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
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.
slate-colored sky, 5,000 people filled the grandstands that ringed Army Field
in West Point, N.Y. Among them was silver-mustached Walter Camp, the sport's
eminence and the arbiter of All-Americas. Correspondents from the Times, the
New York Tribune and the New York Herald scribbled bad Indian metaphors in
their notebooks. Cadets in high-necked tunics stood erect in the bleachers,
eager to see Army defend its honor. Sporty young men in three-button sack suits
with fashionably cuffed pants had come from Manhattan to see the results of
their wagers. Ladies in organdy moved through the crowd, their enormous-brimmed
hats floating in the air like boats.
It was an audience
steeped in frontier lore, raised on blood-curdling newspaper accounts of
"hostiles," Western dime novels like Mustang Merle, The Boy Rancher
and, of course, on Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. The rising popularity of
football had closely followed the ebbing of the frontier wars. Harvard,
Princeton, Yale and Columbia had formed the Intercollegiate Football
Association on Nov. 23, 1876--just four months after the annihilation of Gen.
George Armstrong Custer's troops at Little Big Horn. By the 1890s Victorian
America was intensely preoccupied with the sport as a new male proving ground
and a remedy for the neurasthenia of the age. On quadrangles across the
country, collegians slammed into one another until the blood and spittle flew,
and leviathan stadiums were built to accommodate the growing pastime.
One of the
campuses most obsessed with football was West Point. Participation in the game
was almost a requirement for the truly ambitious Cadet; the Army locker room on
the day of the Carlisle game contained no fewer than nine future generals. And
the Cadets loved the most bullying form of football. They were a squad of
imposing brawn: Army's captain, Leland Devore, stood 6'6" and weighed 240
pounds. In the backfield was an iron-legged halfback named Dwight David
Eisenhower, who was known for punishing opponents. The coach of the 1912 team,
a martinet named Ernest (Pot) Graves, had looked at a steamroller parked
outside the West Point officers' club and said, "There is my idea of
In Carlisle the
Cadets met their philosophic and stylistic opposite. The Indians were
significantly smaller than Army, but they were renowned for their dazzling
sleight of hand and for the breathtaking speed of their star runner, the
Olympian Thorpe. Under Warner's creative tutelage they had mastered an
astounding array of trick plays--reverses, end-arounds, flea-flickers--and
forward passes. Their talent for deception was born partly of necessity: With a
student body of just 1,000, ranging in age from 12 to 25, Carlisle was
perpetually undermanned. But deception also suited the Indians' keen sense of
injustice at the hands of whites. "Nothing delighted them more than to
outsmart the pale faces," Warner observed. "There was never a time when
they wouldn't rather have won by an eyelash with some wily stratagem than by a
large score with straight football."