army's top linemen — future U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Thorpe ended his career as a three-time All-American as a running back, defensive back, kicker and punter.
"Here and there, there are some people who are supremely endowed," Eisenhower said. "He could do anything better than any other football player I ever saw."
The Run-Up to the 1912 Olympics
Thorpe focused almost exclusively on football, his favorite sport, during his final few years at Carlisle and didn't compete for the school in track and field in 1910 or 1911.
But in the spring of 1912, following his breakout football season in 1911, Thorpe began quietly training for the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden, where two events were being added that were uniquely suited to Thorpe's strengths — the pentathlon and decathlon.
Thorpe had previously trained in sprints, jumps, hurdles and shot put, but now added pole vault, javelin, discus and hammer to the mix. At the Olympic trials in New York, he easily qualified in both the pentathlon and decathlon to earn a spot on the U.S. team headed to Sweden.
The King, The Czar and The Orphan
Thorpe was the busiest man at the 1912 Olympics. He was not only competing in the pentathlon and decathlon, but also in the high jump, long jump and in exhibition baseball games for the U.S.
Thorpe cruised to the gold medal in the pentathlon and finished fourth in the high jump before his signature event, the decathlon. Ahead of the event, Thorpe's shoes were stolen, and he had to replace them with mismatched shoes, including one he found in a trash can.
Thorpe placed in the top four in all 10 events and won the decathlon gold medal with 8,413 points, which was a record that would stand for almost 20 years.
Czar Nicholas II of Russia sought Thorpe out to give him a special prize for winning the pentathlon. King Gustav V of Sweden did the same for him after winning the decathlon, telling Thorpe: "You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world."
"Thanks, King," Thorpe replied. And a legend was born.
Headlines and Ticker-Tape Parades
Thorpe returned home from the 1912 Olympics in Sweden as a bona fide American hero, his backstory dispersed from coast to coast during the games as he won gold medals in both the pentathlon and decathlon.
Upon hitting American shores, Thorpe was feted everywhere he went, but in no grander fashion than when he was honored with a ticker-tape parade in New York City, where people filled the streets to grab a glimpse of the Olympic hero.
"I heard people yelling my name," Thorpe said. "I couldn't realize how one fellow could have so many friends."
Several months later, Thorpe underscored his victory at the Olympics by dominating the decathlon at the AAU national championships, winning seven of 10 events and finishing in the top three in the other three events.
Fall From Grace … Over $2 Per Day
In January 1913, newspaper reports began circulating that Thorpe had played professional baseball in the Eastern Carolina League in the summers of 1909 and 1910 for as low as $2 per day. It was something many elite college athletes did to make money in the summer. Although they did it using fake names.
Thorpe made the mistake of using his own name, playing for a pittance of $2 per day sometimes. The AAU opened an investigation of the matter despite its own rules stating that all complaints against athletes' eligibility needed to be filed within 30 days after the Olympics ended. This was six months later.
Thorpe admitted his "mistake" to AAU president James Edward Sullivan and was stripped of his gold medals, kicking off one of the most shameful missteps in Olympic history.
From Scandal Comes Opportunity
While Thorpe's scandalous loss of his Olympic gold medals grabbed headlines around the world, it also opened the door to the next two decades of his life as a professional athlete.
Once word got around that the AAU had declared Thorpe no longer an amateur, the offers from professional sports teams began to roll in, providing the 25-year-old with a sustainable source of income for the first time in his life.
Thorpe decided quickly he would be a two-sport athlete. He would play both professional baseball, where there was more guaranteed money, and professional football, which was in its nascent stages.
Thorpe's first foray into professional sports came when he signed a contract to play outfielder for the New York Giants. He was the last person to play in Major League Baseball and compete in the Olympics until speed skater and Miami Marlins outfielder Eddy Alvarez in 2020.
Thorpe was a serviceable outfielder and pitcher, lasting six seasons in the majors while playing for three teams. More than his play, for teams Thorpe was an unbelievable box-office draw.
On a barnstorming tour with the New York Giants and Chicago White Sox in 1913, Thorpe once played in front of 20,000 fans in London, including King George V, and earned a private audience with Pope Pius X.
Thorpe's One True Love
The sport Thorpe truly loved was football, and history shows he was as responsible for it becoming popular in the United States as perhaps any player in the history of the sport.
Thorpe played two seasons for the Pine Village Pros before he signed with the Canton Bulldogs in 1915 as player/coach at a then-unheard-of rate of $250 per game — equivalent to almost $7,000 in today's money.
