Jim Thorpe never set foot in the charming Pennsylvania mountain hamlet that bears his name. The community of Mauch Chunk took the name of Jim Thorpe as a marketing gimmick concocted by Thorpe’s third wife. The town and the memorial on its outskirts commemorate both great athletic glory and deep national shame.
Thorpe was born in the Oklahoma Indian Territory in 1887. As a teenager, he traveled east to Pennsylvania to attend the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. At Carlisle (100 miles from the town of Jim Thorpe), young Native Americans were forced to abandon their language and customs in exchange for cultural assimilation and a chance at life beyond the dwindling, dire reservations.
Athletics were a major part of the Carlisle curriculum, particularly football. Thorpe stood out at every sport he tried, from track to competitive ballroom dancing. Legendary coach Glenn “Pop” Warner finally let him try out for the football team (already a powerhouse in the primordial days of the NCAA), and before long, Thorpe was an All-American halfback, defender, and kicker.
College football glory led to national attention and a chance to compete in the Olympics. Thorpe won gold medals in the decathlon and pentathlon at the 1912 games in Stockholm, helping him become an international superstar. He received a ticker-tape parade down Broadway.
Less than a year later, Thorpe was stripped of his medals when the Worcester Telegram revealed he was paid to play some semipro baseball games before the Olympics.
The international sporting public was less persnickety about amateurism as the Olympic officials at the time. Thorpe remained a hero to many. MLB’s New York Giants signed Thorpe to help win a World Series and (just as importantly) improve their box office during an international barnstorming exhibition. He also played for a traveling basketball team called the World Famous Indians.
But Thorpe’s most successful barnstorming team was football’s Canton Bulldogs. The team won three regional titles, then joined with the other successful clubs of the era to form the American Professional Football Association, which later adopted the catchier name National Football League. Thorpe briefly served as the league’s titular president. He made a greater impact as a player-coach-ambassador for the fledgling league through the 1920s.
Thorpe’s Olympic medals were reinstated posthumously in 1982. Mauch Chunk became Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania in 1953 in a bid to become the home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Thorpe is buried far from his home, a final indignity for a Native American who was forever stripped of everything but his God-given ability.
It is easy to see echoes of Thorpe every time an athlete loses a scholarship over a free tattoo, has the book thrown at him for some minor offense or gets criticized for an end-zone dance or postdraft celebration that is not properly “assimilated” into what some perceive as the mainstream. The NFL’s first great athlete is also its greatest history lesson and cautionary tale.
Too many great athletes still fight uphill battles against prejudice, inequity or callous indifference. Few endured as much as Thorpe. None shined more brightly or courageously.