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Yes, Jim Thorpe made the team.
And for a brief and magical span of years, the Carlisle Indian Industrial School had the best football team in the country. Carlisle was the fastest team anyone had ever seen, the most creative, the most fun to watch. They traveled anywhere and took on anyone, playing all their toughest games on the road. The team drew crowds in train stations, hotel lobbies, and especially football stadiums—Carlisle’s 1911 showdown with powerhouse Harvard University drew more fans than the opening game of that year’s World Series. Carlisle had the game’s most innovative coach in Pop Warner, and, in Jim Thorpe, the greatest star the sport had ever seen.
None of it was easy.
After a lifetime in the sport, Warner would say, “No college player I ever saw had the natural aptitude for football possessed by Jim Thorpe.” But what the coach called “natural aptitude” was really something richer, a mix of outrageous athletic talent and a force of will hard-earned from a childhood that would have broken most boys.
The challenges began early. Jim’s father, an enormous man named Hiram, saw to that.
As a toddler, Jim liked to splash around in the shallow water near the bank of the North Canadian River, which ran behind his family’s cabin in Oklahoma. One day Hiram strode into the river in his boots, grabbed the kid, hauled him out to the deep water, and dropped him into the current. Hiram then waded back to the bank and watched.
Jim raised his head above the water. It was forty yards to the riverbank. It looked like a mile.
He managed to dog-paddle to shore and collapsed on dry land.
Hiram stood over his three-year-old boy and said, “Don’t be afraid of the water, son, and it won’t be afraid of you.”
* * *
And Jim really didn’t seem to fear anything, or anyone. Not even his father.
Hiram Thorpe, son of a Sac and Fox Indian mother and an Irish father, stood six foot three, 235 pounds. He walked around armed with a pistol, bullets in his belt, wearing a black cowboy hat. No one messed with Jim’s mother, either. Charlotte Vieux, daughter of a Potawatomi Indian woman who’d married a French-Canadian trader, was described by friends as pretty, tall, and big-boned, about two hundred pounds, with exceptionally strong hands.
Hiram had already had two marriages and fathered five children when he and Charlotte married in 1882. They settled on Sac and Fox land in what was called “Indian Territory,” which covered most of what is now Oklahoma.
The shameful history behind Indian Territory is not the subject of this story, but it’s important to know—it shaped the world Jim Thorpe and the other Carlisle School students would grow up in. In 1830, with the passage of the Indian Removal Act, the US government made it official policy to force Native Americans off their lands in order to open the land to white settlers. President Andrew Jackson explained the objective in bluntly racist language. Native Americans were surrounded by what Jackson called “a superior race” and needed to get out of the way. “They must necessarily yield to the force of circumstances,” he said, “and ere long disappear.”
The government set aside Indian Territory as a place to send the displaced nations, whether they agreed to go or not. In what became known as the Trail of Tears, to cite the most infamous example, US soldiers marched more than fifteen thousand Cherokee men, women, and children 1,200 miles from Georgia to Indian Territory. An estimated four thousand people died of disease, cold, and starvation before the nightmare journey ended.
Over the following decades, the US government forced the people of more than sixty different American Indian nations—including the Sac and Fox, originally from the western Great Lakes region—to leave their traditional land and resettle in Indian Territory. Different nations were assigned different areas of land, or reservations. By treaty, the reservation land belonged permanently to the Indians. Then the government changed the rules again.
Pressured by land-hungry settlers, Congress passed the General Allotment Act in 1887, stating that Native American families would be “given” 160-acre plots. The remaining land in Indian Territory would be stripped from Indian control and opened up to new settlers.
Charlotte and Hiram Thorpe were granted a piece of decent grazing land on the banks of the North Canadian River. They built a cabin of cottonwood and hickory, and it was there, in 1888, that Charlotte gave birth to twin boys, James and Charles—Jim and Charlie, as they came to be known. Jim would later explain that his mother, following Potawatomi custom, also gave her sons names inspired by something experienced right after childbirth. Through the window near her bed, Charlotte watched the early-morning sun light the path to their cabin. She named Jim Wathohuck, translated as “Bright Path.” Charlie’s Potawatomi name has been lost to history.
Three years later, twenty thousand settlers lined the edge of what had been Sac and Fox land. A government agent fired a gun, the signal for the land rush to begin, and everyone raced in on horseback or in wagons, claiming open sections of land by driving stakes into the soil.
By nightfall, the plains around the Thorpes’ farm were dotted with settlers’ tents and campfires. In just a few hours, the Sac and Fox had lost nearly 80 percent of their land.
The newcomers built towns, including one called Keokuk Falls, ten miles from the Thorpe family farm. Keokuk Falls was a wild and violent place, home of the “seven deadly saloons,” as locals called them. It was a place where even the pigs got drunk—a whiskey distillery near town dumped used corn mash behind the building, and hogs gorged on it and staggered down the dirt streets.
“Keokuk Falls,” a stagecoach driver announced to riders as he pulled into town. “Stay for half an hour and see a man killed.”
* * *
“Our lives were lived out in the open, winter and summer,” Jim later recalled of his childhood. “We were never in the house when we could be out of it.”
