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The Team That Invented Football
Sally Jenkins
April 23, 2007
Just two decades after Wounded Knee, the Carlisle Indian School transformed a plodding, brutal college sport into the fast, intricate game we know today
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April 23, 2007

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

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Back on the field, Johnson and Dillon dropped back to the five-yard line. Harvard's kicker sent the ball into the air. Johnson gathered it in, and the Indians formed a wall in front of him. Exendine pulled out the back of Dillon's jersey, and Johnson slipped the ball beneath it and yelled, "Go!"

The Indians scattered, each player hugging his stomach as if he held the ball. The Harvard players bore down on them and began slamming Carlisle backs to the turf. Marshall was playing safety, and as Dillon ran toward him, his arms swinging freely, Marshall, thinking he was a blocker, stepped neatly out of the way and let him go by. After 30 yards Dillon was alone. As the Crimson scuttled around, wildly looking for the ball, the crowd of 12,000 noticed the bulge in the back of Dillon's jersey and began to shriek with laughter. Finally Marshall understood what was happening. He wheeled and chased vainly after Dillon for the last several yards.

Harvard coach John Cranston vehemently protested to the referee, but Warner had taken the precaution of warning the official that his team might attempt the play, and the ref had watched carefully as it unfolded. He signaled a touchdown.

A celebration erupted on the Carlisle sideline. The Indians had just outwitted and embarrassed the foremost university in the country--Carlisle style--and taken an 11--0 lead. "I don't think any one thing ever gave them greater joy," Warner said later.

The Crimson was incensed, and the game from then on was a mauling. Harvard's superior size and depth began to tell. The Crimson flooded the field with fresh players who exhausted the Indians' starters. Harvard bulled its way over the line for a touchdown. To Warner it seemed that "every Indian was out on his feet." Harvard scored again and held on for a 12--11 victory. "For once, however, there was no mourning after a loss," Warner remembered.

For the first time, the Indians were credited with intelligence. The New York World ran a series of stories explaining and diagramming the play. The paper's leading sportswriter, Charles Chadwick, a former Yale football star who had often written patronizingly of the Indians, now wrote, "The poor Indian, so often sized up as deficient in headwork, has at last earned the right to be considered as something more than a tireless, clumsy piece of football mechanism. He is now to be regarded as a person of craft. He has added his quota to the history of strategic football."

When Jim Thorpe first set foot on the Carlisle campus, on Feb. 6, 1904, he was a slight, narrow-shouldered boy of 16, brooding, shy and guileless. His tribe, the Sauk and Fox, had been expelled from Illinois to Wisconsin, then to Kansas and finally to a 17-mile-wide rectangle of land cut by rivers in what is now northern Oklahoma.

Jim and his twin brother, Charles, were born in May 1887. As the boys grew up, the Sauk and Fox were in transition. Half the tribe was still clad in blankets and lived in traditional bark houses; the Thorpes, however, were a literate family and lived in a timber house on the banks of the Canadian River, where they worked a 160-acre parcel of land.

The boys' father, Hiram Thorpe, was a rowdy horse trader and bootlegger. Their mother, Charlotte Vieux, a Kickapoo-Potowatomie and a French Catholic, was as refined as one could be in Indian Territory, educated by Jesuits and fluent in three languages. Hiram was over 6 feet, weighed 225 pounds and was exceedingly good-looking. He fathered at least 19 children by five women. Charlotte bore him 11, only five of whom survived to adulthood. She herself died before she was 40.

Hiram frequented Keokuk Falls, a stagecoach boomtown with a red-light district famed for its seven "deadly saloons." The stage driver liked to announce as he pulled in, "Stay for half an hour and see a man killed." Hiram would get drunk and pass out in the front yard of the justice of the peace. Or he would ride home amusing himself by shooting out the lights of the homesteads along the way.

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