Originally posted on Football Nation  |  Last updated 5/31/12
Since this week’s column has a lengthy profile of a man widely considered the “greatest athlete of all time”, we’ll dispense with the standard introduction and kick the “Wayback Machine” into gear on a heading for late 19th century Oklahoma.

May 28, 1887 – Jim Thorpe is born in Prague, Oklahoma.
We are in the days of the specialist athlete. The multi-sport pro player died out when Deion Sanders gave up baseball for good after the 2001 season. With more overlap between seasons, year-round training rigors and more offseason team practices, playing and excelling at two sports has become next to impossible on the pro level, and increasingly difficult to do in college. Even within professional sports, specialization has become the rule rather than the exception. In 1950 NFL rules were relaxed to allow in-game substitutions and the era of separate offensive and defensive and defensive squads began.

In the early 1900’s, when even a two-year player contract was out of the question, athletes playing baseball and football were a more common occurrence. To excel above and beyond that, the athlete needed to be named Jim Thorpe. In 1950, the Associated Press named Jim Thorpe the Greatest Athlete of the First Half of the 20th Century. He was a two-time college All-American football player, 1912 Inter-Collegiate Ballroom Dancing Champion, two-time Olympic Gold Medalist, baseball player and a charter inductee into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

His mother was a descendant of the Sac and Fox Indians and gave him the Indian name Wa-Tho-Huk, or “Bright Path”. In 1904 Thorpe went to the Carlisle Industrial Indian School in Pennsylvania where his athletic excellence began to be recognized. The legendary Glenn “Pop” Warner was the head football coach at Carlisle and touted Thorpe’s all-around abilities in track and football.

In 1911 he received national attention when he dominated in a game against Harvard, the school recognized as the National Champion in 1910. Carlisle, with 15 players and Jim Thorpe, played tough and kept the game close. Thorpe scored a touchdown and kicked four field goals, the final one from 50-yards split the uprights for an 18-15 victory. In a 1912 game against Army, another early college national power, he had a 92-yard touchdown run called back because of a penalty. On the next play he went for 97-yards and a touchdown.
In the spring of 1912, with Warner’s strong urgings, Thorpe began training for the Stockholm Olympics. He sailed for Sweden with the rest of the U.S. Olympic Team as a competitor in two multi-event competitions, the Pentathlon (long jump, javelin throw, 200-meter dash, discus throw and 1,500-meter run) and the Decathlon (100-meter dash, long jump, shot put, high jump, 400-meter run, discus throw, 110-meter hurdles, pole vault, javelin throw, 1,500-meter run).

On the first day of Olympic competition Thorpe won the Pentathlon, placing first in every event except for the Javelin, where he finished third. The next day he competed in the High Jump, finishing fourth. Five days later he competed and came in seventh in the Long Jump. On the last three days of the Olympics he competed in his first, and only, Decathlon. When the event was complete his point total set a world record that would stand for 16-years, and would still have qualified for a silver medal as late as 1948. On the final day of the Olympics, King Gustav V awarded him with his gold medals, grabbed Thorpe’s hand and said, “Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world.” The unverified response credited to Thorpe was, “Thanks King.”

One year later Roy Johnson, a reporter for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, saw a picture of Thorpe in a baseball uniform and investigated. He found Thorpe had played some minor league baseball in North Carolina. Most college athletes had done the same, but under adopted names. Thorpe played under his own name and even though the money he earned was negligible, he was ruled a professional athlete by the International Olympic Committee and stripped of his gold medals.

Since the minor league team he had played for went out of business, Thorpe was a free agent with a number of Major League teams looking to sign him. He signed with the New York Giants for the 1913 season and appeared in 19 games. After they lost in the World Series to the Philadelphia Athletics, the Giants and Chicago White Sox got together for a world tour, with Jim Thorpe as the celebrity draw at every stop.

Thorpe continued to play baseball (never very successfully) until 1919. In 1915 he became the first big name athlete to play professional football.  The Canton Bulldogs signed him to play the final two games of their season for $250 a game (equivalent to $5,743 today). Canton went from averaging 1,200 fans a game to 8,000 for his pro football debut against the Massillon Tigers. With Thorpe on the team, the Bulldogs won pro football “championships” in 1916, 1917 and 1919.

