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ALL AMERICAN by Bill Crawford


The Rise and Fall of Jim Thorpe

by Bill Crawford

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 2004
ISBN: 0-471-55732-3
Publisher: Wiley

Bad enough to have been used for athletic talent. But to be betrayed by one’s coach and manager? There’s the crux of this modest contribution to sports history.

Sports scouts first reckoned that Jim Thorpe (1888–1953) was something special when they saw him play for the US Indian School at Carlisle, Pennsylvania. There, writes Texas journalist Crawford (Stevie Ray Vaughn: Caughter in the Crossfire, not reviewed), Thorpe came under the tutelage of the legendary Glenn Scobey Warner, “the first modern king-coach,” who blended moments of stiff correctness with a love of drink, smoke, gambling, joking, painting, and poetry, and “who was not afraid of kicking, punching, or beating his players when he felt they deserved it.” Now enshrined in football history, “Pop” Warner was also frequently in trouble with intercollegiate and international athletic boards everywhere for his fast-and-loose approach to the rules: Thorpe, for instance, was 21 when he was playing for the boarding school, excelling in basketball, baseball, track and field, and football, and he was not the oldest of the players. He received small stipends of various kinds, and he had also received fees for playing for minor-league teams before he earned fame and glory in the decathlon and pentathlon competitions at the 1912 Olympic Games. When a Massachusetts paper revealed his professional past, Thorpe was stripped of his Olympic honors. Writes Crawford, “The scandal threatened to expose the financial details of the Carlisle Athletic Association, Warner’s business empire that operated on the edge of legality.” Warner believed that the story was meant to force Thorpe out of the amateur ranks and into the majors, but he disavowed Thorpe all the same: “Thorpe would have to take the fall, and Warner would have to push him.” Fortunately for Warner, Thorpe did take the fall, gracefully and effectively ending his career. It would be more than half a century before the International Olympic Committee struck the word “amateur” from its charter and allowed players like Thorpe to compete.

An athlete who merits recognition today, here given justifiable due.