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In the centennial year of Jim Thorpe’s 1912 Olympic triumphs, the homecoming motif continues to be definitive in the life—and afterlife—of a singular Oklahoma athlete.
By Eddie Chuculate
Published September/October 2012
James Francis Thorpe was born May 22, 1887, in a cabin near the North Canadian River on Sac and Fox Nation land near Prague. A Sac and Fox and member of the Thunderbird clan, he claimed Irish and Sac and Fox heritage on his father, Hiram Phillip Thorpe’s side, and Potawatomi, Kickapoo, Menominee, and French on his mother, Charlotte Vieux’s side.
Thorpe and his fraternal twin, Charlie, attended a Sac and Fox boarding school before Charlie died at age nine. Thorpe ran away from the agency school repeatedly and made his way to the Haskell Institute in Kansas at age eleven, where he was introduced to organized football for the first time.
In 1904, he made the move that would change his life, and sports and athletics in the twentieth century, forever. At age sixteen, he boarded a train for the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, after a Garden Grove teacher and a local banker encouraged him to go.
Just two months after Thorpe arrived at the school, his father died of blood poisoning (his mother had died in 1902), and the school sent him to the Carlisle Outing Program, where he worked at various Pennsylvania farms before returning to the school in 1907.
The same year, Thorpe noticed some boys trying to clear the high jump, set at 5 feet, 9 inches. Without warming up and wearing overalls and borrowed gym shoes, he broke the school record on his first attempt. Carlisle’s athletic director, Glenn “Pop” Warner, immediately put Thorpe on the track team.
Despite excelling in track, Thorpe rose to fame on the gridiron as a punishing halfback who could also routinely boot field goals of fifty yards or more. He was named an All-American in 1911 and 1912 and led the all-Indian Carlisle team to national prominence with victories over powerhouses like Army, Harvard, and the University of Pennsylvania. The football team went 11-1 in 1911 and 12-1-1 in 1912.
Thorpe withdrew from Carlisle in 1912 not long after the Olympics to embark on his professional career. He signed with the New York Giants in 1913 and spent seven seasons in the majors with the Giants, the Cincinnati Reds, and the Boston Braves.
Thorpe also played professional football in a league that later became the National Football League with the Canton (Ohio) Bulldogs, who drew 8,000 fans to watch his debut in 1915 after averaging 1,200 the previous year. Altogether, he played thirteen seasons of pro football for six teams.
In a feat unusual then and now, Thorpe for several years was a two-sport star who played both major-league baseball and professional football back to back.
In the early 1920s, Thorpe organized an all-Indian football team, the LaRue, Ohio, Oorang Indians, and in 1926 and 1927 spearheaded an all-Indian barnstorming basketball team, the World Famous Indians. Thorpe also excelled at ballroom dancing, golf, tennis, wrestling, and boxing.
He was married three times and had eight children. His first wife was Iva Miller, a former Carlisle classmate, and their children were James Jr., who died at age two, and daughters Gail, Charlotte, and Grace. In 1925, Thorpe married Freeda V. Kirkpatrick, and of that marriage were born Carl (“Phillip”), William (“Bill”), Richard, and John (“Jack”). They divorced in 1941, and Thorpe later married Patricia Askew. William, eighty-four and an Arlington, Texas, resident and Richard, seventy-nine, of Waurika, are his only living children.
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The Jim Thorpe Historical Home, where he lived with his first wife, Iva, is located at 706 East Boston Avenue in Yale. (918) 387-2815 or jimthorpehome.com. Jim Thorpe Park is off State Highway 51 on the east side of Yale. (918) 387-2406 or yaleok.org. A monument to Jim Thorpe is on the Prague Historical Museum grounds at 1008 North Jim Thorpe Boulevard near his birthplace. (405) 567-4750 or pragueok.org.
Eddie Chuculate is a Muskogee native. A longtime Oklahoma sportswriter, he was a finalist for the Oklahoma Book Award in 2011. His essay, “Red Moon Rising,” appeared in Oklahoma Today’s May/June 2011 issue. .