Jim Thorpe: 100 Years in the Spotlight

Why is there a statue of Jim Thorpe in a town called Jim Thorpe, PA, when Thorpe is from the Sac and Fox Nation in Oklahoma? And why did two towns unite to lay Jim Thorpe to rest in a red marble mausoleum, only to have his sons fight for 59 years to bring his body back home?

For Olympic gold medal winner Jim Thorpe, home is the Great Plains of rural Oklahoma. Sons of Jim Thorpe and members of his tribe, the Sac and Fox Nation, want him back in Indian country so they can “finish that funeral.” They feel Thorpe is as much a part of his homeland as rainwater and that Oklahoma is his “native earth.”

But even as the 2012 Olympics honor Thorpe’s contributions, Thorpe’s body lies nestled in twin towns that used to be called Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk, before they united as Jim Thorpe, PA. This they did in exchange for his corpse through a deal with Thorpe’s third wife who, as the story goes, showed up at his funeral with a highway patrolman, loaded his coffin onto a hearse, and drove away. Again, as the story goes, his body was shopped around for several months with no takers. According to one Sac and Fox elder, “Nothing like this has ever happened before and hasn’t happened since.” The Chunk towns were in financial turmoil and thought a memorial to Thorpe might help them attract the NFL Hall of Fame, a sports stadium, a sporting goods factory, and a hospital. The town vote was 10 to 1, but the idea failed; few tourists ever came.

Meanwhile, the larger than life Jim Thorpe lives on as perhaps the greatest athlete ever, perhaps the most famous Native American ever, and what one sports historian called the “greatest all-around athlete in the history of sports, dating back to Coreobus of Elis in the eighth century before the birth of Christ.”

Jim Thorpe is remembered for a long list of ridiculous records! Only some are listed here:

  • 1904:  Playing college football at the now infamous Carlisle Indian Industrial School in PA, as best player in the nation (unofficially), and the halfback star attraction that helped create pro football
  • 1911-12:  Earning “All American” honors two years in a row, and leading Carlisle to a national championship in the second year
  • 1912:  Winning the decathlon and pentathlon races at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, in mismatched shoes, with records that went unbroken for decades
  • 1912:  Winning the Intercollegiate Ballroom Dancing Championship
  • 1913:  Being stripped of his Olympic medals for having played semi-pro baseball in 1912, but getting them back again (posthumously) in 1982
  • 1913-19:  Playing pro baseball for the New York Giants, Cincinnati Reds, and Boston Braves
  • 1915-1928:  Within the same period, playing football for the Canton Bulldogs, Cleveland Indians, Oorang Indians, Rock Island Independent, New York Giants, and Chicago Cardinals
  • 1920:  Becoming President of the American Professional Football Association, now known as the NFL, which in earlier years he helped establish
  • 1923:  Being selected as “All-Pro” (first-team) by a group of Associated Press sports writers, and listed in the second All-Pro poll ever published
  • 1950:  Being voted the “nation’s greatest athlete of the half century,” garnering 252 votes compared to 86 for Babe Ruth
  • 1950:  Being voted “greatest American football player” and “greatest overall male athlete”
  • 1951:  Being inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame’s charter class
  • 1958:  Being elected into the National Indian Hall of Fame
  • 1963:  Being inducted as a charter member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame
  • 1983:  Being inducted as a charter member of the US Olympic Hall of Fame
  • 1984, 1998:  Having US commemorative postage stamps issued in his honor and in celebration of his Olympic achievements
  • 1986:  Having a charitable legacy established as the Jim Thorpe Association and later joined by the Oklahoma Hall of Fame
  • 1999:  Being named “Athlete of the Century” by the House of Representatives
  • 2000:  Being named “Athlete of the Century” by ABC’s Wide World of Sports

It was 1928 during the Great Depression when Jim Thorpe retired from professional sports. He was 41.  By 1932, Thorpe wrote and published “History of the Olympics” with T. F. Collison.  During the 1930s, Thorpe worked as a Supervisor for Chicago Parks & Recreation. Thorpe also remained active as an extra in movies, a public speaker on matters of Indian affairs, and leader of an all-Indian song and dance troupe called “The Jim Thorpe Show.”

In 1986, the Jim Thorpe Award was created to honor the best defensive back in college football. This prestigious award is second only to the Heisman Trophy in celebrating the talents of outstanding athletes in college football. Only 8 winners of the Jim Thorpe Award still play in the NFL today.

Jim Thorpe was born in 1887 and died in 1953 at the age of 65 from a heart attack. He served as a Merchant Marine during World War II. He had three wives, three daughters, and five sons (one who died in infancy). He had a twin brother (Charles) who died at the age of 9 from pneumonia. An enthusiast of Thunderbird wine, Thorpe was of Irish and Sac & Fox descent. For this un-egotistical legend with a 24-year career in collegiate and pro sports, Jim Thorpe is still in the spotlight 100 years after his Olympic gold medal wins.

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