The genius of signing Thorpe was evident from the start. The Bulldogs averaged around 1,000 fans per game before he arrived. In Thorpe's first game in Canton, a reported crowd of 8,000 came out to watch. Thorpe led Canton to Ohio League championships in 1916, 1917 and 1919 and recorded a 95-yard punt in the 1919 Ohio League championship game that sealed the win.
Precursor to the NFL
The Canton Bulldogs made the genius move of signing Jim Thorpe in 1913 and watched the team's popularity grow over the rest of the decade, to the point where Canton became one of 14 teams that formed the American Professional Football Association in 1920. The league changed its name to the National Football League in 1922.
Thorpe was the league's crown jewel when it formed in 1920 — not only a star player but the coach of one of its signature teams and also, now, the first president of the APFA.
It was essentially the same job occupied by men like NFL commissioners Pete Rozelle, Paul Tagliabue and Roger Goodell over the next 100 years. Goodell made a reported $126 million over the 2020 and 2021 seasons, in which the NFL as a whole earned a reported $15.6 billion per year.
Hanging Up His Cleats
Thorpe was the NFL's signature player for its first decade and a member of the first All-NFL Team in 1923 and, later, a member of the 1920s NFL All-Decade Team.
In total, Thorpe played for six NFL teams from 1920 until his retirement in 1928, although he never won an NFL championship.
Thorpe finally decided to retire from professional football following the 1928 season with the Chicago Cardinals, at 41 years old.
A Secret Basketball Career
Who would think Thorpe had time to do anything but play professional baseball and professional football at the highest levels in the 1910s and 1920s? But somehow he did.
In 2005, an old ticket was uncovered that documented Thorpe's time playing professional basketball as the main feature of the Larue World Famous Indians — a team that barnstormed across portions of the United States from at least 1926 through 1928.
Thorpe playing basketball was somewhat of a surprise only because no one knew much about it, not that he could do it. At one point, in 1913, Thorpe also had considered a career in professional hockey.
Thorpe's Messy Personal Life
Like many professional athletes, Thorpe's time on the road and time in the spotlight had a profound effect on his personal life.
Thorpe was married three times and had eight children with his first two wives. He was married to his college sweetheart, Iva, from 1913 until 1925, when she filed for divorce, citing "desertion" in the court papers.
Thorpe's second wife was named Freeda, and they met when she was an executive assistant for a baseball team he was playing for. They were married from 1926 until 1941 and had four children together, just like with Iva.
Thorpe's third wife was named Patricia, and they married in 1945 and were together until his death in 1953.
Struggling to Find His Place
The end of Thorpe's playing career — and his steady stream of income for the last two decades — could not have come at a worse time in American history.
Thorpe retired from professional sports at the same time as the start of the Great Depression, sending Thorpe into his own financial tailspin.
Over the rest of his life, Thorpe struggled to keep his head above water when it came to his finances. At different times over the last few decades of his life, he took work as a construction worker, bouncer, security guard and even as a ditchdigger.
On the Silver Screen
One semi-source of income in Thorpe's post-athletic life was in the movies.
Thorpe was primarily cast in small speaking roles, usually as a Native American tribal chief in Westerns.
His biggest role was as himself in the 1932 comedy "Always Kickin'," where he taught young football players how to kick a football. He was also in "Knute Rockne, All American" and played another Native American in the 1950 film "Wagon Master."
Thorpe's lasting legacy in the film industry was the 1951 biopic about his life, which starred a young Burt Lancaster as Thorpe in "Jim Thorpe — All-American." He was paid $1,500 for the rights to his life story, plus a $2,500 annuity from the studio. Thorpe was featured in one scene as an assistant coach.
Alcoholism Takes Its Toll
Thorpe battled alcoholism throughout his life and it began to take its toll on him following the end of his career. The battle lasted through his death in 1953.
Thorpe's alcohol consumption often led to bad decisions. One time, he was fined $50 for driving while intoxicated. Several times, Thorpe ended up in barroom brawls, including at least once when it made it into local newspapers.
After Thorpe's death, his second wife, Freeda, did several interviews where she spoke about how his alcoholism impacted their family and led to their divorce.
Hitting Rock Bottom
By the early 1950s, Thorpe was completely destitute and living in a trailer park in Southern California with his third wife, Patricia.
Thorpe was admitted to the hospital to be treated for lip cancer as a charity case in 1950, and his wife publicly pleaded for financial help for the Olympic hero.
"We're broke," Patricia told reporters outside of the hospital. "Jim has nothing but his name and his memories."
