The Greatest Athlete in the World
He was called the “greatest athlete of the first half of the 20th century.” The King of Sweden went further, calling him “the greatest athlete in the world.” One of the most accomplished all-around athletes in history, Jim Thorpe had a strong tie to Marion County. For a brief period–two seasons in 1922-1923–he played for and coached the Oorang Indians, making LaRue, Ohio, the smallest town ever to have been the home of an NFL franchise.
Thorpe’s life began in 1887, born on a reservation in Oklahoma. His father, Hiram Thorpe, was a farmer, and his mother, Mary James, a Pottawatomie Indian and descendant of the last great Sauk and Fox chief Black Hawk, a noted warrior and athlete. He lived up to his given name — Wa-Tho-Huk — which means “Bright Path.”
In 1904, Thorpe started school at Carlisle Industrial Indian School in Pennsylvania. It was here that he began his athletic career, both playing football and running track. In football, coached by iconic football legend Glenn “Pop” Warner, he was named a two-time All-American and considered a marvel of speed, power, kicking, and all-around ability.
He was selected for the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden, where the records he set in the pentathlon and decathlon would stand for decades. He was the first Native American to win a gold medal and returned home to that most American of honors–a ticker-tape parade in New York City.
The following year, the Olympics Committee learned that he had played two years of semi-professional baseball prior to the Games, determined that this violated their rules for amateur status, stripped him of his gold medals, and removed his name from the record books.
While that was the end of Thorpe’s Olympic experience, albeit temporarily because his medals and records were reinstated posthumously in 1983, it was the beginning of his professional athletic career. He signed on and played six seasons of professional baseball with the New York Giants, Cincinnati Reds, and Boston Braves.
However, neither track and field nor baseball were the only sports in which he excelled. He was proficient in such diverse sports as boxing, lacrosse, swimming, and hockey. During much of his baseball years, Thorpe was also immersed in professional football. Between 1915-20, he played for the Canton Bulldogs, helping win three professional championships.
It was at this point in his illustrious career that he became acquainted with Walter Lingo, who put the novelty team, the Oorang Indians, together to market his dog kennels. Lingo raised Airedales and, because LaRue was once the site of an old Wyandot village, believed that a supernatural bond existed between the Indians and the dogs. The partnership was based on Lingo purchasing a football franchise and Thorpe running the team, which Lingo saw as a way of touring the country’s leading cities to advertise his dogs.
All of the Indians players were Native American, with Jim Thorpe serving as its leading player and coach. Of the 20 games they played over two seasons, 1922-23, only one was played at “home” in Marion — at Lincoln Park. Thorpe would go on to form and lead the American Professional Football Association, the precursor to today’s NFL. In all, Thorpe played with six different teams during his football career and, since 1955, the Jim Thorpe Trophy has been awarded annually to the NFL’s most valuable player.
Even after his athletic career waned, Thorpe was a celebrity, working as an extra in movies, public speaker, and as a vocal advocate for Indian affairs. His athletic talents and the records he set continued to be acknowledged. In 1950, he was named “the greatest American football player” and the “greatest overall male athlete” by the Associated Press. ABC’s Wide World of Sports named Thorpe the “Athlete of the Century.” The Pro Football Hall of Fame inducted him as part of its inaugural class in 1963.
When Thorpe died in the spring of 1953, The New York Times ran a front page story, remembering the athlete, stating that Thorpe “was a magnificent performer” and describing him as an athlete of strength, speed, coordination, and incredible stamina.
#MarionMade #WeAreAthletes #WeAreHistory