The Greatest Athlete In The World

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The loss of his medals “broke his heart and he never really recovered,” said a teammate from the baseball Giants.

He reverted to his old pattern of disappearing for days or even weeks at a time. He was a good husband and father when he was around (he and Iva also had three daughters), but his wife didn’t know how to deal with his long absences and with his periods of despondency.

Thorpe bounced up and down between the major leagues and the minors from 1913 to 1919, always spending more time on the bench than in the field. He had an excellent throwing arm, which he used effectively from right field, but his fielding and batting statistics were mediocre.

The loss of his Olympic medals continued to gall him, at times nearly to obsession. Chief Meyers, the Giants’ catcher and a fellow Indian who was Thorpe’s roommate for part of his time in the big leagues, recalled many years later that “Jim was very proud of the great things he had done. A very proud man. … I remember, very late one night, Jim came in and woke me up. I remember it like it was only last night. He was crying and tears were rolling down his cheeks. ‘You know, Chief,’ he said, ‘the King of Sweden gave me those trophies, he gave them to me. But they took them away from me. They’re mine, Chief, I won them fair and square.’ It broke his heart and he never really recovered.”

Football was the game Thorpe loved best, and he seemed happiest when he was playing it. Rough by nature, he loved to hit and be hit. Although he continued to play minor-league baseball on and off until 1928, by the late teens he was much more involved with the brand-new concept of professional football.

In 1915 Thorpe signed on with the Canton, Ohio, Bulldogs for the thenfantastic figure of $250 a game. His first two games were against the Massillon, Ohio, Tigers, a team that starred Knute Rockne and Gus Dorais, who had revolutionized the game two years earlier at Notre Dame by introducing the forward pass, and who were playing under thinly disguised names in a crude but successful ploy to preserve their amateur status.

In the first game Thorpe was twice thrown for a loss by Rockne’s skillful tackling. The next time he had the ball, he smashed straight into Rockne, knocking him unconscious. When the Norwegian was hauled to his feet, Thorpe clapped him on the shoulder and remarked, “That’s better, Knute. These people want to see Big Jim run!”

And so they did. Thorpe played for the Bulldogs through 1920. He was as dominant then as he had been at Carlisle, a fearsome running back who could fake past tacklers or run right over them and who didn’t mind handing out a little extra physical punishment: his shoulder pads were illegally lined with sheet metal, and if you tried to tackle him, you would likely end up with a knee in your face.

On September 17, 1920, the American Professional Football Association (later renamed the National Football League) was formed in the showroom of Ralph Hay’s auto dealership in Canton. It consisted of seven teams from the Midwest, two of which, the Decatur Staleys and the Chicago Cardinals, were the Paleozoic versions of today’s Chicago Bears and Phoenix Cardinals. The organization’s chief purpose was to show that these were serious, bona fide professional teams, accredited by a governing body. The games still took place on a catch-ascatch-can basis until 1934, and players remained free to jump from team to team as the fancy struck them. Thorpe was elected president of the APFA, his only duty being to confer credibility on the organization by lending his name to its stationery.

In 1922 one of Thorpe’s hunting buddies, Walter Lingo, was looking for a way to publicize his Oorang Airedale Kennels, the world’s largest dog-breeding concern, and he and Thorpe hit on the idea of organizing an all-Indian pro football team sponsored by the kennels. They contacted several “old boys” from Carlisle and men who had played for other Indian schools around the country, and in no time they had a fairly respectable team.

The Oorang Indians made their debut in Marion, Ohio, that fall, with Thorpe as running back and head coach, two of his teammates from the Bulldogs, Joe Guyon and Pete Calac, and lesser-known players with picturesque names like Barrel, Hippo Broker, and Xavier Downwind. In a way they were the forerunners to basketball’s Harlem Globetrotters and baseball’s Indianapolis Clowns; the public paid to see their showmanship. Their games were preceded by exhibitions of Indian singing, dancing, and drumming by the players and stunts by Lingo’s Airedales.

The festivities were always well received; the actual games were less impressive. The Indians had a 4-7 record, including non-league games, in 1922 and dropped to 1-10 in 1923. The players, most of whom weren’t good enough for the NFL, started drifting away in the second season. Thorpe himself jumped to the Toledo Maroons. The Oorang Indians had served their purpose, which was to advertise Lingo’s Airedales. By 1924 the team was history.