The End of the Path
Jim Thorpe suffered his third major heart attack early in 1953 while dining with his wife, Patricia. He was revived momentarily and spoke to those around him before falling back into unconsciousness.
Thorpe died on March 28, 1953, at 65 years old, in Lomita, California. It was half of the country and an entire world away from the boy who'd been born in his family's cabin in rural Oklahoma in the spring of 1887 and given a traditional Sac and Fox name of Wa-Tho-Thuk — "the path lit by a flash of lightning."
Thorpe's Native American name couldn't have been more fitting.
Legacy of a Legend
Thorpe's death led to an outpouring of support and memories across the world, including a flowing, novel-style obituary from The New York Times.
Thorpe's daughter, Grace, told a story from his final years that seemed to encapsulate what his life had been like following his stellar athletic career. Having sold the rights to his life story for a meager sum during the Great Depression, he was visiting Grace in upstate New York and about to take a bus back to the city for a speaking engagement.
Down on his luck, they approached the bus station and noticed the movie about his life playing at the marquee, and she took a picture of him standing below it, wearing an old-weathered suit and carrying the same briefcase he'd had for years and years.
The Ugly Truth About Racism and Jim Thorpe
The ugly truth about racism and Jim Thorpe was that he spent the entirety of his life dealing with it in one form or another — and it colored stories about him for decades following his death as well.
At the time Thorpe won his Olympic gold medals, Native Americans weren't all recognized as U.S. citizens, with the government making Native Americans trade concessions on their rights in order to receive citizenship. A blanket citizenship order wasn't even in place until 1924.
Perhaps the most important place in Thorpe's development as an athlete (Carlisle) also had been the most racist. At Carlisle, the school promoted sporting events often as "Indians vs. Whites," and no story about Thorpe failed to mention his race in the lead. It was a toxic situation made somehow worse by Thorpe's success.
Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania
Thorpe's wife at the time of his death, Patricia, wanted $100,000 from Oklahoma to have his body taken from California, delivered to Oklahoma and buried there along with a memorial created for her late husband.
When government officials brought Thorpe's body to Oklahoma, they then balked at the price tag, and Patricia cut a deal with a new town in Pennsylvania — two boroughs in a picturesque area that were combining — to rename the town Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, and create a visitors center for his legacy.
It was a controversial decision by Patricia, to say the least, and Thorpe's heirs say it was almost totally motivated by money. In 2010, the Thorpe estate began a series of unsuccessful lawsuits to try and have his body exhumed and brought back to Oklahoma that was ultimately defeated by the town in 2013 and on appeal in 2015.
More Honors in Death Than in Life
Aside from winning the Olympic gold medals, Thorpe's greatest honors came following his death in 1953.
He was part of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's inaugural class in 1963 and also became the only person to ever be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, College Football Hall of Fame and Track and Field Hall of Fame.
In 1986, the annual award given to college football's top defensive back was named the Jim Thorpe Award. The award, which is run by the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame, has been won by a who's who of the greatest defensive backs over the last five decades, including Deion Sanders (1988), Charles Woodson (1997) and Patrick Peterson (2010).
Giving Back His Gold
The drumbeat to Thorpe getting his 1912 Olympic gold medals restored to his name was going in the 1950s but picked up steam in the 1970s when President Richard Nixon declared April 16, 1973, as Jim Thorpe Day in order for everyone around the country to recognize his life and accomplishments.
Whenever a list of the greatest athletes of all time was released from the 1950s on, Thorpe's name was close to the top of the list.
Finally, in 1982, IOC executive committee members approved Thorpe's reinstatement as an Olympic champion and delivered new gold medals to two of his children, Gale and Bill. But they made the unusual step of naming him co-gold medalist along with two runner-ups who were given gold medals when he was stripped of his.
Thorpe's original medals were held in museums until they were stolen and never recovered.
'Everything Came Natural' for Jim Thorpe
Thorpe's legacy as the nation's first elite two-sport athlete has continued over the years with some athletes. Modern fans know them as household names, including football-baseball stars like Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders.
Multisport stars are the rarest of breeds. Few players have even accomplished the feat and none since Drew Henson, who was a backup quarterback in the NFL and had a total of eight at-bats with the New York Yankees in 2002 and 2003.
But Thorpe was the first, and he made it all look easy. As Lafayette coach Harold Anson Bruce, an opposing track coach, once said after Thorpe almost single-handedly beat his whole team, "After it was all over, Thorpe couldn't tell you how he did it. Everything came natural."