When talking about the greatest athlete to ever live, usually men like Muhammed Ali, Michael Phelps, Michael Jordan, Pelé, Jim Brown, and Roger Federer are just a few of the first ones cited. While they are all unbelievably excellent athletes, none of them have a record that’s as impressive and diverse as Jim Thorpe’s.
Jim Thorpe was born in May 1887 in Indian Territory, near what is today Prague, Oklahoma. His birth name was Wa-Tho-Huk, which means “Bright Path.” Following his father’s tribal lineage, Thorpe was a member of the Sauk and Fox tribe, and he also had some French and Irish roots.
Jim spent the early years of his life on a farm with his twin brother, Charlie. As children, their father Hiram, who was a bootlegger and horse breeder, taught them how to hunt and break horses. As he got older, Jim was able to chase down runaway horses on foot.
As a boy, Jim would apparently sit for hours and watch horses run. He then tried to emulate their mechanics in his own running. The Sauk and Fox tribe had a rich tradition of competition and games. After chores were done, Hiram, his boys, and his Sauk and Fox neighbors would get together to engage in these competitions.
When Jim and Charlie were six, they were sent away to a boarding school for Native Americans that was 20 miles away from their home. Charlie was a good student, but Jim never really enjoyed school. It was clear that he enjoyed his freedom outdoors instead of the rigid structure of school.
When Jim chose to run away from school, he had no problem making the 20-mile trek back home on foot. Sometimes he ran the entire way. If he did run away, his father would immediately take him back, because Hiram wanted to ensure that his children were educated.
9. He Lost Close Family at an Early Age
Thorpe’s life was marked with incredible highs and lows. This started as a young child with the death of his twin brother, Charlie. When they were both eight, Charlie contracted pneumonia and passed away not long afterwards. Not only was Charlie Jim’s twin, but he was also his best friend. Without him, Jim’s interest in school waned even more, so he was sent to a different boarding school in Kansas.
Not long after arriving, his father was hurt in a hunting accident and Jim decided to return home, but he took the train 270 miles in the wrong direction. Seeing only one option, Jim, who was only 10-years-old, decided to walk home. It took him two weeks.
His father recovered from the hunting accident, but he died when Jim was 17. Jim lost his mother just three years earlier.
8. Jim’s Try Out for School Athletics
When his father died, Jim was enrolled at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. He skipped class a lot, and when he did attend, he trained to be an electrician.
One day in the spring of 1907, he was walking by the track and field team, who were practicing the high jump. Jim asked if he could give it a try. Jim had an athletic build, but he wasn’t tall, only about 5-foot-8. When he asked to try the high jump, he was wearing his work clothes. Members of the track and field team took one look at him and they didn’t think he’d be able to do it. Then, just to be jerks, they raised the bar to the top (5-foot-9), which was higher than the school record.
Jim made the jump on his first try.
This caught the attention of the school’s football coach, and a man who would go on to be one of the biggest influences on American football: Glenn “Pop” Warner.
7. Jim Thorpe – All American
Jim became the star of the track team, the baseball team, the hockey team, the basketball team, the lacrosse team, and he was even excellent at ballroom dancing. But where Jim would make his mark in college was in football.
Under coach Warner, Jim played two years of football. He played halfback, placekicker, punter, and defender. During his two-year tenure, the school only lost two games. They managed to beat heavily-favored schools like Harvard and West Point.
In both seasons, Jim was named to the All-America team.
Back then, the NCAA (which was only a few years old at that time) didn’t keep track of stats; but in an archive, some of Jim’s statistics were found printed in a newspaper in 1912. They had him rushing for 1,869 yards and the stats from two games were missing. In those final two games, he could have very easily crossed the 2,000-yard barrier. This would make him the first 2000-yard rusher in football.
6. The Olympics
Despite his success in athletics, school still didn’t hold much interest to Jim. When he finished school, he didn’t have much in the way of options. Jim had a plan, though: he wanted to be a full-time professional athlete. Not something that was very common in the early 1910s.
His girlfriend’s family certainly didn’t think that this was a feasible way to make money, so they wouldn’t let her marry him.
To prove that he could do it, Jim tried out for the 1912 Olympic Team and, of course, made it. He was sent to Stockholm, Sweden and he roomed with a Jewish athlete. On the ship on the way there, they weren’t given keys to a room and were expected to sleep where the luggage was stored.
Jim was there to compete in two sports: the pentathlon, which is a series of five competitions, and the decathlon, which is 10 competitions. On the morning before his first competition, Jim woke up to find that his shoes were missing because someone had stolen them. He went looking through the trash and found two shoes, but they weren’t the same size. Nevertheless, he put them on and went out and competed.
By competed, we mean he annihilated the competition.
In the pentathlon, he finished first in four of the five competitions. The only competition he didn’t finish first in was the javelin. That may have been because he had only thrown the javelin once before the Olympics. Even then, he still managed to finish third. In the decathlon, he finished first in four of the events, third in four of the events, and fourth in the other two.
