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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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The Thorpes' land was an abundant provider, studded with elm, oak, cottonwood and pecan trees and lush with grasses to feed the horses Hiram bred. The family planted corn, hay, squash, beans, melons and cabbage and raised hogs, chickens and cattle. By age five Jim could wield a shotgun with which he hunted deer, turkey, rabbit, pheasant, quail and squirrel. He fished for catfish and bass and collected blackberries from the thick bushes.

Hiram beat his children liberally, but he also tied a rope to a tree that hung over the riverbank so they could swing on it, and he passed on his enjoyment of footracing and wrestling. He taught his sons to handle horses and dogs. Jim would have been happy to hunt and ride for the rest of his life, but his parents insisted he go to school. In 1893, after their sixth birthday, Jim and Charles were enrolled in the Quaker-run Indian Agency boarding school. Jim hated being shut in and forced to follow a rigid routine. He became a chronic runaway despite repeated whippings from Hiram.

When the boys were 10, a typhoid epidemic hit the school. Charlie was stricken and soon died. Jim would never recover from losing his brother; it appeared to make him permanently withdrawn. He refused to return to school. According to Jim's daughter, Grace, "Hiram finally tired of beating him and asked the Indian Agency to send him so far away he would not find his way home again." He was packed off to Haskell, 300 miles away, where he learned to march and to play football.

Jim ran away from Haskell, too. He hopped freight cars, hiked and hitched rides on wagons for two weeks until he reached home. This time Hiram whipped him so badly that he bolted to Texas, where he found work breaking horses and mending fence lines on cattle ranches. Jim was just 14, but he earned enough to buy his own team of horses, which he drove back home in late 1902, only to learn that his mother had died after childbirth. Hiram let him stay at home for a while, but by December 1903 Hiram had remarried and was again seeking a boarding school for his son.

When Jim arrived at Carlisle he stood just 5'5" and weighed 115 pounds. If he was tempted to run home again, his motivation died just a few weeks after he arrived in Pennsylvania. On April 24, 1904, word reached him that his father had been killed by blood poisoning, probably from snakebite, at age 52. The orphaned boy settled into the regimen of Carlisle. He would reside there for the better part of nine years.

In late December 1905 representatives of 28 major colleges met and formed the National Intercollegiate Football Conference. They charged a seven-member rules committee with developing a safer, cleaner sport. Over heated objections from Camp they instituted a half dozen rule changes. Mass-momentum plays were forbidden. Teams now had to move 10 yards for a first down instead of five, which took the emphasis off pure strength in the center of the field. Most innovative of all, the forward pass was legalized, though with an inhibitor: A team that threw the ball and failed to complete the pass would be penalized 15 yards.

By the spring of '07 Jim Thorpe had grown almost five inches, put on 40 pounds and worked his way onto the Carlisle scrub team, the Hotshots. Warner turned his prodigy over to Exendine for athletic tutoring, but the Indians end had nothing to teach the young Oklahoman who moved like a breeze. "I held the college records in the broad jump and the high jump, the shot put and the hammer and several other track and field events, and I was captain of the football team," Exendine would recall. "But it took Jim just one day to break all my records. We went to a dual meet together, and he won everything."

That August, Thorpe pleaded with Warner for a chance to try out for the varsity. Warner was reluctant; Thorpe struck him as still too "scrawny," and the coach didn't want his best track prospect to get hurt. But the boy pestered him so tirelessly that Warner relented. He tossed the ball at Thorpe and ordered an open-field drill. About 30 or 40 players were scattered around the field. Thorpe began to sprint, cutting and weaving through them. He went through the entire varsity "like they were old maids," Warner remembered. Some of them he outran; others he faked out and left facedown in the turf. After he crossed the goal line he skipped back to Warner, tossed him the ball and said, "I gave them some good practice, right, Pop?"

Warner slapped the ball in Thorpe's middle and said, "Well, let's see if you can do it again, kid." Thorpe cheerfully went back on the field and ran through the entire defense a second time. Once more he tossed the ball to Warner, who stood there cussing both Thorpe and his defense. Years later Warner called Thorpe's performance that day "an exhibition of athletic talent that I had never before witnessed, nor was I ever to again see anything similar."

In 1907 the Indians were the most dynamic college team as they pioneered the elegant, high-speed invention called the passing game. In popular histories the first use of the forward pass on a major collegiate stage tends to be wrongly ascribed to Notre Dame and the tandem of Gus Dorais and Knute Rockne, in 1913. In fact, Carlisle was the first team to throw the ball deeply and regularly downfield, in 1907.

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