Path Lit by Lightning
Jim Thorpe and the 7 Unsung Qualities of the World’s Greatest Athlete
First off readers, some of you might have been expecting a profile of a zookeeper. That’s understandable since I promised one was coming. Alas, there was a hiccup during fact-checking, but it’s coming next Saturday. Instead, as evidenced by the photo above, I have some wonderful HistoryCraft.
In grade school, I read a short biography of Jim Thorpe, the Native American athlete who won two Olympic gold medals in track & field, reigned supreme on the football field, and played major league baseball. It was a hero’s story, without grays. The degradation of his Sac and Fox tribe and the forced assimilation Thorpe suffered at federally-run boarding schools like Carlisle and Haskell were barely noted. Further, his sporting prowess was tied almost exclusively to his early youth and natural abilities. As I recall, there were even illustrations of Thorpe running through the woods, hunting with a bow & arrow. The racist implications of this were only later clear.
A couple of months ago I read that David Maraniss, a two-time Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist, had turned his many skills to the life of Thorpe. I bought Path Lit by Lightning straightaway. Like David’s biographies of Vince Lombardi, Roberto Clemente, and Barack Obama, this one did not disappoint. His portrait of Thorpe is incredibly well-researched, richly told, and clarifying on so many levels. Somehow it busts the myths that have long surrounded Thorpe and yet made him greater than I had ever imagined.
I was particularly captivated by how Maraniss identified the qualities Thorpe embodied that made him arguably the world’s greatest athlete of all time. Sure, he had natural-born talents, but there was so much more that elevated him into the pantheon of sport. Earlier this week, David and I had a conversation about his biography and Thorpe.
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To set the context, what do you consider Thorpe’s finest athletic accomplishments?
Take one year: 1912. There are always arguments in sports, but in my opinion, this was the greatest single year of any athlete ever. First, he wins gold medals in the pentathlon and decathlon at the Stockholm Olympics, competing in 15 events in less than two weeks and just trouncing the field. He dominated those Olympics in a way that no one has since.
Then he comes back to America and plays football for the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in the fall of 1912. He was an All-American left halfback, defensive back, punter, and placekicker. He played entire games, did everything on the field, and dominated. The highlight of that year was November 9, 1912, when Carlisle played West Point. Indians against Army. And the Indians won 27-6. Thorpe was the star athlete in that game, and it rose him to the mythological level. 1912 epitomized his all-around talents.
He also played baseball in the major leagues. He could literally do almost anything. He was a basketball player and a great ballroom dancer. His buddies would say he was even great at marbles, whatever that entails.
Beyond natural physical abilities, what were the qualities—or workcraft—that made Thorpe such an extraordinary athlete? [This list of seven evolved out of our interview, and like the rest, is condensed and edited here in David’s words]
1. Motivation - Thorpe felt that he'd been mistreated. That started with the Carlisle School, the Outings (essentially indentured servitude they imposed on him) and then they placed him in a lower grade than he thought he deserved to be in. So, he wanted to show them. And that served as a motivation for him to rise. Another was the fact that he was a Native American, and sport was where he could compete on a level playing field. They had a lot to prove to show that they were as good or better than the white guys. That was something that pounded inside of Jim Thorpe for his entire career: “Just give me the chance, give us the chance, and we'll show you.”
2. Aggressiveness – Like so many aggressive athletes, Jim was very mild-mannered off the field, that is if he wasn't drinking too much. That seems to be a common trait for a lot of the greatest athletes. They turn it on during competition with a fierceness that they don’t exhibit in the rest of their lives. He was fearless, and in football, he loved the collisions.
3. Resiliency – Jim was rarely hurt in a way that took him out of a game. He rejected that notion of not playing when you’re injured. He just believed you played period. He had a high pain threshold, and he may have felt it, but it didn’t slow him down. In the Carlisle vs. Army game, one of the linebackers on the other team was a young player named Dwight David Eisenhower. He conspired with a teammate to try to knock Jim out of the game. They were going to hit him high and low, which they did. They knocked him to the ground. He was out for about a minute. Then he got up, kept playing, and eventually knocked Eisenhower out of the game. So yes, he could withstand pain and keep going. Definitely.
4. Hard Work – One of the stereotypes often applied to great minority athletes is they’re just naturally good. They don’t have to practice. It just comes to them. That’s bullshit and condescending. Jim was an absolute workhorse. The more he played and practiced, the better he was. Take baseball. He was mismanaged by John McGraw of the New York Giants, who used him more for his name than his abilities and never really gave Jim the chance to succeed. Finally, in 1919 with the Boston Braves, Jim was allowed to play every day. He excelled, led the league in hitting almost the entire season, and was often featured in newspapers with his crosstown rival Babe Ruth.