In 1920 the Canton Bulldogs were one of the teams to pay the $100 entry fee to join the American Professional Football Association (NFL). In a bid to gain publicity for the new league they named Thorpe as president. Name recognition was all they achieved with him as president though. Thorpe was more interested in concentrating on coaching and playing with the Bulldogs. Joe Carr replaced him as league president in 1921 (for more on Joe Carr click here).
Thorpe played for Cleveland in 1921 then organized a team to be made up of all Indians for a man named Walter Lingo, who owned a company called Oorang Dog Kennels. The team was formed for the sole purpose of selling Airedale dogs and advertising his kennels. LaRue, Ohio was where the company was based and the team was called the Oorang Indians.

Other than Thorpe, the team was terrible and they only won three games in two years but that may have had more to do with what they were required to do before games and at halftime. Among the activities were shooting exhibitions, with Airedales acting as retrievers, Indian dancing and tomahawk and knife throwing demonstrations. It was difficult for the team to take the game to be played seriously with the circus atmosphere that surrounded them. The Indians drew big crowds for a while but when the novelty wore off after the 1923 season, Lingo pulled his backing and the team folded.


Thorpe played a couple of seasons with the Rock Island Independents, three games with the New York Giants and one more season with Canton as his career drew to a close. In 1928 the Chicago Cardinals convinced him to come back for one game against the Bears before retiring at age 41.

Unfortunately for football writers and historians, practically no statistics exist from the early days of the NFL to provide direct evidence of how dominating a football player Jim Thorpe was. In his Pro Football Hall of Fame profile it says, “He could run with speed as well as bruising power. He could pass and catch passes with the best, punt long distances and kick field goals either by dropkick or placekick.” He would demonstrate his kicking abilities during halftimes, placekicking field goals from the 50-yard line then turning and drop kicking field goals through the opposite goalposts.

One story that exists about how fierce Thorpe could be came from George Halas, who was playing when the Chicago Bears faced Thorpe’s Oorang Indians in 1923. Halas said, “It was a wet day and there was some hitting at the line. Suddenly there was the ball. I grabbed it and started to run. When I realized it was Thorpe chasing me I really put it on because I was running for my life. I could feel him breathing down my neck the whole way.” He continued, “My how that Thorpe could hit. And you know, he actually caught up to me. It was on about the eight-yard line. He hit me and we both went sliding into the end zone.” It ended up a record 98-yard fumble recovery for touchdown, a record that Halas held until 1982. There are observers who say he actually ran 150-yards with all the fakes and zigzags he needed to make to keep Thorpe from throwing him down.

Sadly, once his playing days were behind him Thorpe struggled to earn enough money to support his family. He spent some time working as an extra in Hollywood, usually when an Indian chief character was needed. He began to drink heavier and worked a lot of odd jobs while never being able to hang on to one for a length of time. In 1950 he was admitted to the hospital as a charity case when he needed surgery for lip cancer. He was completely broke.

He began to gain recognition again in 1950 when he was named best athlete and in 1951 when he was played by Burt Lancaster in the movie “Jim Thorpe All-American.” On March 28, 1953, Thorpe suffered heart failure while eating dinner with his wife in their trailer in Lomita, California. He was revived briefly but lost consciousness again and died at the age of 64.

In 1983 the greatest injustice done to Thorpe, and which was always the single most disappointment in his life was finally rectified when after much struggle and argument by numerous people, the International Olympic Committee restored Thorpe’s gold medals and presented new medals to two of his children. In 1963 he was among 17 football pioneers inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and a statue of Thorpe is the first thing visitors see as they enter the building.

