Jim Thorpe: The Greatest Athlete in The World

By Graham Ronald Hilligoss, age 8, and Ryan Hilligoss, December 15, 2012

Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy.  F.Scott Fitzgerald

Thorpe Wheaties

In today’s sports world, everyone has a job they specialize in. Sure Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders toyed with baseball and football for a few years, but they were anomalies. Currently if you are a St.Louis Cardinals fan and see Jason Motte coming to the mound, you know it’s the ninth inning and he is there to close out the game with his 100 MPH fastball.  If you are watching the Chicago Bears and Robbie Gould jogs onto the field, you know a field goal is on the line. The ageless Jim Thome, still in search of a new team for 2013, has spent the last 15 years serving as a designated hitter. But, no one tries to break away from their strengths and tries to expand their possibilities like many athletes from the past.

In 2000, ABC Sport’s Wide World of Sports picked the top athlete of the 20th Century and the winner might surprise you. If you stopped and thought about it for a minute, I am sure you could come up with a lot of players you would have picked like Tiger Woods or Arnold Palmer in golf, Jackie Robinson or Pete Rose in baseball or Michael Jordan or Bill Russell in basketball. But you wouldn’t even be close to the final winner: Jim Thorpe, athlete extraordinaire and Native American(before it was cool). ABC picked Thorpe because of the depth and prowess of his abilities. During the 1912 Olympics, Thorpe won both the decathlon, 10 separate events, and the pentathlon, 5 events. In winning events ranging from the 1,500 meter race, broad jump, discuss, high jump and pole volt among many others, Thorpe blew away the competition in a manner that caused King Gustav V of Sweden to proclaim, “Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world.”

Jim Thorpe, 1912 Olympics, Stockholm, Sweden

Jim Thorpe, 1912 Olympics, Stockholm, Sweden

On May 22,1887, James Francis Thorpe was born in the Indian Territory near what is today, Prague, Oklahoma. Thorpe’s parents were both of mixed-race ancestry. His father, Hiram Thorpe, had an Irish father and a Sac and Fox Indian mother. His mother, Charlotte Vieux, had a French father and a Potawatomi mother, a descendant of Chief Louis Vieux. He was raised as a Sac and Fox, and his native name, Wa-Tho-Huk, translated as “path lit by great flash of lightning” or, more simply, “Bright Path”. As was the custom for Sac and Fox, he was named for something occurring around the time of his birth, in this case the light brightening the path to the cabin where he was born. Thorpe’s parents were both Roman Catholic, a faith which Thorpe observed throughout his adult life.

His schooling career included stays at the Sac and Fox boarding school near Stroud, Oklahoma, the Haskell Institute in Kansas, and Carlisle Institute and Indian School in Pennsylvania. According to Virginia Stanford, curator of the Jim Thorpe historical site in Yale, Ok, Thorpe did not like going to school and preferred to stay at home helping on the family farm and fishing and hunting with his family. During a visit there this year by Ryan and Robert Hilligoss, Ms. Standford said, “Jim would run away from school many times and walk the twenty miles back home and would often times beat his father, who had dropped him off, back to the house. Then they would repeat these steps time and time again.”

During his time at Carlisle, he was mentored by legendary coach Pop Warner who soon found that Thorpe excelled at any sport he attempted, especially football and track. During his career at Carlisle, Thorpe helped the team beat an Army team which included future president Dwight Eisenhower in 1912. In that game, Thorpe’s 92-yard touchdown was nullified by a teammate’s penalty, but on the next play Thorpe rushed for a 97-yard touchdown. Future President Dwight Eisenhower, who played against him that season, recalled of Thorpe in a 1961 speech:

“Here and there, there are some people who are supremely endowed. My memory goes back to Jim Thorpe. He never practiced in his life, and he could do anything better than any other football player I ever saw.”


During the 1912 Olympics, Thorpe travelled to Sweden with his coach Pop Warner and participated in one of the greatest Olympic achievements ever. He won two grueling records, for the pentathlon and decathlon, while also participating in the high jump and long jump. In the pentathlon, he took first in four of the events and third in another.