5. Intelligence – In the book, I write, “He had an uncommon ability to see and think his way through whatever he faced.” Again, this flies in the face of the stereotype that the natural athlete was not a thinking athlete. Jim was in the vanguard of mental visualization. His Olympic teammates said that Jim could watch somebody do something, study it, and then do it better. There are many instances of people who saw him walking out to the long jump path, thinking about how he would jump 23 feet or whatever distance, visualizing it, and then being able to do it. Especially in football, he could see everything that was going on around the field. The thing about great athletes that sounds like a cliche, but it's true, is that the game is slower for them. They can see things that the less talented athlete can’t. If you've practiced enough, and if you're good enough, you have that sixth sense, and everything just becomes apparent to you. Thorpe had that.
6. Presence – Boy, just look at the jacket of my book. Jim embodies charisma, energy, and power. People who played against him said he just radiated it. That intimidates and puts people back on their feet before the ball is even snapped. He always looked bigger than he was…just something about him was larger.
7. Ability to preserve his energy – You think of Lionel Messi…he could just be standing there and boom. That’s true of Jim Brown or Barry Sanders. They may slowly walk back to the field or huddle, keeping their power for when it counts. Great pitchers are like that. They won’t throw their hardest every pitch. They save it for when it really matters. That’s how you prevail. Jim did that.
That’s a revealing list, but how about the influence of coaching?
Jim had a great coach in Pop Warner at the Carlisle School. He was a fine strategist and a good teacher. Some of Jim’s skills came from him. However, I would say that coaching can only get a player to a certain place. It can make a mediocre player better, and a better player good. But it really can’t make anybody great. Greatness comes from within.
In Path Lit by Lightning, you have this extraordinary summative passage that describes what made Jim a remarkable athlete. “His easygoing nature, his lack of nerves, the resilience of his body and his resistance to pain, the rare combination of strength, speed, stubbornness, instinct, and agile grace, the hint of danger and spark of electricity.” Which of these, if not the above list of seven, was preeminent?
It’s impossible to separate. They’re all part of the package. He was such an all-around athlete. He wasn’t the greatest at any single thing, but the combination of all those attributes made him extraordinary. One of his most underappreciated skills was his speed. For a big guy, six feet-one, 202 pounds, he was incredibly fast.
Where do you put Jim in the pantheon of athletes?
Well, he’s definitely in the pantheon. The one comparable athlete is Bo Jackson, who I think if he’d put his mind to it probably could have been a decathlete as well. No other athlete has done what Jim Thorpe did. Win gold medals in the decathlon and pentathlon, be an All-American football player and major league baseball player. That’s a trifecta that no one else has done. In that sense, he stands alone.
What drew you to Jim Thorpe’s story?
I have to become obsessed with a subject to write a book about it, and over the past few years, I became obsessed with Jim Thorpe. I look for two essential things for any potential biography: first a dramatic arc to the life, and second, a story that has a larger meaning, illuminating history, sociology, and the human condition. Thorpe met both of those conditions. His amazing feats as an athlete and struggles later in life, his fight to maintain dignity and restore the Olympic records that were unfairly rescinded – all of that provided the dramatic arc. Then I saw that through his life I could illuminate the Native American experience, illuminating a difficult aspect of American history and sociology. As I state in the preface, the seed was first planted some two decades ago when Norbert Hill, a writer from the Oneida Nation, suggested I write about Thorpe. It took a long time for that seed to grow into obsession, but eventually it did.
Explain the title, Path Lit by Lightning?
Jim was born in May 1887 along the north Canadian River in the Indian Territory of what became Oklahoma. He was a twin. He had a brother, Charlie, who sadly died at age nine when they were in an Indian boarding school when disease swept through the school. But anyway, the night they were born, there was a thunderstorm over the river and lightning. And his parents gave him the Sac and Fox tribe name Wa-Tho-Huk, which can be translated poetically to Path Lit by Lightning. As soon as I saw that, I said, ‘That’s the title of my book’ because it illuminates everything.
How did Jim end up at the infamous Carlisle Indian Industrial School, whose founder’s motto was notoriously, “Kill the Indian, save the man.”
