Biography of Native American Sports Legend Jim Thorpe

Jim Thorpe Memorial
Jim Thorpe Memorial in Pennsylvania. Doug Kerr/

Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders wowed sports fans in the 1980s and ’90s by playing both professional football and baseball. But decades before Jackson and Sanders landed million-dollar deals for their dexterity in two pro sports, Jim Thorpe left an indelible mark on the athletic world by playing professional football, baseball and basketball. Despite the fame his athletic prowess brought to him, Thorpe—a mixed-race Native American of Irish, French, Pottowatomie, Sac and Fox origin—suffered his share of career setbacks and personal challenges.

This biography details the All-American athlete’s ups and downs and Thorpe’s legacy today.

Early Years

Jacobus Franciscus Thorpe was born May 28, 1888, in Prague, Okla. The great-great grandson of the legendary Chief Black Hawk, Thorpe grew up playing sports and taking part in fish and game activities. Also known by the Sauk name Wa-Tho-Huk (Bright Path), Thorpe suffered a series of tragedies as a youngster. First his twin brother Charlie died from pneumonia, resulting in Thorpe becoming a truant when the mourning period ended and the time came to return to Sac and Fox Indian Agency School. A couple of years later, Thorpe’s father sent him to Haskell Institute in Lawrence, Kan., but Thorpe dropped out of that institution after his mother’s unexpected death.

Carlisle Days

Thorpe ultimately ended up at Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania in the early 1900s, where he demonstrated a talent in track-and-field, boxing, lacrosse, swimming, bowling, golf, gymnastics, ballroom dancing and hockey in addition to baseball, basketball and football.

Although the budding sports star temporarily left Carlisle after suffering the loss of his father, he reenrolled and worked closely with esteemed football coach Glenn “Pop” Warner.

Named an All-American multiple times, Thorpe helped Carlisle defeat the powerhouse football teams at the time, including Harvard.

Before Dwight Eisenhower became president of the United States, he competed against Thorpe in a match between Carlisle and the Army. The former defeated the latter 27-6, with Thorpe earning all but five of the points for Carlisle.

In 1961, Eisenhower described Thorpe as “supremely endowed.” He remembered Thorpe as an athlete who didn’t have to practice but “could do anything better than any other football player I ever saw.”

Olympic Greatness and Controversy

A track-and-field star at Carlisle, Thorpe easily qualified for the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm. That year, the pentathlon and the decathlon were introduced at the games. Thorpe won both events. He left the Olympics with two gold medals and Challenger Prizes apiece. Thorpe so impressed King Gustav V of Sweden that the monarch declared him, “The greatest athlete in the world.” But the high Thorpe reached would not last. The following year, the superstar’s Olympic medals were taken away from him after newspapers reported that he’d played semiprofessional baseball, even though he received meager pay for doing so and college athletes reportedly played minor ball all the time.

Shortly after the controversy, Thorpe signed onto the New York Giants but continued to compete in other fields as well, namely football and basketball.

In 1920, Thorpe served as the first president of the American Professional Football League, an early version of the National Football League. In the late 1920s, Thorpe played pro basketball as one of the “World Famous Indians.” Thorpe competed in his final professional game in 1928.

When he left the sports world, Thorpe worked in a series of odd jobs. He also appeared in small roles in Westerns and other films, but his movie career never took off. Married three times with seven children (an eighth died), Thorpe had difficulty being the breadwinner for his family. He also struggled with alcoholism. He’d not only lost several close family members but experienced racism before and after his rise to fame as an athlete. Carlisle Indian School, for example, functioned to assimilate Native Americans into “white” culture.

Students there could not wear their hair long, speak indigenous languages or otherwise practice Native American traditions.

Death and Legacy

Jim Thorpe died of heart failure on March 28, 1953, in Lomita, Calif. Before his death, the All-American had also battled lip cancer. Three decades after his passing, the International Olympic Committee reinstated his Olympic honors. Posthumously Thorpe has received many honors. ABC’s “Wide World of Sports,” among many others, has named him “Athlete of the Century.” Moreover, a Pennsylvania town bears Thorpe’s name and contains a memorial to him (although Thorpe never visited while alive). Additionally the Jim Thorpe Association and the Jim Thorpe Scholarship at the University of North Carolina both support young athletes and Native Americans. Burt Lancaster immortalized Thorpe’s life on celluloid by starring as the athlete in the 1951 biopic “Jim Thorpe—All-American.”