– 200 Meter Race- 1st place- 22.9 seconds

-1,500 Meter Race- 1st place- 4 minutes, 44.8 seconds

Broad jump– 1st place- 23 feet

-Discus- 1st place- 116 feet

-Javelin- 3rd place- 153 feet

At the awards ceremony, the King of Sweden said to Thorpe, “You sir are the greatest athlete in the world.” To which Thorpe responded, “Thanks King.” Thorpe returned to the United State to much fanfare and acclaim, but six months later, he was stripped of his awards when it became known that he had played semi-pro baseball which disqualified him as an amateur athlete. Sadly, he had only earned about $50 dollars for those baseball games. In 1983, the International Olympic Committee returned copies of his medals to the family and his records were reinstated.

American Athlete Jim Thorpe Crouching

He first played professional football in 1913 as a member of the Indiana-based Pine Village Pros, a team that had a several-season winning streak against local teams during the 1910s. He then signed with the Canton Bulldogs in 1915. They paid him $250 ($5,743 today) a game, a tremendous wage at the time. Before signing him, Canton was averaging 1,200 fans a game, but 8,000 showed up for his debut against the Massillon Tigers. The team won titles in 1916, 1917, and 1919. He reportedly ended the 1919 championship game by kicking a wind-assisted 95-yard punt from his team’s own 5-yard line, effectively putting the game out of reach. In 1920, the Bulldogs were one of 14 teams to form the American Professional Football Association (APFA), which would become the National Football League (NFL) two years later. Thorpe was nominally the APFA’s first president, but spent most of the year playing for Canton and a year later was replaced as president by Joseph Carr. He continued to play for Canton, coaching the team as well. Between 1921 and 1923, he helped organize and played for the LaRue, Ohio, (Marion County, Ohio) Oorang Indians, an all-Native American team. Although the team’s record was 3–6 in 1922, and 1–10 in 1923, he played well and was selected for the Green Bay Press-Gazette’s first All-NFL team in 1923, which would later be formally recognized by the NFL as the league’s official All-NFL team in 1931).Thorpe never played for an NFL championship team. He retired from professional football at age 41, having played 52 NFL games for six teams from 1920 to 1928.

Jim Thorpe as member of NY Giants, 1913

Jim Thorpe as member of NY Giants, 1913

In 1912, Thorpe signed a professional contract to play for the New York Giants under the tough manager John McGraw. McGraw never warmed up to Thorpe and only played him sporadically in the field over three years. After playing in the minor leagues with the Milwaukee Brewers in 1916,he returned to the Giants in 1917 but was sold to the Cincinnati Reds early in the season.  In his career, he amassed 91 runs scored, 82 runs batted in and a .252 batting average over 289 games. He continued to play minor league baseball until 1922.


After his retirement from sports, Thorpe held many jobs including minor movie roles, lecturer, and assisting with youth athletics. In 1917, he purchased a home in Yale, Ok and lived there with his wife, Iva, who wanted to be close to her sister who lived next door. Thorpe had four children with Iva and four more with his second wife Freeda. Thorpe died on March 28th, 1953 in Lomita, California and was buried in Mauch Chunck, Pennsylvania, later renamed Jim Thorpe. According to Virgina Stanford, Thorpe’s wife was upset with the Oklahoma state government which was unwilling to erect and memorial to him and began searching for towns willing to offer her money for allowing her husband to be buried in their town. When she heard that the small Pennsylvania towns of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk were desperately seeking to attract business, she made a deal with officials which, according to Thorpe’s son Jack, was done by Patricia for monetary considerations.The towns bought Thorpe’s remains, erected a monument to him, merged, and renamed the newly united town in his honor Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania even though Thorpe had never been there. The monument site contains his tomb, two statues of him in athletic poses, and historical markers describing his life story.

If you would like to read more about Jim Thorpe, his life,  and his baseball career in a fun baseball car adventure, read Dan Gutman’s novel, Jim and Me. Gutman has written several books in a series involving young Stosh who has the ability to travel back in time when he touches a baseball card with his hands. Other books include Satch and Me, Ted and Me, Roberto and Me, Honus and Me, and Babe and Me among others. Graham says about the books, “They are great!!!. I enjoy all of them.”

Jim and Me, by Dan Gutman

Jim and Me, by Dan Gutman

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