Kate Buford’s Superb Biography of Jim Thorpe

Jim Thorpe

Native American Son: The Life and Sporting Legend of Jim Thorpe by Kate Buford
Knopf 2010

ISBN-10: 0375413243
496 pages

Kate Buford has written what is likely to definitive biography of Jim Thorpe. Jim Thorpe is considered by many to be the greatest athlete of the 20th century. Thorpe was a part of the Sac and Fox tribe and grew up on a reservation in Oklahoma with a tough, alcoholic father. After running away from a number of boarding schools in his youth his father finally sent him to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The boarding school, dedicated to the education and acculturation of Indian youth into white society, is where Thorpe came under the tutelage of Glen Scobey “Pop” Warner who helped coach and guide him in track and football. Thorpe’s biggest claim to fame was the infamous gold medals he won in the pentathlon and decathlon in the 1912 Olympics, thereafter being proclaimed the greatest athlete in the world. He was also a football star for the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, helping the team beat such notable gridiron institutions such as Harvard, Penn, and Army (West Point).

Three are really four phases to Thorpe’s life. The first being his upbringing on an Indian reservation and mostly left to run free and find his own fun and games. He was a very active outdoorsman which is a partial explanation for this developing into a phenomenal athlete. While unconventional, constantly running, jumping, hunting, and playing games certainly kept him active as a youth.

The second phase was his stint at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. Once his talents were shaped at Carlyle he became not only a world class athlete, but THE world class athlete.

The third phase was his time as a professional athlete. After leaving Carlisle, Thorpe played both professional baseball and football, but football is where he really made his name and become one of the all-time greats in that sport. In fact, he was part of the founding class of athletes who established football as a professional sport and was among the first class enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. At the time professional football was frowned upon by many but it was a way that Thorpe could continue this athletic career and really the only skill he had to make money.

The fourth phase of his life was his post-athletic career, which for the most part could be called vagabond. He suffered through failed marriages, mostly his own fault, was most estranged from his children, suffered from alcoholism, and was often financial broke. He did manage to parlay his name into many a career as a bit actor in Hollywood playing the role of an Indian in Westerns, and eventually stood up for the rights of Indians to get jobs sometimes going to others (as long as they could pass for Native American) and equal pay with white actors.

One could say that he struggled with is post-Carlisle life because he became used to the structure and loose discipline Carlisle afforded him, and as a pampered athlete mostly had everything taken care of for him. He never really learned true applicable skills there outside athletics, or even personal skills such as money management. Thus his late adult life was often a struggle.

Finally there is the bizarre story of how Thorpe came to be buried in Thorpe, Pennsylvania with his ex-wife basically selling his remains to the town which renamed itself after him. His family is currently in court trying to have his remains returned for burial in Oklahoma. But you can’t beat having a town named after you and a beautiful memorial. Maybe he should just be allowed to stay there.

This is a superb biography, and very fascinating look at one of the greatest athletes of all time.

Native American Son: The Life and Sporting Legend of Jim Thorpe

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