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Roller-coaster life of Indian icon, sports' first star

July 15, 1912: Jim Thorpe reigns at Games

By Greg Botelho

Thorpe jump
Thorpe gets airborne while competing at the 1912 Olympics, where he won two gold medals.
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(CNN) -- One was a well-to-do Scandinavian royal, the other an unassuming American athlete born in a one-room cabin in rural, destitute Indian territory. On July 15, 1912, in Stockholm, few could question who ruled the day.

"Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world," said Sweden's King Gustav V.

"Thanks, King," Jim Thorpe replied.

Thorpe had just captured a gold medal in the decathlon, his second after winning the pentathlon days earlier -- remarkably winning eight of the two events' 15 individual segments.

The accomplishment, plus his unique background and down-home demeanor, made him the toast of the world and honoree at a New York City ticker-tape parade upon his return home.

"I heard people yelling my name, and I couldn't realize how one fellow could have so many friends," Thorpe recalled of the Big Apple affair.

Months later, he returned to Carlisle Indian Industrial School, scoring a record 25 touchdowns and 198 points to lead his team to a national collegiate football title. A superb, versatile athlete who played six years of Major League baseball, Thorpe would earn enshrinement in the pro football, college football, U.S. Olympic and national track and field halls of fame.

"When it comes to all-around athletes, I don't think anyone compares to Jim Thorpe," said Lynne Draper, executive director of the Oklahoma-based non-profit Jim Thorpe Association. "Sports was his entire life."

But Thorpe's life was not all triumphs. He lived through the premature deaths of his twin brother and parents, and faced longstanding mainstream prejudice against American Indians. His name became synonymous with scandal when news broke he'd been paid to play baseball before the Olympics, forcing him to forfeit his records and gold medals.

He struggled to manage his finances, provide for his family, handle bouts of alcoholism and make a new life for himself when his athletic prowess inevitably declined with old age.

"He was very accepting of everything and everyone," said Bob Reising, author of two books on Thorpe. "You could call it simplistic; his daughter Grace ... calls it, especially near the end of his life, fatalistic. He just loved to compete anywhere, anytime."

One of a kind

Thorpe often noted that he was 5/8ths Native American -- his father being half-Irish, his mother one-quarter French, the rest of his ancestry linked to Sauk, Fox and Pottowatomie tribes. But the public largely identified Thorpe as wholly American Indian, making him intermittently a curiosity, source of pride (for his seeming assimilation into America) and target of bias.

The great-great grandson of famed warrior Chief Black Hawk, he grew up hunting, fishing, playing sports (baseball being an early favorite) and learning from elders on Sauk and Fox land near Prague in what is now central Oklahoma.

Not a fan of schooling, Thorpe jumped around Indian schools before heading east to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, in 1904. Founded by Brig. Gen. Richard Henry Pratt in 1879, the school sought to train Indians for hands-on trades and bring them into the mainstream by "eliminating their Indianness," said Reising, a University of North Carolina, Pembroke professor.

In his third year at Carlisle, Thorpe ambled by track and field practice and, wearing heavy overalls, easily cleared a 5-foot-9-inch high jump bar. Legendary coach Glenn "Pop" Warner quickly became enamored with Thorpe, soon adding him to his football squad for which he earned third-team All-American honors in 1908.

Thorpe Carlisle uniform
Thorpe poses in uniform at Carlisle, where he earned All-American football honors three times.

After his five-year arrangement at Carlisle ended in spring 1909, Thorpe headed to North Carolina to pitch for the Rocky Mount Railroaders of the Class D Eastern Carolina League.

In 1911, Warner lured Thorpe back to Carlisle, and the budding athlete quickly picked up where he left off. A first-team football All-American that year and in 1912, the halfback/defender/kicker powered his team to wins over then-powerhouses Harvard, Syracuse and Pennsylvania.

Future U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower injured his knee trying to tackle Thorpe during Carlisle's 27-6 victory over the Army team. Thorpe scored 22 of those points for Carlisle.

