Jim Thorpe, the “Greatest American Athlete”

What do the highest paid athlete of their time, the first president of the NFL, and the first Native American to win a gold medal at the Olympics have in common? They were all the same man—Jim Thorpe. 

Jim Thorpe in 1912 (public domain) 

Born in 1887, Jim Thorpe (Fox and Sauk) had one of the most varied and illustrious careers in sports history. His fraught childhood and teenage years gave way to an athletic career that began with an impromptu high jump at Carlisle Indian Industrial School. On a whim, Jim tried the high jump, beating the school’s track team scores with an impressive five-foot-nine-inch jump. Following, Jim competed in a number of different sports and activities, including baseball, lacrosse, football, and track. He even won an intercollegiate ballroom dancing competition. 

Jim’s athletic prowess took national attention in 1911, when he became a college football star. His 1912 football season stands out with two notable wins: the first against Harvard, a top-ranked team, and the second against West Point. In the match between Carlisle and West Point, Jim played against future President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who later remembered the match in a 1961 speech. “Here and there, there are some people who are supremely endowed,” President Eisenhower said. “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.”

Although football remained Jim’s favorite sport throughout his career, he gained international fame at the 1912 Summer Games in Sweden. During the games, he won gold medals in not one but two events: pentathlon and decathlon. At the award ceremony, King Gustaf V of Sweden proclaimed Jim to be the greatest athlete in the world. 

However, in 1913 when the Amateur Athletic Union found out that Jim had played professional baseball in 1909 and 1910, they began an action to strip him of his amateur status. As only amateurs were allowed to compete in the Games, the ICO stripped Jim of his 1912 gold medals. 

Despite this, Jim’s athletic career was far from over. In 1913, he played for the New York Giants. He worked his way through several teams and leagues, but eventually returned to his first love: football. Jim played on several APFA (later the NFL) teams, as well as organized and played for an all-Native American team, the Oorang Indians. He was elected the first president of the APFA, which means he was the first president of the NFL when it changed names two years later. 

Eight Generation's All Around Excellence wool blanket

In 2018, Eighth Generation officially licensed Jim Thorpe’s name and likeness to create the All Around Excellence blanket. We worked with celebrated Sac and Fox traditional ribbon artist, Ruth Garvin, to create a blanket that honored Jim’s multifaceted talents as an athlete. In black, gray, and striking yellow, our 100% wool blanket  honors this powerful and multi-talented athlete in his prime. You can purchase one of these limited-edition blankets for yourself, or for a beloved athlete in your life here

Now, in 2021, the Potawatomi Nation continues to fight to have Jim Thorpe recognized as the sole gold medal winner in pentathlon and decathlon for the 1912 Summer Games. You can learn about their efforts toward making sure this important Native American athlete is properly honored, as well as sign their petition here

Jim Thorpe while playing for the Canton Bulldogs, circa 1915–20 (public domain)