What couldn’t Jim Thorpe do?
He was the first Native American to win an Olympic gold medal for the United States, sweeping the pentathlon and decathlon at the Stockholm 1912 Olympic Games.
Thorpe later played six seasons of Major League Baseball and 12 seasons of professional football and for two years served as the first president of the American Professional Football Association, the precursor to the National Football League. Thorpe led an American Indian basketball team on barnstorming tours. He even won the 1912 intercollegiate ballroom dancing championship.
Add all of that up and Thorpe – a member of the Sac and Fox Nation who grew up in present-day Oklahoma (Oklahoma did not become a state until 1907) – is generally considered among the greatest athletes of his time.
“Thorpe was the greatest athlete of his time, maybe of any time in any land,” the legendary sportswriter Red Smith wrote.
The only controversy concerning Thorpe’s athletic career came in 1913 when the International Olympic Committee stripped Thorpe’s gold medals because he had played two seasons of summertime semi-pro baseball. Other athletes had done the same, Thorpe argued, but they had used an alias. It would take some time, but in 1982 the IOC restored Thorpe’s gold medals.
Thorpe died of a heart attack in 1953, sparking one last controversy. His third wife arranged for Thorpe to be buried in a central Pennsylvania town that changed its name to Jim Thorpe, Pa., to honor the late athlete. Other family members wanted the remains returned to Oklahoma and the battle went all the way to the Supreme Court before it was decided that Thorpe would remain buried in Jim Thorpe.