Carlisle vs. Army

The Native American Ghost Dance was a days-long shamble/chant during which the dancers would wear “magical shirts” they believed made them “invulnerable to bullets.” It scared the bejesus out of settlers. The dance was supposed to make the buffalo reappear and the white man vanish, but had the opposite effect. Settler freakouts due to the Ghost Dance led directly to the 1890 Massacre at Wounded Knee, in which more than 180 Native Americans were killed by U.S. soldiers.

In a football game only 22 years later, the Army Cadets of West Point faced off against the powerhouse Carlisle (Pa.) Indian School, one of many institutions set up at the turn of the century to help Indian kids become part of the mainstream culture (read: whiteyville). Carlisle was founded by Richard Pratt, who described the mission of his school as “Save the man, kill the Indian.” The school’s football and track teams had the luck of being coached by Glenn “Pop” Warner, one of the most creative minds in football history. Many early innovations of the game — the spiral pass, shoulder pads, the three-point crouch — came from Warner, who built Carlisle’s Indian footballers into a nasty squad that was happy to “scalp” any “palefaces” that came their way, as the newspapers of the day liked to say. These Indians were more than mainstreamed when it came to football; they had mastered the white man’s game.

In the locker room before the historic game, Warner didn’t miss the opportunity to inspire his kids to do battle against the Army Cadets: “Remember it was their fathers and grandfathers who killed your fathers and grandfathers. Remember it was their fathers and grandfathers who destroyed your way of life. Remember Wounded Knee.”

This is the backdrop of the fascinating tale of Carlisle vs. Army, by Lars Anderson, a staff writer at Sports Illustrated. The book purports to be about one historic football game in which Jim Thorpe, fresh off winning two gold medals at the Olympics in Sweden and being continually called “the greatest athlete in the world,” and Dwight David Eisenhower face off, two intense kids playing a brutal game. But the subtext, emerging from its biographical sketches of Thorpe, Eisenhower, and Warner, is the “taming” of American football, the American Indian, and the American West.

The book follows its three principals from their childhoods all the way up to the big game in 1912 and then provides a bittersweet epilogue, outlining the fates of the Olympian who was stripped of his medals for being paid to play semipro baseball, the man who became one of America’s greatest war heroes and its 34th president, and the coach whose name now is synonymous with football for the half million kids in 42 states (and a few foreign countries) who play in the Pop Warner League.

Anderson and his researcher deserve heaps of credit for digging up details on every seemingly minor event along the way. (How did the Harvard-Yale rivalry affect the standardized size of football fields? Why did Wild Bill Hickok stop shooting from the hip? What prank did Edgar Allan Poe play when he was at West Point?) You can sense the piles of microfiche behind each paragraph.

Indeed, the story is stuffed with turn-of-the-century details (teletypes, hand-rolled cigarettes, fedoras, and endless steam engines that roll through the changing landscape) as well as countless legendary figures: Hickok, the Dalton Gang, basketball founder James Naismith, future World War II general Omar Bradley, and football legends Walter Camp and Amos Alonzo Stagg. If it feels sometimes that Anderson is looking at the action through a sepia-toned spyglass, his re-creation of events never sacrifices drama or cohesion to its sense of period atmosphere.

Anderson follows Warner through his early discovery and eventual revamping of the game, which at the time was essentially rugby with more blood. He began to develop trick plays aplenty. In a game against then-mighty Harvard, Warner had all of his players gather in a huddle when the ball was kicked off to them. Ten of the 11 players took off their helmets, put them under their arms, and “scattered like a sack of spilled marbles,” each running as if carrying a football. The 11th man put the football up the back of his shirt and then ran down the field, and the confused defenders actually got out of the ball carrier’s way, allowing him to score a touchdown. Sure, the rules were changed so such things couldn’t occur again, but Warner was always bending and twisting the game to wring out victory after victory.

Those victories became much easier to attain with Thorpe’s arrival from his home in Oklahoma. The son of an abusive alcoholic — who had nevertheless insisted that his son go to school — Thorpe had run away from every school he’d attended. But Carlisle proved different, for Carlisle had Warner. The pairing proved to be one of the most productive in American sports history.

Thorpe was a natural at everything he did. That athleticism culminated in 1912 with his Olympic gold medals and a stellar football season that included the sweet victory over Army at West Point. Like Jackie Robinson after him, Thorpe was a target in all sorts of ways for opposing players, such as Eisenhower. Ike spent months readying himself to battle the big Indian, hoping “that the shattering blow would send Thorpe to the sideline — if not the hospital.” The tables turned on Ike, though, as he limped off the field after a futile attempt to tackle Thorpe. The injury eventually forced Eisenhower to abandon football and even to consider leaving the military, an act that would have changed history as we know it.

While the story chronicles the sweet success of Carlisle and Jim Thorpe, it also marks the high points for Native Americans of the time: Everywhere the Carlisle team went, Native Americans would gather to cheer a team that was stomping on the white man. In the end, though, Thorpe was disgraced when the Olympic Committee revoked his medals because he had once played baseball for pay, thus making him technically ineligible for the Olympics; the injustice of this ruling was finally recognized in 1987, when the medals were restored to his family.

The bitter irony exposed by Anderson is that Eisenhower had committed a similar violation, having played minor-league baseball before attending West Point. If he’d been found out, the NCAA would not have allowed him to play football for Army. He got away with it because he had played baseball under an assumed name; Thorpe, unaware of the rules and trying to earn some money for his family, had played under his own name and paid a heavy price for it.

The sadness of Thorpe’s experience is evident in the closing pages of Carlisle vs. Army. A great nation of people were given something to cheer for and then it was taken away, just as their Ghost Dance had been. Carlisle closed its doors in 1918, three years after Warner left. But in those days when Thorpe was running the football against America, Anderson perfectly captures the feeling of bulling forward with him, taking on the world — and winning.