When you think of the greatest multi-sport athletes of all time, who comes to mind? People like Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders, who managed to play at the highest level in their main sport and a second sport.
But more people need to know the story of Jim Thorpe, a man who also mixed a successful MLB career with an All-Pro NFL career…and threw in some Olympic gold medals on the side for good measure. And this happened almost 100 years before Sanders played for the Braves and Falcons in the MLB and NFL playoffs.
Born in 1887 in Indian Territory (what is now Oklahoma), Jim Thorpe was born into the Sac and Fox nation. His Sac and Fox name, Wa-Tho-Huk, means “Bright Path,” which was an accurate prediction of what his athletic future held. When Thorpe was 16, he moved from Oklahoma to Pennsylvania, to attend the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, PA.
The Industrial School represented the US Government’s attempts to “assimilate” Native youth into white culture, and a major facet of these assimilation efforts was sport. Glenn “Pop” Warner was the track and football coach at Carlisle, and he was the first figure at the school to witness Thorpe’s generational athletic talent.
Thorpe began his athletic career on the track team at Carlisle in 1907. He was first allowed on the team when he walked past the track one day and beat all of the team’s high jumpers while wearing his everyday clothes. This was the first of many shocking achievements in Thorpe’s track career, which would culminate in his 1912 season.
In 1912, the International Olympic Committee added multi-event competitions to the Olympics for the first time, which suited Thorpe perfectly. Thorpe won the US Olympic Trials for the decathlon and pentathlon, and represented the United States in Sweden for the Stockholm summer olympics.
Thorpe won the Gold medal in both muti-events, including a decathlon performance that he completed in a mismatched pair of shoes, after someone stole his. He found one of the shoes in a trashcan before the event began.
While this was the first time the decathlon was competed at the Olympics, Thorpe set an Olympic record with a points total that would have won him a medal at the 1948 London Olympics, and became the first Native American to win a medal at the Olympics.
Sometime during their developing relationship, Thorpe convinced Warner to let him join the football team. Warner was wary at first, given the hyper-physical nature of football, but Thorpe impressed Warner so much in an impromptu tryout that Warner let him on the team. The 1912 season was a breakout year for the Carlisle football team. They won a national championship over the likes of Harvard, a powerhouse of the time, and Army-West Point, which boasted future US President Dwight Eisenhower as a member of its football team. Thorpe, the star running back/linebacker/punter/kicker of the team, was named a first team All-American in the 1911 and 1912 seasons.
In 1913, the American Amateur Athletic Union and the IOC caught wind that Thorpe had been paid to play minor league baseball before he competed at the Olympics, which was illegal according to their amateurism rules of the day. Despite the fact that it was actually quite common for “amateur” athletes to compete professionally, Thorpe had competed using his own name, which more seasoned athletes would avoid doing in order to skirt the rules. For this, the IOC controversially stripped Thorpe of his medals from the 1912 Games (although they would be posthumously reinstated in 1983).
Despite being robbed of his well-won medals, this scandal had a small silver lining for Thorpe, who immediately gained notice from professional baseball teams. Many people didn’t realize the “greatest athlete alive” could also hold his own on the baseball diamond. In a period where free agent players could choose their destination, Thorpe elected to play for the New York Giants, and won the National League pennant with the team in 1913.
Thorpe also played professional football at this time, most famously playing with the Canton Bulldogs through the mid- to late-1910’s. The Bulldogs participated in the American Professional Football Association, which would become the NFL in 1922. After playing for Canton, Thorpe would found and lead an all-Native American team, the Oorang Indians, and would be named a First-Team All-Pro in 1923, the first All-NFL team selection. He was posthumously elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in the Class of 1963.
Sadly, after his athletic career waned, much of the remainder of Thorpe’s life was marred by mistreatment and struggle. He would marry several times, and eventually struggled with alcoholism in later years. He was frequently used for his likeness and fame, without much support from the profiteers taking advantage of him. This continued after his death, with the controversial burial of his remains in Jim Thorpe, PA, a place Thorpe had no association with.
However, Thorpe was a rare talent whose achievements were noted during his life. In 1950, 3 years before his death, Thorpe was named the greatest American athlete of the first half of the 20th century by a national poll of sportswriters and editors. Hopefully, we can continue to remember this man who, according to legend, received the 1912 decathlon Olympic gold medal from King Gustav V of Sweden, and was told by the King, “You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world.”