The Indian wars were over and the Army had moved the Indians to forts and reservations. A young Army officer named Richard Henry Pratt had taken part in the Indian fighting and subsequent subjugation of the Indians. His observations had caused him to feel a deep sense of obligation to the Indians and he had begun a campaign to assist them to adjust to their new life.All quotations from: Jim Thorpe, World's Greatest Athlete by Robert W. Wheeler, University of Oklahoma Press.
On November 1, 1879, Lt. Pratt opened a vocational school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The school became known as the Carlisle Indian School and for thousands of Indians, it was their great ambition to gain admittance there. At it's peak, the enrollment was 1200 students ranging in age from ten to twenty-five. They were taught school subjects for half a year and their chosen trade for the other half.
Hiram Thorpe, Jim's father, was very much in favor of his son going to Carlisle. "Son," he said, "You are an Indian. I want you to show the other races what an Indian can do."
At Carlisle, the 16-year-old began to learn his trade of tailoring and about the world of organized sports.
Carlisle produced some of the greatest American teams, especially in football. Being neither a college nor university, however, Carlisle was not eligible to join any league or conference. Nonetheless, by the standards of today, the Jim Thorpe led football teams of 1911 and
1912 would have been regarded as national champions.
What added to the glory of their record was that they had only 250 young men of football age, and season after season saw them competing with no more than two or three substitutes against teams with three full units. Their highest average weight was just 170 pounds, but most remarkable of all was the fact that they were from difference tribes and spoke different languages.
While spectacular trick plays received special emphasis in the press, the Indians won most of their games with faster line charging, good blocking and deadly tackling. As for kickers, every man knew what to do with his toe.
Since their toughest opponents would only agree to schedule home games against the Indians, Carlisle soon earned the title "Nomads of the Gridiron." Against the University of Pittsburgh in 1911, Jim carried the ball two out of every three times in a 17-0 victory. One play in particular stunned the 12,000 Pitt fans at Forbes Field. Jim dropped back to punt from his 10-yard line. He boomed a beautiful 70-yard spiral into the midst of five Pitt players and got down the field in time to grab the pigskin, shake off three or four would-be tacklers, and dart 20 yards across the line for a touchdown.
Later, the defending national champions from Harvard, who had conquered the Indians every time but one during the previous thirteen seasons, played host to the Indians in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Thirty thousand fans jammed Harvard stadium to see Jim make more miracles. It made no difference to them that the Crimson surrendered a mere fourteen points in six previous games. The fact that Jim did not disappoint them is best admitted to by the statement: "This game is one of the two greatest I ever played. The other was against West Point the next season."
With a heavily bandaged leg and a badly swollen ankle, he rushed for 173 yards and kicked four field goals of 13, 43, 37 and the game-winner of 48 yards. Percy Houghton, Harvard's philosophical coach said: "I realized that here was the theoretical super player in flesh and blood."
In a 12-game schedule against the collegiate teams in 1911, Carlisle outscored their opponents 298-49. The margin in 1912 versus 14 colleges was 504-114.
A rare insight into the degree to which the Indians enjoyed the sport was provided by Kyle Crichton, whose Lehigh team was defeated by Carlisle, 34-14 in 1912.
"The Indians were the first team I ever saw that disdained the dressing room rites between halves. They went to the sidelines when the half ended and had a hilarious time among themselves until the whistle blew. Anybody who thinks the Indians are a solemn race is nuts. Do you know how they called signals in the game? They'd line up and Jim would yell, 'How about through left tackle this time?' and off they would go right through that spot. Next time Jim would yell 'Right end, huh? and away they'd go again. After the first few times, we realized they weren't kidding and rushed all out defenses to the spot, but it never did any good. They'd pick up five yards at a clip and then Jim would break off for a real good gain. Then they'd run sequence plays without a signal. There would be a wide sweep to the left, line up quick, bang, to the left again. Before we woke up, the Indians had another 30 yards and were chuckling among themselves."
The following week, the Carlisle team journeyed to West Point to engage the number one ranked forces of the Army. A New York Times reporter painted a memorable picture of the Oklahoma apprentice tailor in action.
The cadets had been shown up as no other West Point team had been in many years. They were buried under the overwhelming score of 27-6. At times, the game was almost forgotten while the spectators gazed at Thorpe, the individual, to wonder at his prowess... The Cadets tried in vain to stop his progress. It was like trying to clutch a shadow... In the third period he made a run which will go down in the Army gridiron annals as one of the greatest ever seen on the plains... The punt went directly to Thorpe, who stood on the Army's 45 yard-line. It was a high kick and the Cadets were already gathering around the big Indian when he clutched the falling pigskin in his arms. His catch and his start were but one motion. In and out he zigzagged first to one side then to the other, while a flying Cadet went hurling through space. Thorpe wormed his way through the entire Army team. Every Cadet in the game had his chance and every one of them failed. It was not the usual spectacle of the man with the ball out-distancing his opponents by circling them; it was a dodging game in which Thorpe matched himself against an entire team and proved the master. Lines drawn parallel and fifteen feet apart would include all the ground that Thorpe covered on his triumphant dash through an entire team.
Army's left halfback said, "He was able to do everything anyone else could, but he could do it better. There was no one like him in the world." The halfback's name? Cadet Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Not long after Jim's school days were over, it was decided Carlisle had served its purpose and on June 30, 1918, the school was closed. Carlisle had made its place in the hearts of the country and the Indians had proved to be real All-Americans. Jim Thorpe had become the symbol of Carlisle.
Renovation Project Completed By The Students Of The
Carbon County Area Vocational Technical School,
[Photo captions, from top to bottom and left to right, read]
· Jim Thorpe's academic record while at Carlisle
· Jim Thorpe receiving a handoff (far right) during a scrimmage at Carlisle in 1908.
· Thorpe doing his famous drop kick during the Carlisle vs. Toronto [game], 1912.
· Thorpe (seated on right) as a teenager at Carlisle.