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Ironically, it was a soldier who had founded Carlisle. Richard Henry Pratt, a cavalry officer who had commanded the all-black Buffalo Soldiers in the frontier wars, established the school in an old Army barracks in Pennsylvania in 1879 for the purpose of "civilizing" Indian children. It was a harsh social experiment. As Pratt liked to declaim, Kill the Indian, save the man. Carlisle students were forbidden to speak their tribal languages, paint their skin or wear braids or blankets. The school clothed them in surplus military uniforms and taught them to march like soldiers.
On Carlisle's athletic green, however, an altogether different experiment took place, this one conducted by the pupils. The record books couldn't convey just how innovative and influential the Carlisle football teams were. Every time a quarterback today feigns a handoff or rears back to throw, he owes a debt to the Indians. Before Carlisle, football was a dull and brutal game, wedges of men pushing one another around in the dirt. The Indians found new ways to win, and they transformed the game into the thrilling high-speed chase it is now.
They didn't change just football. They changed prevailing ideas about Native Americans. To well-meaning missionaries, land-grabbing politicians and Wild West Show audiences, Indians were heathen, degraded, mentally inferior or simply assigned by God to be victims. The Carlisle players were different: They were winners.
But against Army, simply winning wasn't good enough. The Indians intended to win in a certain way. Warner had developed an extraordinary new offense: an exercise in exact timing, artfully disguised ball handling and, above all, speed. The Indians had held it under wraps game after game. When Warner asked them against which opponent they wanted to debut the scheme, they had been unanimous: "The soldiers."
As the Indians finished dressing, Warner surveyed the locker room. There was quarterback Gus Welch, the orphaned Chippewa from Wisconsin, slightly built but with a conjurer's quickness of foot and hand. There was tackle Pete Calac, a Mission Indian from Fall Brook, Calif., who lost two siblings to typhoid and came to Carlisle on the Union Pacific with only a third-grade education. Then there was Thorpe, sleepy-eyed yet with a buried intensity. Warner took a few minutes to review the new game plan. Then, when he was sure each player understood his assignment, he addressed them all. "Your fathers and your grandfathers," Warner began, "fought their fathers. These men playing against you today are soldiers. They are the Long Knives. You are Indians. Tonight, we will know if you are warriors."
The Carlisle practice field was a piece of hardpan that could chip the blade off a shovel. It was an uneven, rock-strewn acre irrigated with the Indians' sweat. The players themselves had dug the field, measured it, graded it and sodded it.
On a September day in 1899, Warner stood on the field and scrutinized his new football team. His heart dropped to his shoes. The players were "listless and scrawny, many looking as if they had been drawn through a knothole," he would recall later. Over the next 13 years, the coach would have just one Carlisle team whose players averaged more than 170 pounds.
Warner was 28 when he was hired by Carlisle on the recommendation of Camp, for whom he had played at Cornell before going on to coach football at Georgia, Iowa State and his alma mater. Warner had a reputation for creativity. At Georgia he had experimented with the screen pass and the tackling dummy. He also developed theories of fitness, diet, training and motivation. He rousted the Bulldogs at 6 a.m. for five-mile runs and locked them in their dorm at night. He was an authoritarian who backed up his words with physical force; he gave up scrimmaging with the Bulldogs only when he broke the collarbone of one of his players. Then in two seasons as Cornell's head coach he went 15-5-1.
When Pratt approached him to become Carlisle's athletic director, Warner was intrigued. The Indians had begun playing intercollegiate football four years earlier. Cornell had beaten them 23--6 during the '98 season, but, Warner would recall, "the Indian boys appealed to my football imagination." Also, Pratt offered him $1,200, a salary almost unheard of for a coach.
The first practices went slowly. A number of the players didn't speak English, and when Warner wanted them to do something he had to gesture with his cigarette. In addition, Warner admitted later, "I had all the prejudices of the average white." Among them was the idea that Indians were lazy. "Back in the days when Daniel Boone was my hero," Warner said, "I used to read that Indians always quit if they didn't win a fight at the very outset."