The first comprehensive biography of the legendary figure who defined excellence in American sports: Jim Thorpe, arguably the greatest all-around athlete the United States has ever seen.
With clarity and a fine eye for detail, Kate Buford traces the pivotal moments of Thorpe’s incomparable career: growing up in the tumultuous Indian Territory of Oklahoma; leading the Carlisle Indian Industrial School football team, coached by the renowned “Pop” Warner, to victories against the country’s finest college teams; winning gold medals in the 1912 Olympics pentathlon and decathlon; defining the burgeoning sport of professional football and helping to create what would become the National Football League; and playing long, often successful—and previously unexamined—years in professional baseball.
But, at the same time, Buford vividly depicts the difficulties Thorpe faced as a Native American—and a Native American celebrity at that—early in the twentieth century. We also see the infamous loss of his Olympic medals, stripped from him because he had previously played professional baseball, an event that would haunt Thorpe for the rest of his life. We see his struggles with alcoholism and personal misfortune, losing his first child and moving from one failed marriage to the next, coming to distrust many of the hands extended to him. Finally, we learn the details of his vigorous advocacy for Native American rights while he chased a Hollywood career, and the truth behind the supposed reinstatement of his Olympic record in 1982.
Here is the story—long overdue and brilliantly told—of a complex, iconoclastic, profoundly talented man whose life encompassed both tragic limitations and truly extraordinary achievements.
Buford (Burt Lancaster: An American Life) covers Thorpe's life of "high triumphs and bitter despair" in extensive detail. Thorpe (1888 1953), a "mixed-blood" Sac and Fox Indian from Oklahoma who starred for the legendary Carlisle, Pa., Indian school's college football team, won the decathlon and pentathlon in the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, prompting the king of Sweden to declare him "the most wonderful athlete in the world." The next year, however, Thorpe was stripped of his gold medals after it was discovered he had violated the amateur athletic code by playing minor league baseball. The loss haunted him throughout his hardscrabble life in which he abused alcohol, married three times, constantly needed money, and was an absentee father. His peripatetic story included myriad roles: avid hunter and fisherman; professional baseball player in the major and minor leagues; pro football player; bit actor with often degrading nonspeaking Indian roles in many westerns as well as in other movies, including King Kong; merchant marine during World War II; security guard at a Ford plant; bar and restaurant owner; supporter of American Indian causes; and regular speaker on the lecture circuit. Buford reports the facts and dispels many fictions about this American icon.