Jim Thorpe symbolized the toughness of football, despite changes in 1910 to make the sport less deadly.
Appeared in The New York Times, 11/20/2010
Months before the 1910 football season, a major series of rule changes defined the modern game. They established 15-minute quarters and allowed for substitutions. To address violence, they banned pushing and pulling, and the flying, or diving, tackle. To eliminate the deadly mass plays that hid brutalities from view, like rugby-type scrums that pushed the ball carrier forward, the rules required seven men on the line of scrimmage.
The result was a safer, more open game. The forward pass was reinstated, with restrictions, after a brief ban. Football’s old guard protested that the pass was making the game like basketball.
“Only sissies throw the ball,” one coach said as late as the late 1940s. Real players charged the line and survived, bloody but unbowed.
Unlike the N.F.L.’s decision last month to punish players for helmet-to-helmet hits in an effort to minimize the long-term effects of concussions, the 1910 rule changes were a reaction to a raft of horrifying deaths on the field. A total of 26 players died in 1909, including 10 at the college level. Thirteen in 1908. Eighteen in 1905. This level of personal risk was intolerable.
Another major difference between then and now is that football was not only almost exclusively collegiate, but also dominated by the elite Northeastern universities Yale, Harvard and Princeton — known as the Big Three.
President Theodore Roosevelt was a Harvard man; Woodrow Wilson, a future president, was a Princeton graduate and the university’s president from 1902 until he was elected the governor of New Jersey in 1910. They were true believers in football, ardent apostles of the game when its value and survival were argued at the highest levels of American political, academic and sporting life.
After the 1890 national census declared the end of the American frontier, leaders like Roosevelt and Wilson seized on the idea that sports — especially football — would preserve the nation’s hardy pioneer virtues. In a book of essays published in 1897, “American Ideals,” Roosevelt chose a football metaphor to make his point: “Success can only come to the player who hits the line hard.”
In October 1905, at the suggestion of the Rev. Endicott Peabody, the founder and headmaster of Groton School in Massachusetts, Roosevelt summoned representatives from the Big Three to the White House and ordered them to fix football before Harvard’s president, Charles Eliot, banned it.
Into this rarefied national football ferment stepped Jim Thorpe, an American Indian running back, and Glenn S. Warner, his brilliant coach at Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. Thorpe was a brutal slashing runner, but also a remarkably powerful defensive player. Warner, who was known as Pop, was credited with inventing the three-point stance, now considered a key factor in head injuries, as players charge ahead to block with their heads rather than with their arms and hands.
The faster game favored the running back, and in a series of remarkable victories against Harvard, Army, Penn and other top teams, Thorpe played with a virtuosity that Sports Illustrated suggested would have won him the Heisman Trophy in 1911 and 1912 had that award existed.
Thorpe became the gold standard of all-around athletic performance for generations. In 1950, he was voted, by huge margins, the greatest football player and the greatest male athlete of the first half of the 20th century by an Associated Press poll of sportswriters and sportscasters. Thorpe was a gold medalist in the pentathlon and decathlon at the 1912 Olympics. He went on to play professional football and major league baseball, his batting average in July 1919 topping Ty Cobb’s. In 1920, Thorpe became the first president of the American Professional Football Association, which was renamed the National Football League two years later.
These accomplishments reinforced the most relevant part of Thorpe’s legacy to the current football climate: his formative role as the model of the iron man who is impervious to injury, or who plays on regardless. In an epic 1911 game against Harvard, with a leg bandaged to the knee, he kicked four field goals, the last from the 48. The pain in his leg, he said, made him “more deliberate.”
As a professional, Thorpe routinely knocked cold players like Knute Rockne, moonlighting from Notre Dame, and Steve Owen, later the coach of the New York Giants. Opponents, many of them future Hall of Fame players and coaches, told their Thorpe stories with the pride of gladiators.
Thorpe himself was oblivious to injury, once asking the sportswriter Grantland Rice, “How could anybody get hurt playing football?”
He was a tough and dangerous act to follow.