Man behind mythology: Jim Thorpe | Book presents complicated portrait of legendary Native American

As sports icons go, Jim Thorpe is one of the most enduring – and
the most problematic.

A great
college
football star, an Olympic champion
and a big-league ballplayer, Thorpe’s athletic prowess was
legendary. Generations after he left the playing field, he was
voted in national polls the best American athlete of the first half
of the 20th century.

And, as an American Indian, he became a symbol of ethnic pride
when popular stereotypes leaned more toward war paths and
scalpings.

In real life, Thorpe wasn’t as easy to embrace. He bristled at
discipline, drank too much, couldn’t keep commitments (professional
or personal), and couldn’t hold onto his money, often forcing him
to go begging for a loan or a job.

In “Native American Son,” biographer Kate Buford retraces
Thorpe’s life, from hardscrabble childhood in Oklahoma to a
hardknock finish. The result is a painstakingly complete, and
complicated, portrait.

Thorpe – of Sac and Fox, Potawatomi and French ancestry – was
born in Oklahoma in 1887. (In one of several links to Milwaukee,
Thorpe’s great-great-grandfather, Jacques Vieau, built a trading
post here in 1795; his son-in-law was another trader, Solomon
Juneau.) Thorpe’s father, a brooding man and tough disciplinarian,
taught him to love hunting and to learn by watching first, then
doing.

Thorpe took those lessons with him when he went to the Carlisle
Indian boarding school in Pennsylvania, where his innate athletic
abilities trumped his resistance to authority, including the
school’s longtime
football coach, “Pop” Warner. In a
time when
college
football rivaled baseball as the
national pastime, Thorpe was one of the game’s top stars.

Off the field, he frequently got himself into trouble, more
often than not as a result of his drinking, but it was overlooked
because of his celebrity status.

Like many
college athletes in his day, Thorpe
spent summers playing professional baseball to earn extra dough – a
decision that came back to haunt him when, after winning the
pentathlon and decathlon at the 1912 Olympics, he was stripped of
his awards for violating the vaunted “amateur” status of the
Games.

The mythology surrounding Thorpe is that being stripped of his
Olympic titles hurt Thorpe and his career. But, as Buford doggedly
shows, he mostly did that himself. He bounced in and out of
baseball – including a stint in 1916 with the minor league
Milwaukee Brewers, where he led the league with 48 stolen bases –
because of his erratic play, unwillingness to follow instruction
and reckless lifestyle. He helped shape the fledgling game of
professional
football, but he wasn’t up to the
challenge of coaching, except by example.

As his skills waned, Thorpe stumbled more frequently and had to
scramble harder to make a living. He spent more than a decade in
Hollywood, mainly in Westerns playing the stereotypical Indians
that his real-life example did so much to refute. He worked in a
slew of different jobs – security guard at a Ford plant, itinerant
speaker, even a museum attraction – always with an eye toward the
limelight, but was never able to stay in it long enough to make it
pay. He died penniless in 1953, just two years after a big
Hollywood biopic put him back on center stage.

Buford charts Thorpe’s long, steady decline with well-researched
detail – and shows that, at the same time, the American people’s
affection for him never dimmed. Once in a while, she tries too hard
to connect the dots – sometimes, a movie role is just a movie role
– but most of the time, Buford does a great job bringing to life an
American original who, considered unbeatable on the field, wound up
defeating himself.

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