Jim was awarded two gold medals, and supposedly when the King of Sweden put the medal around his neck, he declared Jim the greatest athlete in the world. Jim apparently simply said, “thanks,” and that was all. He was offered a chance to go to upscale parties in Stockholm, but said no. He said he “…didn’t wish to be gazed upon as a curiosity.”
5. The Medals
Thorpe returned to America and was hailed as a hero. They even threw a tickertape parade in his honor in New York City.
Five months after winning the two gold medals, the Amateur Athletic Union announced they had been investigating Jim. They discovered that in 1909 and 1910, Jim had been paid to play semi-professional baseball. This meant he wasn’t an amateur and was therefore not eligible to compete in the Olympics.
Because of the investigation, he was forced to turn over his two gold medals and his amazing accomplishments were stricken from the record books. His medals would be given to his family, but not until 1983, 30 years after he died. His records, on the other hand, have never been reinstated.
4. His Amazing Pro Career
Jim’s goal when he left for the Olympics was to prove that he could make a living as a professional athlete and when he returned, the offers came in. He signed on to play baseball with the New York Giants, and since he was making a living off baseball, he was able to wed his girlfriend.
Jim was a decent baseball player, but he had a problem with curve balls. He ended up playing six seasons altogether. In 1915, two years into his baseball career, he signed a big contract with the football team the Canton Bulldogs. He led them to championship victories in 1916, 1917, and 1919.
In 1920, the Bulldogs were one of 14 teams that joined the American Professional Football Association, which would later become the National Football League (NFL). Jim Thorpe was elected President, making him the first President of the NFL. He served for only one season as President.
In 1922 and 1923, he coached and played on an all-Native American team, the Oorang Indians. They would wear traditional Native clothing and perform traditional dances before games. In total, he played 13 years of football and besides playing for the Bulldogs and the Oorgang Indians, he played for the Cleveland Indians, the Rock Island Independents, the New York Giants, and the Chicago Cardinals.
After his sports career, Thorpe decided to give acting a shot. The problem that he faced there shouldn’t be a surprise if you know anything about the history of Hollywood. Native leading men weren’t exactly in high demand. So instead, Jim got roles as Indian stereotypes.
Besides acting, he established the Native American Actors Guild, which placed authentic Native Americans in movies, usually westerns. Jim also fought for equal pay and health insurance for Native actors and stuntmen. This is all ironic because, while he was still alive, there was a movie about his life, starring white actor Burt Lancaster as Jim Thorpe, and he wears dark make up to make him look Native American.
Jim Thorpe – All American was released 1951. It’s a melodrama that is very loosely based on Jim’s life and accomplishments, but it overly dramatizes the relationship between Jim and Pop Warner.
2. The Personal Problems Myth
Many online biographies about Jim Thorpe discuss his life after athletics as a decline into alcoholic destitution and living in a trailer. But according to one of Thorpe’s biographers, this isn’t an accurate description of his later life and it’s based on Native American stereotypes.
For most of his career, Thorpe stayed out of the limelight and was nonchalant about his talent and training. Since the public didn’t see how hard he trained, rumors started to develop that he didn’t train at all. Instead, he drank before competitions. This led to people thinking he was just a drunk and lazy Indian, who got lucky and was granted God-given athletic ability.
It isn’t much different than the way many black athletes are treated today. By saying they were simply bestowed with talent, it completely dismisses all their hard work and training. No one ever gets to be the best in the world by coasting on their natural ability alone. Every successful person in every respective field got to where they are because they worked incredibly hard.
Jim Thorpe was no exception. Teammates said that he trained constantly and often led team practices.
However, there is some truth to him living out the rest of his life in a trailer. but it wasn’t because he was forced to. Jim was a highly paid athlete, he made money in Hollywood, and he made quite a bit of money for public speaking events all the way up until his last days. Jim chose to live in the trailer because he and his wife liked to travel. Jim was an avid outdoorsman and liked to hunt and fish, so he traveled around in his later years doing that.
Also, while Jim was known to drink, there is no evidence that he drank excessively, or he was an alcoholic. Jim Thorpe had a heart attack and died on March 28, 1953, at the age of 65.
1. Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania
After he died, Jim’s third wife, Patricia, wanted to have him buried in Oklahoma, where he was born and lived in his early years. However, state officials refused to erect a monument for him, so Patricia essentially auctioned off his remains.
The small towns of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk in Pennsylvania said that they would merge the towns and become Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, and they would build a mausoleum to hold his remains. Patricia agreed to the terms and gave them the remains a year after he died.
The citizens of the town, which had a population of about 5,000 people, paid $10,000 for the mausoleum. They were hoping it would be a tourist attraction, but it didn’t turn out that way. Thorpe had children with his first and second wives, and the three sons from the second marriage weren’t happy about the way his body was auctioned off. They wanted him buried in Oklahoma.
They sued to get the body in 2010 and won, but it was overturned in 2014 and Jim’s remains are still in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania.