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


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


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


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


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


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


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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