It was a no-nonsense, hardworking way of life. Charlotte sewed their clothes, mixing Potawatomi designs with modern patterns she saw in town. She raised chickens and planted corn, pumpkins, and beans. Hiram tended the livestock and hunted turkey and deer. The family bathed in the river, which in winter meant hacking through the ice and dunking bare bodies through the hole.
Jim’s first hero was Black Hawk, the famous Sac leader who had led his people in a desperate fight to hold on to their ancestral land in the 1830s. Thousands of well-armed US soldiers and volunteers—including militia member Abraham Lincoln—overwhelmed Black Hawk’s much smaller force.
Jim grew up hearing stories of Black Hawk, of his legendary feats of running and swimming and wrestling, of his pride and defiance, even in the face of defeat. Jim grew up hearing that his own father, Hiram, resembled Black Hawk not only in looks, but in athletic skill and pure strength.
And Jim knew it was true. On warm evenings, when the chores were done, Sac and Fox families gathered near the Thorpe cabin, and the men competed in jumping contests and swimming and running races. Hiram always dominated. And then, near sunset, the families formed a circle for the main event: wrestling.
For the rest of his life, Jim would tell tales of these epic tests of strength and will. Night after night, he sat in the fading light, bursting with pride as his father conquered one opponent after another.
Pop Warner did not grow up playing football. And “Pop” was not his first nickname—before “Pop” came “Butter.”
It was not a compliment.
Today Pop Warner is remembered as one of the greatest football coaches of all time, and kids all over the country play in leagues named in his honor. But as a boy in the small town of Springville, New York, Glenn Warner did not inspire visions of athletic glory.
Born in 1871, seventeen years before Jim Thorpe, Glenn was a shy kid, awkward and chubby, a boy who lived in fear of his classmates. They pelted his broad backside with beans shot through straws, and pebbles launched from slingshots. Day after day, they surrounded him as he walked home from school, chanting:
One winter afternoon, when Glenn was ten, he was trudging home when one of the class bullies grabbed his hat, tossed it into a slushy puddle, and stomped on it. The other boys stood around, laughing.
In a burst of rage, Glenn pounced on the bully, knocked him down, and started pummeling him. The other kids looked on in shock.
“This battle,” Warner would later recall, “showed me a new way of looking at life.”
Glenn grew tall in his teen years, and started to show some interest in sports. During school recess, the boys played a game loosely based on English football, or soccer. The streets on either side of the field were goal lines, and the basic idea was to kick the ball past the other team’s goal. “We used anything that we could for a football,” Warner remembered. “Most of the time we ended up playing with a blown-up cow’s bladder.”
Bladders make crummy sporting goods. They’re never truly round, tend to deflate—and quickly start to stink. That could be why Glenn preferred baseball. His mother cut and sewed his overalls into something like baseball pants, and he was good enough to pitch for the Springville team.
After graduating from high school, he took the entrance exam for West Point, the prestigious US Military Academy. Forty teens took the test with Warner. Four were admitted. Warner was not one of them.
At eighteen, with nothing better to do, he moved with his family to a ranch in Wichita Falls, Texas. He and his younger brother, Bill, busted their backs in the blazing sun, clearing brush, planting wheat, herding cattle. The layer of flab that had inspired Glenn’s first nickname melted away.
In the summer of 1892, Warner returned to Springville to see friends. He spent a few days at the horse track in Buffalo, where he bet all the money he’d earned in Texas. He won fifty dollars. That convinced him he was a brilliant gambler, so his new career plan was to travel from track to track, living the good life on his winnings.
It lasted a week. At the next track he went to, in Rochester, he lost nearly everything. Glenn had barely enough cash left for a one-way train ticket back to Wichita Falls.
“I soon became depressed and was forced to do some serious thinking,” Warner later recalled. He didn’t really want to be a rancher; he didn’t know what he wanted to do. “I began to review my options, which were limited. I dared not write to my father and tell him that I was broke, because I would have had to explain what had happened to the money.”
Glenn’s father had been urging him to become a lawyer. That didn’t sound very fun. But now, he realized, it presented an opportunity to escape his financial hole. He wrote to his dad, saying he’d decided to go to law school after all and asking for money to cover tuition.
A few weeks later an envelope arrived from Texas. Inside was a check for a hundred dollars.
Warner figured he had to at least give school a shot. He applied to Cornell University and was accepted.
“At the time, I considered this event to be a great misfortune,” Warner would later say. “But, instead, it turned out to be about the luckiest thing that ever happened to me.”
* * *
Now twenty-one, Glenn was a burly six foot two, with curly brown hair. He rode the train from Buffalo to Ithaca, in central New York, and walked around the Cornell campus, strolling pathways between grassy lawns and gray stone buildings. He wandered out to the sports field, where the football team was practicing.
Curious how the American version of this sport was played, he stood for a while and watched. He was startled to see the team captain, Carl Johanson, striding toward him.
Johanson looked Warner up and down and asked what he weighed.
“Two hundred and fifteen pounds,” Warner said.
“Fine. Get on a suit right away. We need a left guard.”
Warner was stunned.
“Wait a minute,” he managed to say. “I don’t know anything about the game at all.”
“Never mind,” Johanson told him. “All you’ve got to do is keep them from going through you and spoiling the play when we’ve got the ball. And when they’ve got the ball, knock the tar out of your man and tackle the runner. Perfectly simple.”
Text copyright © 2017 by Steve Sheinkin