Magazine article USA TODAY

A Trio for the Ages

Magazine article USA TODAY

A Trio for the Ages

Article excerpt

WHO WOULD YOU PICK as America's all-time greatest athlete? My first thought always goes to Native-American Jim Thorpe (1887-1953). An Associated Press poll of sportswriters and broadcasters named him the "greatest athlete" of the first half of the 20th century. The honor was bestowed for a number of reasons. First and foremost, he won gold medals in the pentathlon and the decathlon at Stockholm's 1912 Olympics. He also was a two-time consensus All-America football player for the modest Carlisle Indian Industrial School, where he shocked the nation in 1911 when he led the team to an 18-15 upset victory over Harvard, then a major power. Largely because of Thorpe, little Carlisle would go on to win the national championship the following season. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame (1951), and the Pro Football Hall (1963). The latter's NFL association began with its 1920s precursor, the American Professional Football Association, for which Thorpe played and served as its first president.

Years later, Pres. Dwight Eisenhower would call Thorpe the greatest football player he had ever seen. Ike, a talented athlete himself, would know. Thorpe's 1912 Carlisle squad easily defeated Eisenhower's powerful Army team, 27-6. The 1951 film, "Jim Thorpe-All American" (with Burt Lancaster in the lead), which predated Eisenhower's presidency, rightfully made the same claims and more. The movie's most memorable moments are its brief archival footage of Thorpe himself, including footage of the 1912 Olympics.

Thorpe, however, was stripped of his Olympic medals in 1913, the same year he signed to play major league baseball with the two-time defending National League champion New York Giants. (Thorpe was a part-time player for six seasons with the Giants, Cincinnati Reds, and Boston Braves.) Years before the Olympic "Dream Teams" of professional athletes like Michael Jordan and Larry Bird, there was a very strict divide between amateur and professional athletes, making it very difficult for the former to get by. Many college athletes--including, by his own admission, Eisenhower--played semi-pro baseball and football under aliases, basically for pocket change. Thorpe made the mistake of doing this under his own name. Posthumous Olympic commemorative medals were given to his family in 1983.

Another choice for greatest American athlete would include the recently deceased Muhammed Ali. Sports Illustrated crowned him "Sportsman of the Century" in 1999. …

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