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Centennial of Jim Thorpe's victory over Harvard

Brian Wright O’Connor | 11/29/2011, 6:20 p.m.

A century ago, America’s greatest athlete, Jim Thorpe, led the Carlisle Indians to an astounding 18-15 victory over Harvard, the returning national champion and the nation’s top-ranked team.

When the undefeated Carlisle team took to the field against the undefeated Crimson, the celebrated running back and kicker was a doubtful starter. Injuries in previous contests had left the 23-year-old gridiron star with, as the Boston Sunday Globe described it, “a basket-weave of strapping adhesive plaster running almost from his toe to his knee.”

Harvard itself approached the clash of the unbeatens with casual arrogance. Mindful of Carlisle coach Pop Warner’s penchant trick plays — and the joyous enthusiasm of his undersized Indian athletes to run them — Harvard’s imperious coach Percy Haughton had written his Carlisle counterpart a letter, warning him any chicanery would result in cancellation of the game.

According to some reports, Haughton didn’t even attend the game, boarding a train instead for New Haven to scout the Yale-Brown contest and leaving his subordinates in charge of putting in the second-string against what he considered overmatched foes.

Unfortunately for the patrician Haughton and his Harvard team, Thorpe showed up at kick-off ready to play, taking comfort in the fact that his lucky number 11 coincided with the 11/11/11 game date.

That the Native American athletes of a small Pennsylvania school had come this far was remarkable. A generation earlier, Massachusetts Sen. William Dawes had set out to break down Indian culture through the allotment act — substituting individual for communal ownership of land. Mission schools punished Indian students for speaking their language and practicing their religion.

Institutions like Harvard had long turned their back on early commitments to Indian education, diverting trust funds for Native instruction to the schooling of the colonial elite.

The mixed-race Thorpe, christened “Watha Huk,” or “Bright Path” by his mother, embodied the troubled relationship between First Americans and the European arrivistes. Descended from both the legendary Sauk Chief Black Hawk and one of the original English settlers of New Haven, he grew up chasing rabbits and deer on the Oklahoma plains and attending boarding schools far from home.

A skilled tracker, he always called hunting and fishing his favorite sports but fame came his way via football, baseball and track — diversions of the colonizers.

But under the slate-gray sky of game-day in Boston, future accolades as the 1912 Olympic decathlon champion and a pioneer of professional football were yet to come. Thorpe was focused on one thing and one thing only: Defeating Harvard.

Despite a swollen ankle and a heavily bandaged leg, Thorpe kicked first-half field goals from the 13 and 43-yard lines, taking Carlisle into the locker-room trailing Harvard 9-6.

In the second half, Carlisle played “whirlwind football,” running inventive sweeps and feints to keep the offense on the field. Thorpe kicked another field goal from the 37 to tie the game and began running more, breaking tackles on long runs to keep the Crimson at bay.

When Carlisle scored after a nine-play drive, the Indians led 15-9. Harvard, with 12 minutes left, sent in its first string. The fresh Harvard players threatened to break through the Carlisle defense, but the Indians held them off. The only way to win, Thorpe figured, was to score another field goal and wait out the final onslaught.