The First Native American NFL Player Dominated the League in Its Early Days

If you asked most people to name the world’s greatest athlete — someone so good they changed sports forever — the odds are good that they’d say Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Serena Williams, or Tiger Woods. Most don’t realize that a Native American athlete helped build the foundation of American football.

The person was also an Olympic gold medalist, a professional baseball player, and an actor. Even fewer know that when you compare today’s athletes to this iconic athlete, the contemporary pros we love pale in comparison.

The NFL’s first Native American player

The first Native American to play in the NFL was a gifted athlete by the name of Jim Thorpe. While attending Carlisle College, he was convinced to join the school’s football team.

Even then, when football players were much smaller than they are now, Thorpe didn’t look like a football player. Although he was on the lean, rangy side, this didn’t stop him from excelling in different positions, including kicker, punter, halfback. 

Thorpe’s college football career was hit or miss. He frequently had to leave college and look for work. He played in both the 1911 and 1912 seasons, however, and was invited to join the All-American football team.

By this point, his 6-foot frame filled in, giving him some much-needed weight that helped him excel at halfback. Thorpe began playing professional football for the Oorang Indians.

Although he was a dynamo on the field, the owner thought the best way to attract crowds was having Thorpe perform “Indian” tricks while dressed in a traditional Native American outfit. Questionable by today’s standards, it was considered an early version of a halftime show.

Thorpe played pro football until 1926. He also had the distinction of serving as the American Football League’s president from 1920-21.

Football wasn’t Jim Thorpe’s first love

While Thorpe will always be remembered as a football hero, historians point out that football wasn’t his first love. The young man was convinced that he had a future in baseball.

Not only was Thorpe a skilled baseball player, but it was during a time when baseball was still America’s pastime. Football had few fans and often took place in pretty dismal conditions. Baseball players were treated like superstars and enjoyed a good life.

Thorpe did play professional baseball in the National League, but his game wasn’t impressive. He logged 289 games resulting in seven home runs, 29 stolen bases, and a lackluster .252 batting average.

The athlete was realistic; he wasn’t ever going to wow the world on the diamond. Thorpe was pretty sure he knew why: “I can’t seem to hit curves,” he once said according to the Society for American Baseball Research. “I believe I could hit .300 otherwise.”

In addition to playing football and baseball, Thorpe also played professional basketball.

Jim Thorpe’s Olympic history

Thorpe gained international fame when he competed in the 1913 Stockholm Olympics, winning the decathlon and pentathlon. During the medal ceremony, Switzerland’s king called Thorpe the greatest athlete in the world.

It should have been the highlight of Thorpe’s life, but shortly after the Olympics, someone informed the Olympic Committee that Thorpe had spent a summer getting paid to play baseball, which meant he wasn’t an amateur athlete. Thorpe was stripped of his medals.

He didn’t believe he’d done anything wrong, nor did he believe he was the only pro athlete to compete in the Olympics.

Thorpe addressed the issue in a letter he wrote to the Amateur Athletic Union. He wrote, “I did not play for money. I was not very wise in the ways of the world and did not realize this was wrong … I was doing what many other college men had done, except they did not use their own names.”

Eventually, the Olympic Committee posthumously awarded Thorpe his medals.

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