Please visit www.jimthorperestinpeace.com to help bring Jim home.
I think it is fair to say that the average sports fan today knows of Jim Thorpe as the annual award given to the best defensive back in college football. Players such as Patrick Peterson, Eric Berry, Charles Woodson, Deion Sanders and Lawrence Wright have all been presented with the prestigious Jim Thorpe Award, but the man behind the name is often overlooked.
Admittedly, I knew the bare minimum about Thorpe, until esteemed historian Robert W. “Bob” Wheeler and his son, MIT senior Rob Wheeler, brought his story to my attention, shedding light on a relatively unknown controversy surrounding his burial. I felt compelled to share this incredible story with sports fans who would appreciate its significance.
Two injustices were thrust upon Jim Thorpe, a Native American from the Sac and Fox Indian Tribe who was arguably the world's greatest athlete. The first occurred in 1913, six months after his triumphs in the 1912 Olympics when he was stripped of his gold medals.
The second occurred in 1953, shortly after his death when his widow, Patsy Thorpe, with the assistance of Oklahoma State Troopers, removed his body during a tribal burial ceremony and subsequently had him laid to rest in a town, which is now named Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania.
It is also the story of a father, Bob Wheeler, and his son, Rob, who, over the years, have worked to correct these injustices.
Jim Thorpe was born in 1888 in Oklahoma, and as a teenager, he attended the Carlisle Indian School in PA. Thorpe’s athletic ability was apparent early on, and while he was at Carlisle, he set numerous track records. He found his way onto the football team, and was monumental in beating the best teams in the nation, such as Army, Harvard, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Penn and Nebraska.
In 1912, Thorpe was invited to participate in the Olympics, which were held in Stockholm. He won the gold medal in both the pentathlon and decathlon. After his performance, King Gustav V of Sweden donned him “the world’s greatest athlete.”
In what turned out to be one of the great sports injustices in history, the International Olympic Committee stripped Jim Thorpe of his gold medals, citing that his participation in semi-pro baseball disqualified his amateur status. Thanks to the immeasurable hard work by Bob and his wife, Dr. Florence Ridlon, his medals were finally restored to Thorpe’s children in 1983, proving that the IOC illegally and unjustly rescinded Thorpe’s medals.
Thorpe’s career in sports was unparalleled. He played both professional football and professional baseball, and held records in both. He co-founded and was named the first President of the American Football League (later renamed the National Football League).
In 1950, the Associated Press voted him the greatest athlete and the greatest football player of the half-century, and in 1955, the NFL named its MVP award “the Jim Thorpe Trophy.” He was enshrined in the National Football League’s Hall of Fame in 1963 and his name now represents the NCAA football’s best defensive back. In 2001, ABC’s Wide World of Sports crowned him the “Greatest Athlete of the Century.”
Prior to his death, Thorpe made it clear to his family that his last wish was to be buried on Sac and Fox land in Oklahoma. The plan was for Thorpe to be laid to rest in Oklahoma, until Governor William Murray reneged on a promise to pass a bill, which would have built a monument in Thorpe’s memory.
Thorpe’s wife was furious with Governor Murray, and felt that her husband should be remembered in grander fashion. Consequently, she ordered his body to be taken during the Sac and Fox burial ceremony, and eventually he was buried in Mauch Chunk, PA (which was later renamed Jim Thorpe, PA). Naturally, this has led to an emotional dichotomy.
Thorpe’s children have fought hard to have his body properly interred on Sac and Fox land in Oklahoma. In 1982, when Jim’s Olympic medals and honors were returned, this issue became very public. Sports Illustrated subtitled their story of the medal restoration, “Jim Thorpe’s Olympic gold medals at last have been restored, but for Thorpe’s family all won’t be right till his body lies in ancestral ground.”
The Sac and Fox tribe joined Jim Thorpe’s three sons (Jack, Bill and Richard) in a lawsuit against the borough of Jim Thorpe, PA to have his father’s remains “repatriated and reburied within his tribal homeland.”
They cited the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which requires federal agencies and institutions that receive federal funding to return Native American “cultural items,” (including human remains), to their respective peoples. The case is still ongoing, and the judge can render a ruling at any time.
One cannot overlook the relevance of this controversy in the sports world today. In an exclusive interview with Lawrence Wright, the hard-hitting safety from the University of Florida who won the Jim Thorpe Award in 1996, I asked what it would mean to him and the other award winners to have Jim Thorpe’s body brought home. His response was:
It represents a term of peace. When someone is pronounced dead, they always say ‘may he rest in peace.’ To have Jim Thorpe’s body moved back to his homeland would give his family, his supporters, the state of Oklahoma and everyone associated with his award a tremendous sense of peace. Jacob (Genesis 49:29) asked his sons to bury him in his homeland and not on foreign soils. This is what we want for Jim.
The Thorpe family, the Sac and Fox tribe, their attorney, Stephen R. Ward, and Rob are working tirelessly to gain the support necessary to honor this legend according to his wishes. The Wheelers have devoted countless hours to this cause. Their devotion and passion have been exemplary, and it has been a privilege to work with them.
Rob Wheeler has created a website to garner public support for this cause. Please visit www.jimthorperestinpeace.com to learn more about Jim Thorpe and petition to bring him home.