If Undefeated: Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team by Steve Sheinkin was just about a great athlete and a great football team, it would be a fine book. Jim Thorpe (Wa-Tho-Huk), Sac and Fox, is in the pro football hall of fame, won Olympic gold medals in the decathlon and pentathlon in 1912, played baseball for the New York Giants, and was the first president of the National Football League. In 1950, a poll of sports writers declared him the greatest athlete of the century. For any sports fan this is a great story that gives us a sense of Thorpe as an athlete and a person.
In 1894, the tiny Carlisle Indian Industrial School—the nation’s most famous and arguably most oppressive Indian residential school—fielded a football team with fewer players who were almost always shorter and lighter than their opponents. While not a college, Carlisle played the leading colleges and universities. Carlisle was always the underdog against much larger schools, with better equipment and fields, more players and scholarship athletes. In its first full season, Carlisle lost every game. But under the direction of the legendary coach Glenn “Pop” Warner, Carlisle became a powerhouse. In 1899, Carlisle went 9-2, beating both Penn and Columbia, considered two of the top four teams in the country. In 1902 the players had an awkward meeting with President Theodore Roosevelt in the White House after shutting out Georgetown 21-0. Carlisle always had the toughest schedule in the nation, in part because the team was funded by ticket sales and because playing as many top teams as possible brought in the most revenue. Because Carlisle lacked a stadium, virtually all its games were on the road, and the players were often exhausted from grueling travel.
In 1911, the 16-man Carlisle team defeated a much heavier and taller Harvard team which had 50 players, allowing for many more substitutions to rest players throughout the game. At the time, this was the greatest upset in the history of college football. Harvard would not lose another game in the next four years, but it would also refuse to play Carlisle the next year.
In 1912, Carlisle’s understaffed and undersized team played West Point. A young cadet, Dwight Eisenhower plotted to injure Thorpe because there was no other way to stop him. Eisenhower planned to hit Thorpe high while a second cadet coming from the opposite direction would hit him low. Thorpe saw the play coming and outsmarted them, going “from sprint to stop in a single step—and the defenders collided in midair.” After crashing headlong into his coconspirator, the future Supreme Allied Commander “limped to the sidelines and dropped onto the bench,” Sheinkin writes. Carlisle humiliated West Point 27 to 6.
Carlisle won with speed, innovation and superb execution of precision plays. Carlisle invented the long forward pass, the reverse play, the single wing and many other formations and techniques that modern fans take for granted. In defeating Army, the New York Tribune noted that Carlisle’s “shifting, puzzling, and dazzling attack” had “the cadets bordering on panic.” Indeed, “none of the Army men seemed to know just where the ball was going or who had it.” This was a common experience for Carlisle’s opponents. During Thorpe’s four years, the team compiled an astounding record: 43 wins, five losses and two ties.
Beyond speed, talent, practice, and innovative coaching, Carlisle’s players had unmatched heart and drive. Carlisle’s Native students had something to prove to themselves, their families at home on reservations, and the nation. The West Point game profoundly illustrates this. Warner told his players, “I shouldn’t have to prepare you for this game … just go read your history books.”
A single football game could not make up for a century of West Point graduates killing Natives and making war on Indian culture, but Carlisle players fully understood the significance of playing Army. That season, Warner devised the single wing formation which “required precision and timing and hours of practice” but would completely befuddle the first team to face the tactic. When Warner asked his players “which team” they wanted to use the formation against first, they shouted out “The soldiers!” Carlisle’s players remembered history as they made history.
These insights and this history make this more than just a great story about sports. Sheinkin deftly conveys the racism of Carlisle and its white staff, the horribly abusive treatment of the students and the school’s perverse goal of forcing Native students to reject and unlearn their culture. Similarly, Sheinkin shows the racism Carlisle’s team faced from newspapers, referees, other players and the football establishment. The history lesson is expertly woven into Thorpe’s story. The dirty play against Carlisle players (quite literally hitting them below the belt, slugging them, or Eisenhower’s plan to knock Thorpe out of the game) is recounted matter-of-factly in a style that drives the point home without belaboring it. The failure of many referees to punish such behavior is obvious – and the need of the Carlisle players to not retaliate is equally clear. Indians could not fight back. Nothing was fair. When Carlisle went 12-1-1 and scored more total points than any other team, it was not ranked on top. Thorpe was voted an All-American (although he could not be an American citizen), but the football establishment would never crown the Carlisle Indians national champions.
This substantial contribution to Native history will appeal to readers who might ordinarily not pick up a history book. Sheinkin mostly writes for young adults, but with more than 30 pages of notes and sources, and a very useful index, this book will serve a much larger audience. This book should lead adult readers to seek out larger and more complex books about the Carlisle school, racism against Natives and federal Indian policy, even as it encourages younger readers to learn more about Jim Thorpe and American Indian history.
Paul Finkelman, Ph.D., is the John E. Murray Visiting Professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. His has written extensively on race and American history and also on sports and law.