I was back in the three state region—Kansas, Missouri, & Oklahoma—this past week taking care of my mother who has just gone a knee replacement surgery in Joplin, Missouri. Mom received a knee called Triathlon. The Triathlon brand for new knees would certainly have been welcome in bygone centuries. Some many people have suffered debilitating knee injuries—for example, the famous Kansan Dwight D. Eisenhower. The name Triathlon rings of championship, hard work, and overcoming pain and difficulties to gain victory.
This concept of pain, overcoming injury, and love of athleticism fit in well with the legends I was busy reading about upon my arrival in the town of Carl Junction, Missouri this very October 2007. The book I was enjoying while helping my mother out was entitled CARLISLE vs. ARMY: Jim Thorpe. Dwight Eisenhower, Pop Warner, and the Forgotten Story of Football’s Greatest Battle.
The book is by Lars Anderson is not only a form of homage to the characters recalled in its lengthy title, but it is a book that reminds American readers how far the country has evolved and changed since the days when Indians ran the plains and U.S. armies marched Indians off to reservations. It also is a reminder of how defeat can be snatched from victory and victory transformed from defeat (made into a positive gain for a nation—even after individual mistakes have ruined the day for some).
Glen “Pop” Warner, the legendary coach who wrote the book on how college football could be used to build a school’s image coached a total of 14 years at the tiny Carlisle Indian school in Pennsylvania and also rewrote permanently how the game of football would be played in the USA., is one of the three main characters in Anderson’s novel-like history book. Like me, he spent a number of years in North Texas’ Wichita Falls before becoming a football player and coach back out east where his family was from originally.
At the time he arrived to coach the Carlisle Indian School football players in the last years of the 19th century, Warner was certainly still full of the biases against which Native Americans had to confront from the day they were born. These included the belief that they were an inferior race or form of human being who could not compete with the world that the Western Europeans had built in North America.
Lars Anderson determines to remind the readers from the very beginning of his boot that almost every Indian boy or girl in America in those days knew of the disaster that had faced many native Americans in the years leading up to the Massacre at Wounded Knee in the 1890s in the Dakotas. It was, however, these very same offspring of these demoralized peoples whom Pop Warner agrees to coach—and, in fact, tries so valiantly on many occasions to make these native American youngsters recognized as the national football champions for the whole USA.
The author, Lars Anderson, and the actual protagonist of his story, the football coach “Pop” Warner, both portrayed the battle really being fought by the Carlisle football players in 1912 as a battle to balance integration within American society with Native American offsprings’ own developing desire to continue to have identities as native tribesman—which included their own centuries-old senses of tradition and destiny. The match-up in 1912 of the cadet team from West Point against the Indians of Carlisle is thus portrayed as a battle to balance the historical narrations of prior decades which indicated that Native Americans were not capable of beating “white men” at their own games (and culture).
At a personal level, “Pop” Warner, who himself had failed two decades earlier in his entrance exam to attend West Point, this match-up with Army was a chanced to have some sweet revenge. Moreover, as Warner sought a national championship once again that same 1912 season, Warner saw the game with the Indians-facing-off-against-Army as a way to demonstrate his own personal cunning in planning new ways to play football. (In that game, for example, his Indians presented the double wing offense for the first time in college football history.) That is, with the right strategies and techniques, his small group of Indian football talent--who were outweighed against by 25 pounds per—could and would prove victorious.
Anderson writes that this particular game in 1912 was not just any game, “this was the chance to prove that his [Warner’s] new style of football was superior to the power game that Army played. Warner’s players had wowed crowds all over the country with their great speed and agility and with their deception and their cunning. In this game Warner was going to use all his tricks to confuse the bigger Cadet players.
Warner, who understood what made Indian athletes tick better than any other white man in America in that era, knew exactly how to fire up his boys before the game.
He reminded them loudly just before the game that it was “the fathers and grandfathers of these very Army players who had killed their fathers and grandfathers in the Indian Wars. They were the ones who murdered innocent women and children at Wounded Knee. They were the ones who spilled Indian blood all over the plains.”[p. 278]
JIM THORPE AND CARLISLE
Anderson adds that Pop Warner ended his pre-game speech on the day of the big game with Army to his players, who represented so many different North American tribes that “[I]t was the Indian’s time to fight back. It was time to make their ancestors proud. It was time to beat the living daylights out of Army.”[p.278]
It is surprising to read such strong language from a white man, but—as noted above--no coach in the USA knew the psyche of Native American athletes better than Warner—who had recently taken two of his Carlisle athletes to win several Olympic medals in Sweden earlier that 1912 summer. These two Carlisle athletes included the “World’s Greatest Athlete” James Thorpe of Sac and Fox heritage from an Oklahoma reservations and the Hopi Indian tribesman & long-distance runner, Lewis Tewanima, from an Arizona reservation.
Before that second decade of the 20th Century was over, Thorpe would have demonstrated his skills in professional boxing, horse-riding, baseball and several other sports before helping found the predecessor league to the NFL in 1920. Already, in 1912, James Thorpe found himself recognized as the greatest athlete in the whole world after winning most of the events (and finishing lower than 4th in any) of a total of 15 (decathlon and pentathlon) events he took part in at the Olympics in Stockholm.