Jim Thorpe was the best of his kind: embodying a formidable combination of physical and mental qualities. He excelled at just about every sport he tried, but beyond that, he did it through many trials that others of his generation never had to experience, and when sports like football were only beginning to be recognized by the American public.
It was in games that he flourished, and his reputation still holds even when he fell upon hard times late in life after his career was over.
Born in Oklahoma's Sac and Fox nation, Thorpe – whose American Indian name was Wa-Tho-Huk, which means "Bright Path" – first discovered his skills as a student at the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, where he would eventually play in one of the greatest football games of that period. Playing punter, halfback, defender and kicker, Thorpe led his team of American Indians to victory over the highly ranked cadets of the U.S. Military Academy featuring future president of the United States Dwight Eisenhower.
While he gained notoriety for his performances in many sports and the Olympics, where he was a gold medalist in both the pentathlon and decathlon, it is perhaps football that he is best known. He was the first president of the American Professional Football Association, later to become the National Football League, while playing for the Canton Bulldogs.
His reputation as one of the nation's first great sports figures helped the fledgling professional league draw fans as he appeared in 52 games for six different teams, including the New York Giants and Chicago Cardinals. He was without question the new league's gate attraction, and it is said that he ran with great speed for his time and was not timid in playing with power.
Perhaps Thorpe's greatest asset was not his talent or his courage in seeking fame as an American Indian, but his capaciousness of spirit which absorbed the inconsistencies of a nation that still held racist views.
Thorpe had the knack that all true artists have of making what they do — the brush stroke, the touch on the keyboard, the big play when the team needed it — look easy. He was invincibly cheerful, as if he had decided that this was a game after all, and should be played according to the standards of good sportsmanship. You didn't gloat when you won, or whine when you lost, or blame the weather. He never gave in to anger.
He kept that demeanor even after his playing days were well over and he was forced to work odd jobs as a security guard and a ditch digger. "I have really played for the love of the competition," he said late in life.
The Associated Press voted Thorpe the greatest athlete of the first half of the 20th century, and he was ranked behind only Babe Ruth and Michael Jordan in an AP ranking of the top 100 athletes of the last century. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963.