Deaths the week:
May 31, 1995 –Tim Mara; grandson of the founder of the New York Giants franchise and part owner of the team died of Hodgkins Disease in Florida at the age of 59.
Birthdays of note:
May 30, 1943–Gale Sayers; Running Back (Bears) 1965–1971; 5-time First-Team All-Pro; 4-time Pro Bowler;
                                                    Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1977
May 31, 1943–Joe Namath; Quarterback (Jets/Rams) 1965–1977; 1-time First-Team All-Pro; 5-time Pro Bowler;
                                                    Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1985
June 3, 1943–Emmitt Thomas; Cornerback (Chiefs) 1966–1978; 1-time First-Team All-Pro; 5-time Pro Bowler;
                                                          Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2008

The rest of this week’s birthdays:

May 28
1899–Bill Stein; Center (Duluth Eskimos/Cardinals) 1923–1929
1921–Bill Paschal; Fullback Giants/Boston Yanks) 1943–1948; 1-time First-Team All-Pro
1948–Bruce Taylor; Cornerback (49ers) 1970–1977
1952–Terry Schmidt; Cornerback (Saints/Bears) 1974–1984
1954–Butch Johnson; Wide Receiver (Cowboys/Broncos) 1976–1985
1955–Mike W. Wilson; Right Tackle (Bengals/Seahawks) 1978–1989
1955–William Gay; Defensive End (Lions) 1978–1988
1957–Steve Watson; Wide Receiver (Broncos) 1979–1987; 1-time Pro Bowler
1957–Rich Milot; Linebacker (Redskins) 1979–1987
1959–Bobby Butler; Cornerback (Falcons) 1981–1992
1963–Eugene Robinson; Safety (Seahawks/Packers/Falcons/Panthers) 1985–2000; 3-time Pro Bowler
1970–Jason Belser; Safety (Colts/Chiefs) 1992–2002
1979–Ronald Curry; Wide Receiver (Raiders) 2002–2008
1986–Michael Oher; Tackle (Ravens) 2009–2011
1987–T.J. Yates; Quarterback (Texans) 2011–2011
1987–Jacob Lacey; Defensive Back (Colts) 2009–2011
1988–Percy Harvin; Wide Receiver (Vikings) 2009–2011; 1-time Pro Bowler

May 29
1936–Jim Fraser; Linebacker/Punter (Broncos/Chiefs/Patriots/Saints) 1962–1968; 3-time Pro Bowler
1958–Sam Clancy; Defensive End (Seahawks/Browns/Colts) 1983–1993
1975–Matt Bryant; Placekicker (Giants/Colts/Dolphins/Buccaneers/Falcons) 2002–2011
1976–Ebenezer Ekuban; Defensive End (Cowboys/Broncos) 1999–2008
1980–Nick Eason; Defensive Lineman (Browns/Steelers/Cardinals) 2004–2011
1981–Sean Locklear; Tackle (Seahawks/Redskins) 2004–2011
1986–Mike Windt; Center (Chargers) 2010–2011

May 30                                                                                  
1907–Lou Lubratovich; Left Tackle (Brooklyn Dodgers) 1931–1935
1921–Bucko Kilroy; Guard/Middle Guard (Eagles) 1943–1955; 3-time Pro Bowler
1925–Leon McLaughlin; Center (Rams) 1951–1955; 1-time Pro Bowler
1949–Lydell Mitchell; Running Back (Colts/Chargers/Rams) 1972–1980; 3-time Pro Bowler
1959–Gerald Willhite; Running Back (Broncos) 1982–1988
1962–John Alt; Left Tackle (Chiefs) 1984–1996; 2-time Pro Bowler
1970–Sam Rogers; Linebacker (Bills/Chargers/Falcons) 1994–2003
1972–Allen Aldridge; Linebacker (Broncos/Lions) 1994–2001
1983–Kedric Golston; Defensive Tackle (Redskins) 2006–2011
1983–Darryl Blackstock; Linebacker (Cardinals/Bengals/Raiders) 2005–2011
1985–Turk McBride; Defensive Tackle (Chiefs/Lions/Saints) 2007–2011
1985–Sam Baker; Tackle  (Falcons) 2008–2011
1987–Kyle Wilson; Defensive Back (Jets) 2010–2011
1988–Colin McCarthy; Linebacker (Titans) 2011–2011
1989–Greg Little; Wide Receiver (Browns) 2011–2011

