Game of the century
The story behind the 1912 Carlisle vs. Army battle
Posted: Friday September 28, 2007 9:56AM; Updated: Sunday September 30, 2007 3:26AM
Excerpted from CARLISLE VS. ARMY by Lars Anderson. Copyright ©2007 by Lars Anderson. Reprinted by arrangement with The Random House Publishing Group.
The two teams stood on opposite sidelines of Cullum Field at West Point, studying each other closely as whites and Indians once did from opposite sides of frontier battlefields. Kickoff between the Carlisle Indian School and Army was minutes away. The cold November air at West Point was thick with tension. This was it, the game James Francis Thorpe, Dwight David Eisenhower, and Glenn Scobey Warner had been waiting to play all their lives.
For Thorpe and the other Indian players, this was their chance to prove once and for all that they could play the game of football better than the white man -- and better than the sons of the military men who shared the same blood as the soldiers who pulled the triggers at Wounded Knee. This was the Indian's chance to avenge, in some small way, that massacre of twenty-two years ago. A victory would also amount to further justification of the Carlisle Indian School: a good showing could prove that Indians were every bit as competent and powerful as their white contemporaries.
For Eisenhower, this was his chance to create his West Point legacy. Football was the single most important thing in Ike's life, and his reputation as a player who was as relentless as the wind had grown each week of the 1912 season. If he could stop Thorpe -- or, better yet, if he could knock Thorpe out of the game with a blockbuster hit -- Ike didn't believe there was any way his team would lose. Ike always loved challenges, and no challenge in his sporting life was greater than taking on an Olympic legend and the other Indians who were as swift as antelopes. Before kickoff, a fever arose in him.
For Warner, this was the chance to prove that his new style of football was superior to the power game that Army played. Warner's players had wowed crowds all over the country with their speed and agility, with their deception and their cunning, and in this game Warner was going to use all his tricks to confuse the bigger Cadet players. And Warner, who understood what made Indian athletes tick better than any white man in America, knew exactly how to fire up his boys before the game. He reminded them that it was the fathers and grandfathers of these Army players who had killed their fathers and grandfathers in the Indian Wars. They were the ones who murdered innocent women and children at Wounded Knee. They were the ones who spilled Indian blood all over the plains.
Now, Warner told his boys, it was the Indians' time to fight back. It was time to make their ancestors proud. It was time to beat the living daylights out of Army.
For months everyone at West Point had been reading newspaper accounts of the barnstorming Indians and their domination of every team they played, which explained why Carlisle was considered a slight favorite over Army. But now here they were, and aside from the 5-foot-11-inch Thorpe and a handful of players, to the cadets in the bleachers the Indians looked like a high school team. On average the Army players who wore their black-and-gold uniforms were about four inches taller and 25 heavier than the Indians. In the south stands the throng of enlisted men, outfitted in their olive fatigues, also were surprised at the diminutive stature of the Indians, who stood on the sideline with red Carlisle blankets wrapped around their shoulders. The Indians were quiet before taking the field -- as always -- and their expressionless faces masked the full-scale ferocity that was about to explode out of them like thunder.
Thorpe received the kickoff at the 15-yard line. He rumbled for 13 yards before being taken down by an Army defender. In the huddle, Gus Welch told the Indians that they were finally going to use their secret weapon. Carlisle broke the huddle. At first the Indians settled into their standard power formation with two halfbacks and a fullback lined up behind the quarterback. But then Welch called out a signal, prompting the players to shift into the double-wing formation. Thorpe, who was at left halfback, moved closer to the line and crouched in a three-point stance to the outside of the left offensive tackle. The right halfback, Alex Arcasa, did the same thing and aligned himself to the outside of the right offensive tackle. A nervous chatter rose from the crowd as the Indian players shifted into new positions. No one was sure what Carlisle was doing or what Warner, the great football magician, was up to.
As Army defenders tried to figure out what was going on, the ball was snapped to Welch, who immediately flipped it to Arcasa. Running around the right end, Arcasa cut up the field and plowed forward 15 yards and got a first down. On the next play the real tricks began: After receiving the hike, Welch tossed the ball to Arcasa, who was running from his right to left. Arcasa took a few steps and then flipped the ball to Thorpe, who was running from left to right. Thorpe then bolted around the right end for 15 more yards and another first down. Three snaps later, the exact play worked again; Thorpe galloped around the right end and sprinted into an open field. The Army defense was again caught off guard. They pursued Arcasa until they realized that Thorpe was breaking for the end zone. Thorpe ran 10, then 15 yards. Eisenhower, from his linebacker position, and another Army defender had the angle on Thorpe as he blazed down the sideline. The two Army players lunged at the Indian ballcarrier.
This was the instant, the moment, that Eisenhower had been fantasizing about for months. This was his chance to take out the great Thorpe and remove Carlisle's most valuable player from the game. Ike and the other Army defender threw themselves at Thorpe as hard as they could. The three collided. The hit was so jarring that the ball popped out of Thorpe's hands as he fell to the ground. Another Army defender quickly leapt on the ball to recover the fumble. Realizing the hard tackle had forced a turnover, Eisenhower popped up and celebrated with his teammates as the crowd went wild. Behind him Thorpe was still on the ground, writhing in pain and grasping at his right shoulder. Maybe the hit had done it. Maybe it had knocked Thorpe out of the game and onto a stretcher.