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The Team That Invented Football

Just two decades after Wounded Knee, the Carlisle Indian School transformed a plodding, brutal college sport into the fast, intricate game we know today

Posted: Thursday April 19, 2007 9:42AM; Updated: Thursday April 19, 2007 11:27AM
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Thorpe (top right) and the 1912 Indians were the highest-scoring team in the nation.
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Thorpe (top right) and the 1912 Indians were the highest-scoring team in the nation.
Courtesy of Cumberland County Historical Soc.
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By Sally Jenkins

REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION OF THE DOUBLEDAY BROADWAY PUBLISHING GROUP, FROM "THE REAL ALL AMERICANS," BY SALLY JENKINS. 2007 BY SALLY JENKINS

The game, like the country in which it was created, was a rough, bastardized thing that jumped up out of the mud. What was football but barely legalized fighting? On the raw afternoon of Nov. 9, 1912, it was no small reflection of the American character.

The coach of the Carlisle Indian School, Glenn Scobey (Pop) Warner, strode up and down the visitors' locker room, a Turkish Trophy cigarette forked between his fingers. Warner, slab-faced and profane, wasn't one for speeches, unless cussing counted. But he was about to make an exception.

The 22 members of the Carlisle team sat, tensing, on rows of wooden benches. Some of them laced up ankle-high leather cleats, as thick-soled as jackboots. Others pulled up heavy football pants, which bagged around their thighs like quilts. They shrugged into bulky scarlet sweaters with flannel stuffed in the shoulders for padding. Flap-eared leather helmets sat on the benches next to them, as stiff as picnic baskets.

Often Warner was at a loss to inspire the Indians. He didn't always understand their motives, and he had put his boot in their backsides on more than one occasion. Jim Thorpe could be especially galling. The 25-year-old Oklahoman from the Sauk and Fox tribe had an introverted disposition and a carelessness that baffled Warner. But on this Saturday afternoon Warner knew just how to reach Thorpe -- and his teammates. Carlisle, the nation's flagship institution for Native Americans, was to meet the U.S. Military Academy in a showdown between two of the top football teams in the country.

It was an exquisitely apt piece of national theater: a contest between Indians and soldiers. The officers-in-training in the home locker room represented a military legacy that taunted the Indians. The frontier battles between Native Americans and the saber-waving U.S. Army "long knives" were fresh in the players' minds -- Warner had been reminding them of the subject all week. "I shouldn't have to prepare you for this game," the coach had told them. "Just go to your rooms and read your history books."

Only 22 years earlier, on Dec. 29, 1890, the U.S. Army had massacred Big Foot's band at Wounded Knee in the last major confrontation between the military and American Indians. Feelings between the Army and tribesmen still ran so high that this was just the second time they had been allowed to meet on a sports field. "When Indian outbreaks in the West were frequent the Government officials thought it unwise to have the aborigines and future officers combat in athletics," The New York Times reported.

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