May 31
1910–Milt Gantenbein; Right End (Packers) 1931–1940; 1-time First-Team All-Pro; 1-time Pro Bowler
1936–John LoVetere; Defensive Tackle (Rams/Giants) 1959–1965; 1-time Pro Bowler
1949–Ed Fisher; Right Guard (Oilers) 1974–1982
1953–Richard Wood; Linebacker (Jets/Buccaneers) 1975–1984
1960–Norm Johnson; Placekicker (Seahawks/Falcons/Steelers/Eagles) 1982–1999; 1-time First-Team All-Pro;
                                         2-time Pro Bowler
1975–Kenny Mixon; Defensive End (Dolphins/Vikings) 1998–2004
1983–Lorenzo Alexander; Defensive Tackle (Redskins) 2007–2011
1985–Jordy Nelson; Wide Receiver (Packers) 2008–2011
1986–Leger Douzable; Defensive Tackle (Rams/Jaguars) 2009–2011

Jun 1                                                                                     
1905–Saul Mielziner: Center (Giants/Brooklyn Dodgers) 1929–1934
1916–Ki Aldrich; Center (Cardinals/Redskins) 1939–1947; 2-time Pro Bowler
1933–Alan Ameche; Fullback (Colts) 1955–1960; 1-time First-Team All-Pro; 4-time Pro Bowler
1953–Dave Pear; Nose Tackle (Colts/Buccaneers/Raiders) 1975–1980; 1-time Pro Bowler
1956–Bruce Hardy; Tight End (Dolphins) 1978–1989              
1968–Larry Centers; Fullback (Cardinals/Redskins/Bills/Patriots) 1990–2003; 3-time Pro Bowler
1970–Raylee Johnson; Defensive End (Chargers/Broncos) 1993–2004             
1979–Santana Moss; Wide Receiver (Jets/Redskins) 2001–2011; 1-time Pro Bowler
1986–Jeremy Zuttah; Guard (Buccaneers) 2008–2011
1987–Dan Williams; Defensive Tackle (Cardinals) 2010–2011              

Jun 2
1944–Garo Yepremian; Placekicker (Lions/Dolphins/Saints/Buccaneers) 1966–1981; 2-time First-Team All-Pro;
                                            2-time Pro Bowler
1947–Pat Hughes; Linebacker (Giants/Saints) 1970–1979
1950–Jeff Siemon;Linebacker (Vikings) 1972–1982; 4-time Pro Bowler
1950–Lawrence McCutcheon; Running Back (Rams/Seahawks/Broncos/Bills) 1972–1981; 5-time Pro Bowler
1958–Tootie Robbins; Right Tackle (Cardinals/Packers) 1982–1993
1959–Hoby Brenner; Tight End (Saints) 1981–1993; 1-time Pro Bowler
1970–Andy McCollum; Center (Saints/Rams/Lions) 1995–2008
1981–Stefan Logan; Punt & Kick Returner (Steelers/Lions) 2009–2011
1981–Stacy Andrews; Tackle (Bengals/Eagles/Seahawks/Giants) 2004–2011
1988–Joe Lefeged; Defensive Back (Colts) 2011–2011

June 3
1899–Frank Nesser; Fullback/Guard (Columbus Panhandles) 1920–1926
1914–George W. Smith; Center (Redskins/Boston Yanks/49ers) 1937–1947; 1-time Pro Bowler
1941–Lee Roy Caffey; Linebacker (Eagles/Packers/Bears/Cowboys/Chargers) 1963–1972            ;
                                         1-time First-Team All-Pro; 1-time Pro Bowler
1957–Curtis Green; Defensive End  (Lions) 1981–1989
1959–Sam Mills; Linebacker (Saints/Panthers) 1986–1997; 1-time First-Team All-Pro; 5-time Pro Bowler
1969–Ray Roberts; Left Tackle (Seahawks/Lions) 1992–2000
1980–Brandon Moore; Guard (Jets) 2003–2011

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The 'Greatest Show temporarily not on turf' quiz

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