You may hear often about athletes who played more than one sport in high school or college. You may know about guys like Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders, who both played more than one sport professionally. But Jim Thorpe just may be the ultimate athlete.
Jim Thorpe, while only a Hall of Famer in football, proved himself to be more than capable of playing just one sport. In fact, he participated in six. He was also a track and field olympian, a baseball player, a basketball player, a lacrosse player and even a competitive ballroom dancing champion.
There is no official birth certificate that states facts of his birth; however, it is generally believed that Thorpe was born in Indian territory on May 22, 1887. Thorpe, who has Native American and European ancestry, was a member of the Sac and Fox tribe; his Native American name was Wa-Tho-Huk, which translates to “Bright Path.”
He faced early emotional struggles when he was young, as his twin brother died of pneumonia when they were 9, and his mother died of complications from childbirth when he was 11. He ran away from school often, and after the death of his mother and arguments with his father, he left home to work on a horse ranch. In 1904, he returned home and went to Carlisle Indian Industrial School, but he left again for the ranch after his father’s passing.
Returning to the school in 1907, his athletic abilities were discovered by the legendary Pop Warner. While Warner was originally hesitant about Thorpe playing football, Thorpe received his first taste of national attention in 1911. Playing four positions, he scored all of his school’s points in an upset over highly ranked Harvard. Carlisle won the national championship in 1912, and Thorpe was a 1911 and 1912 All-American.
Then in 1912, he competed at the Summer Olympic Games, held that year in Stockholm, Sweden. There, he competed in the pentathlon, decathlon, long jump and high jump. Thorpe won eight of the combined total 15 events comprising the pentathlon and decathlon, earning himself two gold medals. He also finished fourth in the high jump and seventh in the long jump.
Little did anyone know that Thorpe’s athletic career was far from done.
Controversially, he was stripped of his gold medals after it was discovered he had played minor league baseball prior to participating in the 1912 Games. Despite this bump in the road, after it was discovered, he received offers from several MLB teams. Over the course of seven seasons, he played for the New York Giants, Cincinnati Reds and Boston Braves. He then played an additional three seasons in the minors before leaving the game.
During his baseball career, Thorpe would also begin his legendary football career. Between 1915 and 1920, he was both a player and coach for the Canton Bulldogs. In 1920, the Bulldogs became one of 14 teams to jump to the American Professional Football Association, which became the NFL in 1922. Thorpe was the league’s first president, but served only about a year because he was still playing.
Following his time with the Bulldogs, he played for the Cleveland Indians in 1921. After team owner Jimmy O’Donnell lost the franchise, Thorpe and Joe Guyon helped to create the Oorang Indians, which Thorpe continued to be a player-coach for in 1922 and 1923. In the latter season, he was elected to the first First Team All-Pro team. He did not coach for the 1924 and 1925 seasons, instead playing for the Rock Island Independents and New York Giants. He then player-coached with the Tampa Cardinals in 1926 before playing for the Canton Bulldogs that same year, and with the Chicago Cardinals in 1928. He retired following that season.
Not much was really known about Thorpe’s basketball career until 2005. He was a feature of the “World’s Most Famous Indians” traveling basketball team from 1926 to 1928.
Sadly, Thorpe’s life went downhill following the retirement, which coincided with the Great Depression. He did not have steady employment, instead bouncing around various jobs and finding it hard to stick to a job out of sports. He became a heavy alcoholic, and he eventually lost all his money and was diagnosed with lip cancer, both occurring in 1950. Thorpe passed away from heart failure in 1953.
Thorpe’s legacy remains to this day. He was memorialized in the 1951 film Jim Thorpe — All American. After it became known the violation against Thorpe that lost him his gold medals was discovered more than 30 days following the conclusion of the 1912 Games — as well as the establishment of the Jim Thorpe Foundation — his medals were reinstated.
The Associated Press named Thorpe both the greatest football player and greatest overall athlete of the first half of the 20th century. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963. In 1999, the AP ranked him third on its list of top athlete of the century. In early 2000, an ABC Sports poll ranked him first. A town in Pennsylvania is named in his honor, and an award named in his honor is given to the best defensive back in college football each year.
Legend has it when King Gustav V of Sweden awarded Thorpe a gold medal, the king told him, “You sir, are the greatest athlete in the world.” With all that Thorpe accomplished in multiple sports, that legend just might be fact.
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