Sport: The Greatest Athlete

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Jim Thorpe was born in a one-room log cabin near Prague, Okla. Jim's Indian mother—his father was half Irish—gave him the Sac and Fox tribal name Wa-Tho-Huck, meaning Bright Path. He was a muscular (5 ft. 11½ in., 185 Ibs.) youngster of 19 when he caught the eye of Football Coach Glenn ("Pop") Warner at the Carlisle (Pa.) Indian school. Pop Warner made Jim Thorpe into a football player, and Jim Thorpe made Pop's Carlisle Indians famous. One of Jim's biggest football thrills: "Running back two straight kickoffs for touchdowns against Army [and a cadet halfback named Ike Eisenhower] in 1912." In the Olympics that year, with hardly any formal training, Jim won both the pentathlon and the decathlon. When Jim stepped up to receive his trophies from Sweden's King Gustaf V, the King said: "You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world." Jim's reply: "Thanks. King."

The world's greatest athlete returned home a hero. Then it was discovered that Jim had played summer baseball in 1909 and 1910—for $25 a week. That made Jim a professional. When a stern-eyed Amateur Athletic Union demanded that Jim return his Olympic medals and trophies, Jim meekly handed them over.

"Let the Old Indian Run." Since he had unwittingly become a professional, Jim tried to make the most of it. In 1913 he signed with the New York Giants as an outfielder, played off and on in the National League until 1919. But it was as a pro footballer that Jim made his fame, if not his fortune. A longtime star of the Canton (Ohio) Bull Dogs, he ended his playing days in 1929, a tough old man of 41. Knute Rockne liked to recall one pro game against Thorpe. Playing end, Rockne twice crashed through the blocking backs and dumped Jim for a loss. "Rock," said Jim, "do you see all those people in the stands? They're here to see the Old Indian run. Be a good boy, Rock, and let the Old Indian run." On the next play, Thorpe went right through Rockne for a touchdown. When Rockne came to he looked up into Thorpe's grinning face. Said Jim: "That's a good boy, Rock. You let the Old Indian run."

"I'll Come Out of This." Thorpe tried his hand at golf (low 80s), bowling (over 200), was proficient at hockey, lacrosse, swimming, rifle shooting, squash, handball and horsemanship. He was even pretty good with bow & arrow. But two years after he hung up his cleats, a reporter discovered him working with a pick & shovel for $4 a day. Jim's fondness for firewater had helped to get him in the fix. Ever a happy optimist Jim figured, "I'll come out of this, and I'll do some saving when I do." Ten years later—after Jim had sold the movie rights to his life story for $1,500—his second wife charged him with "excessive drinking," divorced him and got custody of their four sons.

From then on, Jim made the papers now & again as a night watchman, an able-bodied seaman, movie extra, lecturer, bouncer. He had a heart attack in 1943, another in 1952. In 1951 he turned up as a charity patient in a Philadelphia hospital for an operation on a lip cancer. Pro baseball and other groups raised a little money to get Jim back on his feet. Last week, in his auto trailer outside Los Angeles, the Old Indian, 64, had his last heart attack.