It was highly unlikely anyone would have ever heard of this man. He wasn’t born into a famous family. His beginnings offered no hint of greatness. By the nature of how the world operates, he should have lived his life in obscurity, his existence forgotten long ago.
This man was born in 1887 and was a member of the Sac and Fox Nation in Oklahoma. Evidently, being born a Native American in the 19th century was by no means a promise of a privileged life. And he was beset by tragedies while still young: his twin brother Charlie died of pneumonia at the age of nine. The twins were attending the Sac and Fox Indian Agency School in Stroud, Oklahoma at the time, and Charlie had helped him get through school. After his brother’s death, he kept running away so his father had to put him into the Haskell Institute, an Indian boarding school in Lawrence, Kansas. Both his parents died when he was in his teens.
As you can see, this young boy did not have much of a chance in life. After all these tragedies and setbacks, he could have just given up.
But he didn’t. He persevered. And eventually, his luck changed.
In 1904, at the age of sixteen, he attended the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. This school was funded by the federal government and served as an Indian boarding school. One of the school’s coaches happened to be Glenn Scobey “Pop” Warner, a football coach who years later would be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. Warner recognized this young man’s athletic talents, but since he only weighed 155 pounds, the coach feared he would be too easily tackled. Instead Warner steered him toward track and field. But this young man finally convinced Warner to allow him to serve as a substitute football player. Warner would write that he “ran around past and through them not once, but twice.”
In 1911, under Coach Warner’s direction, this young man played as a running back, a defensive back, a placekicker, and a punter. He scored all his team’s points in a pivotal match against Harvard, beating them 18-15. At the time Harvard was one of the best teams in the beginning years of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). In 1912, Carlisle Indian Industrial School won the national collegiate championship largely due to his efforts: he scored 25 touchdowns and 198 points for the team. He earned the All-American honors in both 1911 and 1912.
But this young man wasn’t finished yet.
In the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden, he won gold medals in the pentathlon and the decathlon. He also placed fourth in the high jump final and seventh in the long jump. Incredibly, the day he won his medals someone had stolen his shoes so he had to compete with shoes he found in a garbage bin.
Impressive, huh? But that’s not all.
After coming home from the Olympics, he competed in the Amateur Athletic Union’s All-Around Championship in Queens, New York. This competition consisted of ten events. This Native American born into poverty won seven events and placed second in the other three. Martin Sheridan, a five-time Olympic gold medalist, had previously set the record for this All-Around Championship by scoring a total of 7,385 points in 1909. This young man broke his record by scoring 7,476 points. Sheridan watched him break his record and had this to say about him: “He is the greatest athlete that ever lived. He has me beaten fifty ways. Even when I was in my prime, I could not do what he did today.”
So who was this man who suffered so many setbacks and tragedies early in his life and went on to accomplish so much?
He was none other than Jim Thorpe. He is remembered as being “the greatest athlete in the world.”
Many of us feel stymied and frustrated. We weren’t born into a prominent family or wealth, which gives one an edge to achieve great things. We feel life refuses to give us a chance. In those low moments, remember Jim Thorpe—a shining example that luck can change.
Information taken from Wikipedia.