One morning in 1910, federal census takers visited the Elkins family on its farm near Anadarko, Oklahoma. Stephen Elkins was a full-blooded Caddo Indian, and his wife, the former Fannie Mays, was white. Years before, Fannie had known a minister, the Reverend Fait; and when her first son was born, on Aug. 16, 1905, she named him after the reverend. But on this day in 1910, the four-year-old boy was entered on the census roles as "Fate."
This was a clerical error, but it is tempting to think of ii as something more. Fait Elkins is now but a shadow figure in American sports history; however, for a brief shining lime he was among the greatest athletes ever seen in this country—a golden sportsman during sport's golden age. But the hand of chance played harshly with his life; and his intemperate spirit seemed to follow a destiny of its own, leaving the Elkins legend largely buried in the yellowed snippets of newspaper that once trumpeted his dazzling achievements.
According to family legend, when Fait was a youngster he found a plow tooth and tied it to the limb of a cottonwood tree with a length of rope; he would spend hour after hour throwing the metal prong, like a javelin or a football. In those days federal Indian agents often acted like talent scouts; when the discovered Indian youths who were exceptionally good at sports, they often sent them to one of two boarding schools operated by the Indian Education Department—Haskell in Lawrence, Kans., or Carlisle in Pennsylvania. In 1919, a year after his lather died, Fait Elkins, just 14 years old, was enrolled at Haskell.
Although Haskell was essentially a preparatory school, its upper-level athletic teams often competed against colleges. The Haskell Indians opened the 1923 football season against the University of Kansas City and won 98-0. Elkins, playing fullback, scored five touchdowns. Late in a game against the Gophers at Minnesota, the Indians trailed 13-6 when Elkins caught a pass on the Minnesota 10 and ran in for a score, carrying three Minnesota tacklers with him. But Haskell missed the extra point and lost 13-12. Elkins subsequently took over the kicking duties.
The outlook was bright for another big year in '24, with Elkins touted as a prospective All-America. But then, in the first of what would be many sudden and peculiar turns in his athletic career, Elkins did not return to Haskell. A terse statement in the school yearbook indicated only that he had "deserted" the Indians and transferred to Southeastern State Teachers College (STC) in Durant, Okla.
STC was known for its fine basketball teams, and upon arriving, Elkins—who was just under six feet tall—led the Savages to three victories, "thrilling the crowd," as the Durant Democrat noted, "with his speed and shooting." But Elkins's season was interrupted at this point when federal marshals boarded the team's train during a road trip and removed Elkins, charging that as an Indian minor he was a legal ward of the United States and that he had left Haskell without permission. Elkins was less a federal fugitive than he was the object of an intense recruiting war: The marshals took him directly back to Lawrence, where he was ordered to represent Haskell in an indoor track meet. Somehow he escaped, and in March 1924, back in Durant, Elkins claimed that Haskell "has no strings on me."
That spring, Elkins single-handedly won several track meets for the Savages, showing particular brilliance in the javelin and the long jump. In the fall he turned again to football. "He was not a big man, but it seemed like he was made of steel," remembers his teammate Virgil Currin. With Elkins running, passing, punting and playing defense, the Savages were the class of their league.
One evening that fall, Elkins, the campus hero, strutted into a party where he came under the admiring eye of an 18-year-old woman named Thelma Perkinson. Says Thelma now, "I just said to myself, I am going to have that pretty thing for myself. And I did."
Today she is Thelma Akin, an 85-year-old widow living in Durant. But in the fall of 1924, Thelma was a spirited young blonde enraptured by a handsome football star. She was a member of a prominent Durant family, and her father, claiming that Elkins was "a tramp, a freeloader and an Indian," forbade her to see him. "I guess that just made me want fait more," she says. "He told me he came from a rich family in Green Bay. About four years later I went to Anadarko and met Fait's mother; she and the children were dirt poor, living in a two-room shack. When I got back, Fait just laughed and said, 'Well, you know the truth about that at least.'
"He never minded much when he was caught out in his make-believes. To hear Fait tell it, Jim Thorpe was a close friend. I think that was another of his made-up stories. But he certainly knew all about Thorpe. Fait said Thorpe had been the greatest athlete ever, better than any white man. He also said he would break Thorpe's records and be more famous. Mostly his stories didn't hurt anybody. He told people what they wanted to hear and made them feel good. There may never have been a more charming man than Fait Elkins."