I hear there’s a search for Aboriginal role models out there. People should look at Jim Thorpe. Thorpe was born on May 22, 1887 to an impoverished family on Sac-and-Fox Indian land. His beginning were harsh but he went on to become a leading figure in sports. In Stockholm, Sweden he won gold medals in the pentathlon and decathlon at the 1912 Olympic games. He is to this day the only athlete to do so.
For this and other accomplishments he was honoured by the both United States Houses of Congress as the “Athlete of the Century” in May of this year.
Almost fifty years ago Associated Press voted him “Athlete of the First Half of the Century” for his level of excellence in track and field, football and baseball. Thorpe was an all around athlete who crossed from sport to sport.
Not only did he play professional football but in 1920 he became president of the American Football league, which is now the National Football league. He is recognized as one of the founding fathers of professional football.
When he played ball he played with the New York Giants, Cincinnati Reds and the Boston Braves.
One of the stories say he first was noticed when he asked permission to jump the high bar. He was in coveralls since he was on a cleanup detail. The jumpers reportedly snickered until he cleared the 5’9″ bar with room to spare.
Before he was taken under the wing of Glenn Warner the only dream Thorpe had was of becoming a tailor. He picked up this dream as a student at Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. Instead he went on to being the “greatest athlete in the world” according to King Gustav V of Sweden at the Olympic Games.
Not that he wasn’t bed of roses by any stretch of the imagination. Before the Olympic Games Thorpe played a little baseball. In those days you were lucky to get more than $125 a month. The million dollar salaries were far off but the Olympic committee decided the money was enough to disqualify Thorpe’s Gold medals. They were finally returned thirty years after he died on January 18, 1983.
After retiring from baseball and football, Thorpe traveled around. He would find jobs like being the gate tender at Ford. He suffered a heart attack. In 1950, the year he was named “Athlete of the First Half of the Century,” he underwent an operation to remove a cancerous growth in his hip. He was a charity patient. Newspapers reported his wife as saying they were broke. Donations poured in from around the country. He died in April of 1952 of a third heart attack.
But he was a great athlete. One of the U.S. Congress House resolutions honouring says “Jim Thorpe is the only American athlete to excel at the amateur level and at the professional level in 3 major sports — track and field, football, and baseball.” I know of few others who can make this boast.
Indeed a role model for First nations peoples everywhere. The adversity he must have had to overcome in those days makes his journey into history all that more impressive.