"Here and there, there are some people who are supremely endowed," Eisenhower said in a 1961 speech. "My memory goes back to Jim Thorpe. He never practiced in his life, and he could do anything better than any other football player I ever saw."

All-around athlete

A star on Carlisle's basketball, lacrosse, tennis and handball teams, Thorpe also excelled in bowling, golf, swimming, hockey, boxing and gymnastics, to name a few sports -- he even won a national ballroom dancing contest.

Still, his sports highlight came in track and field. His Stockholm performance earned him international fame as the world's top athlete.

"If there had been endorsements back then, he'd have more than [Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan put] together," said Reising. "He was such an unusual guy, such an eye-catcher."

But his competitive fire, athletic skill and obliging personality -- plus his public image, due to his American Indian roots, as a curiosity and outsider -- also hurt him, said Reising.

"His tribal people were very giving and generous, and there was a certain naiveté when it came to the real world," he said. "He was very accepting of anything and everyone. Thorpe was basically a simple person and an ideal person to be exploited."

In early 1913, the Worcester Telegram reported on his two years in North Carolina playing baseball for an estimated $15 to $25 a week. Collegiate ballplayers, in fact, routinely spent summers playing for pay, but most -- unlike Thorpe -- used aliases to prevent being caught.

Thorpe medal
Thorpe receives a gold medal -- which he would later have to forfeit -- in Stockholm.

A week after losing his amateur status, he signed a baseball contract with the New York Giants. But manager John McGraw made him more a sideshow than regular player, while Thorpe struggled in a sport he had not played in more than two years. (He ended up playing 12 years of pro baseball, incrementally improving in his six years in the major leagues.)

While baseball remained the only sport in which an athlete could earn a good living, Thorpe continued to compete in other sports. After starring for teams in Ohio, New York and Illinois, in 1920 he became the first president -- and top drawing card -- of the American Professional Football League, which would evolve into the National Football League.

'A dizzying, confusing life'

Thorpe played his last pro game, a football contest in Chicago, in November 30, 1928. He then left for southern California, taking bit movie parts and blue-collar jobs as the Depression took hold.

By 1932, with Thorpe too poor to buy his own ticket, Vice President Charles Curtis invited him to watch the Opening Ceremonies of that year's summer Olympics in Los Angeles.

Thorpe took various, often low-paying jobs to support his family over the next 21 years. By the time he died in 1953, he was so broke that his third wife, Patricia, sent his body to two towns in Pennsylvania -- neither of which Thorpe had ever visited -- in exchange for their creating a memorial, merging and renaming the new town "Jim Thorpe."

"He led a dizzying, confusing life," said Reising. "Dealing with the mainstream world was difficult. He was caught between American Indian systems, as it were, and the mainstream."

The townsfolk's decision itself -- an effort to revitalize the area as a tourist haven for people wanting to pay their respects -- speaks to Thorpe's continued public significance.

A few years before his death, an Associated Press poll of sports journalists named Thorpe the top athlete of the first half of the 20th century. Burt Lancaster played the title role in the 1951 movie, "Jim Thorpe -- All-American."

Thorpe experts say many do not fully appreciate his athletic excellence and place in history.

"His accomplishments were almost entirely before television, almost before radio," Draper said. "Athletes then didn't have the recognition they do today, so they tend to be forgotten."

Thorpe had several posthumous victories. In 1982, the International Olympic Committee restored his amateur status and records, giving his relatives replicas of his 1912 gold medals. ABC's "Wide World of Sports" named him its Athlete of the Century, one of several groups to honor Thorpe alongside other athletic greats at the turn of the century.

And his name lives on in other ways. The Jim Thorpe Association honors athletes, runs the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame and directs fitness- and art-related youth programs. UNC-Pembroke, moreover, annually awards a "Jim Thorpe Scholarship" to a student interested in American Indian studies.

"The number of people still being touched by Jim Thorpe is phenomenal," said Draper.

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