His father was a kind of ruffian, and his fifth wife, Jim’s stepmother, didn’t want anything to do with Jim. He was 16 years old when he went to Carlisle. He'd been to other Indian boarding schools first, the Sac and Fox School in Oklahoma, and then the Haskell Institute in Kansas. He ran away from both several times. Unlike many young students who were forcibly taken to Carlisle by the government, Jim was sent there by his parents. It wasn't his choice though.
Jim arrived in 1904. Unbelievably to me, he stood 5 feet, 5 inches tall, and only weighed 115 pounds. So, he had an enormous growth spurt after that. For his first three Carlisle years, he wasn't even there. Carlisle had what I call a scam system going where they would send the young Indian students out on what were called ‘outings,’ which was basically indentured servitude to local farmers in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, and Delaware. The students got minimal pay and that money would go back to the school. At the same time, the school was also getting money from the federal government for having those students.
From 1907, Jim started really attending the school and had an attachment to it. Because of sports. Many of the students who went there suffered in different ways. Thorpe was one of those who said it was one of the best experiences of his life compared to many of the other obstacles he faced.
When did he first show athletic promise?
In the spring of 1907. He had not yet been involved in Carlisle sports, because of the outings. One day, he walked by the track and high jumpers were trying to clear the bar at maybe six feet. Jim was in his overalls, and he gave it a try, and he easily cleared the bar. The next day, he was called into the office of the track coach who happened to be Pop Warner, who was also the football coach and the most powerful figure on the campus. That's really where his rise to athletic stardom began
Tell me about Pop Warner.
He was a brilliant football coach. Innovative. He came to Carlisle at the turn of the century. He developed the passing game as well as many formations including the double wing. He also liked trick plays, like hiding the ball. But he was not a great human being. He was not there for Jim Thorpe when his Olympics medals were taken away [for having made a pittance of money playing baseball beforehand], and a congressional investigation revealed Warner physically and emotionally abused his players, and he was always on the make.
We’ve covered in part Thorpe’s greatness as an athlete, but a good share of your book chronicles his life after he was no longer at the top of his game. From my perspective, it was the most moving and tragic part of the read as Thorpe survives in an America that wants to exploit him at every turn.
Jim kept trying to play different sports until he was 45. He was on a traveling all-Native American baseball team and doing well. But you’re right, the last half of his life was very difficult and trying. Some of his own doing. He struggled with alcohol. He wasn’t home much. His seven children from two different marriages didn’t see him often. So, there's that personal aspect of difficulty.
He lived in twenty different states. He took jobs ranging from digging ditches to being a greeter at various bars and taverns. He was always looking for that break. He wanted to be either a coach or run a hunting/fishing lodge somewhere. There's a point, as his athletic career is ending, where he's in Florida, writing to his second wife. His words almost have a Willy Lomanesque-feeling of ‘I'm gonna make it …Something is about to happen…I'm going to get into real estate or be a promoter.’ But he keeps getting screwed by someone in some way. And it's heartbreaking.
He ends up in Los Angeles, working on the fringes of the movie industry as an extra in about 70 movies. He was directed by Frank Capra and John Ford, but often the movies would promote Jim as part of the cast when you could barely find him in the movie. But again, that didn't lead to any money. As an athlete, he never made more than $300 a game. If he was playing today, he'd be a multi-millionaire. From the time he finished his athletic career to 1953, when he died at age 65 of a heart attack in a Lomita, California trailer park, it was just one effort after another for him to find stability and security and money, and things just keep getting in his way. But he never gives up. He keeps going.
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My thanks again to David for the enthralling conversation. Hope you all enjoyed it (and are now properly motivated to read his biography). Next week, I swear, you’ll get to know the famed baby hippo Fritz and zookeeper Jenna, who has cared for him since birth. It’s a touching story that is guaranteed to bring a smile.
We’ll talk again in a week. As always. Same time, same band, same place.
An addendum: The gifted Hilary Mantel, author of Wolf Hall, passed as I finished this post. In her memory, here’s how she began her daily workcraft in her own typically exquisite words:
“Time of day: early. I have to grab a notebook and write by hand before I am properly awake. I don’t write down dreams every day—sometimes they’re too confused and elusive. But they stain my mood if I don’t work them off—it’s like an ache in the muscles that you can ease by movement. Then I wake up slowly, and don’t want to talk. The day’s writing starts to unroll in my head. It’s fragile and often a matter of rhythm rather than words. If I don’t have the time to jot something down, I will have to work myself back there later, laboriously; best to do it while it’s easy."