He’s been called the greatest athlete of all time. That’s a lofty claim when you consider competing for that informal title is Michael Phelps and Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali and Jesse Owens, Wilma Rudolph and Jackie Joyner-Kersee. But Jim Thorpe, the native American from the Sac and Fox lands of Oklahoma, was a tough opponent in every sport he encountered.
Every Olympics summer I hear Thorpe’s name and read a little bit more about him. Sometimes that’s a magazine article or a website. This year it was Joseph Bruchac’s biography-that-reads-like-an-autobiography Jim Thorpe: Original All-American. Bruchac’s book for young adults is written in the first person, as if it was dictated by Thorpe himself. It’s an interesting — and risky — writing style, coming close to being a novelized history. But the author does a decent job of blending Thorpe’s own writings with a easy-moving narrative. The result is a story of remarkable achievement told in the voice of a man brimming with humility.
And amazing talent.
My two favorite episodes involve moments when this unknown kid from the Indian lands stunned onlookers at school for the first time. In one, Thorpe and a friend watched the older track and field athletes try and fail to high jump an improbable mark. When Thorpe — who was not on the team — asked if he could give the same height a try, the other athletes humored him. But when he sailed over the bar with room to spare — in his street clothes — they knew he had just set the school record.
The other story involved football. On the Carlisle team but perpetually sidelined to practicing punts, Thorpe relentlessly pestered coach Pop Warner to carry the ball for a few plays. Warner finally gave in during practice one day, calling all forty players onto the field by announcing “open field tackling practice!” and pushing a football into Thorpe’s gut. Not only did Thorpe bypass the gauntlet into the end zone, but he repeated the feat a few minutes later after the coach scolded his team to “catch this rabbit.” They didn’t. And the newcomer returned the ball to the coach with a confident “nobody tackles Jim.”
Bruchac’s book is not only about sports. Throughout the book’s nearly 300 pages, we see Thorpe’s inescapable identity as “the Indian” in the segregated first decade or two of the 20th century and get a hint of what life was like in Indian schools then. (I say “hint” because the subject of Indian schools is a huge sad tale in itself.) And that reminds me of a third favorite story from the book. It’s a very short encounter Thorpe had asking directions from a dark-skinned porter in a new town. I’ll let you read it yourself, because Bruchac’s understated writing in that passage quietly hits you square in the face with natural respect amid racism.
This book follows the youthful Jim Thorpe from school to the Olympics and back. It covers his victory in the decathlon and the gold medals won in Stockholm, but lost back home when a reporter discovered that Thorpe earned a few dollars playing semi-pro baseball one summer and the shameful way his Carlisle coach and headmaster set him up as the bad guy. It tells the story of the football game against Army (featuring a future U.S. president) and the stunning day Thorpe upset the heavily favored Harvard team almost single-handedly.
The book focuses on the youthful Jim Thorpe and ends before the he ever joined pro baseball with the New York Giants or pro football with Canton. By that time, however, the reader already has a sense of this remarkable amateur taking on every sport and making it his own. Thorpe definitely hit hard times in later years, struggling to make a living with whatever jobs he could find. But this book doesn’t go there. It’s not about the hard life of adulthood and a fading star. It’s about a great athlete in his prime.