Carlisle vs. Army: Jim Thorpe, Dwight Eisenhower, Pop Warner, and the Forgotten Story of Football's Greatest Battleby Lars Anderson
A stunning work of narrative nonfiction, Carlisle vs. Army recounts the fateful 1912 gridiron clash that pitted one of America’s finest athletes, Jim Thorpe, against the man who would become one of the nation’s greatest heroes, Dwight D. Eisenhower. But beyond telling the tale of this momentous event, Lars Anderson also reveals the broader social and historical context of the match, lending it his unique perspectives on sports and culture at the dawn of the twentieth century.
This story begins with the infamous massacre of the Sioux at Wounded Knee, in 1890, then moves to rural Pennsylvania and the Carlisle Indian School, an institution designed to “elevate” Indians by uprooting their youths and immersing them in the white man’s ways. Foremost among those ways was the burgeoning sport of football. In 1903 came the man who would mold the Carlisle Indians into a juggernaut: Glenn “Pop” Warner, the son of a former Union Army captain. Guided by Warner, a tireless innovator and skilled manager, the Carlisle eleven barnstormed the country, using superior team speed, disciplined play, and tactical mastery to humiliate such traditional powerhouses as Harvard, Yale, Michigan, and Wisconsin–and to, along the way, lay waste American prejudices against Indians. When a troubled young Sac and Fox Indian from Oklahoma named Jim Thorpe arrived at Carlisle, Warner sensed that he was in the presence of greatness. While still in his teens, Thorpe dazzled his opponents and gained fans across the nation. In 1912 the coach and the Carlisle team could feel the national championship within their grasp.
Among the obstacles in Carlisle’s path to dominance were the Cadets of Army, led by a hardnosed Kansan back named Dwight Eisenhower. In Thorpe, Eisenhower saw a legitimate target; knocking the Carlisle great out of the game would bring glory both to the Cadets and to Eisenhower. The symbolism of this matchup was lost on neither Carlisle’s footballers nor on Indians across the country who followed their exploits. Less than a quarter century after Wounded Knee, the Indians would confront, on the playing field, an emblem of the very institution that had slaughtered their ancestors on the field of battle and, in defeating them, possibly regain a measure of lost honor.
Filled with colorful period detail and fascinating insights into American history and popular culture, Carlisle vs. Army gives a thrilling, authoritative account of the events of an epic afternoon whose reverberations would be felt for generations.
"Carlisle vs. Army is about football the way that The Natural is about baseball.”
–Jeremy Schaap, author of I
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THE THRILL OF POSSIBILITY
The hand-rolled cigarette dangled from his lips, and a string of smoke drifted up around his brown eyes as he nervously paced through the locker room at West Point. Dressed in a bowler hat and dark gray suit, Glenn “Pop” Warner was buried deep in his own thoughts. Out on Army’s football field five thousand fans filled the wooden bleachers and hundreds of others sat in folding chairs along the sidelines. Warner could hear the crowd murmur with expectation as he took another drag from his usual pregame cigarette, releasing more smoke from the orange glow of the burning tip. Time was running out before kickoff, and he was still searching for just the right words to spark a fire in the hearts of his Carlisle Indian School football players.
He moved between the benches in the small, musty locker room, striding past his players as they pulled on their red jerseys with the letter C emblazoned on the front, tightened the laces on their black cleats, and strapped on their leather helmets. The forty-two- year-old coach, with his bushy dark hair and barrel chest, had been daydreaming for months of this moment: the game against Army. On this autumn afternoon in 1912 he planned to unveil his latest offensive creation—the double wing—for the first time. The Indians had been practicing the complicated formation since the middle of the summer, and Warner hoped it would confuse the bigger, brawnier, stronger Cadets.
It was late in the season and, for Carlisle, the national championship was tantalizingly close: If the Indians beat Army, just three opponents stood between them and an undefeated season. Warner looked around at his twenty-two boys. They ranged in age from eighteen to twenty-four. Most of them had close-cropped dark hair, copper skin, and coffee-colored eyes, and were as thin as blades of prairie grass. They had come from reservations that dotted the plains of Middle America and as far west as Arizona to attend the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, a boarding school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, for Indian boys and girls.
At Carlisle, the Indians were assimilated into white culture and forced to abandon every last trace of their heritage. The white teachers cut the Indians’ shiny black hair that reached down to their shoulders. They took their clothing, which was made from animal hides, and handed the boys blue military uniforms and the girls Victorian dresses. From the moment they first rode through the school gate in a horse-drawn covered wagon, the kids were not allowed to speak in their native languages. It would be English only from this point on.
The football team at Carlisle played all the powerhouses of the day— Harvard, Yale, Princeton—and now, on November 9, 1912, at West Point, Warner narrowed his eyes into a liquid gleam of intensity and began to speak in his gravelly voice, hoping to prepare his boys for a battle with another of those top-ranked teams. With the fervor of a tent-revival preacher, the coach told his players that this was the time and the place for the Indians to finally prove that they could play the white man’s game better than the white man himself could. In graphic language, he explained that this was a chance to exact revenge for all the cold-blooded horrors that the white man had inflicted on their people in the past. It was the ancestors of these Army boys, Warner forcefully stated, who had killed and raped the ancestors of the Carlisle players.
On every play I want all of you to remember one thing. Remember that it was the fathers and grandfathers of these Army players who fought your fathers and grandfathers in the Indian Wars. 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. Remember all of this on every play. Let’s go!
Nothing could cause the emotional temperature of the Indians to rise like the mention of the massacre at Wounded Knee, and after Warner’s speech was over the players stormed out of the locker room and into the cool November air, filled with primal rage. Outside, the maples, elms, and oak trees that towered throughout the sixteen-thousand-acre West Point campus were tinted red and gold—the colors of the northeastern autumn—and a breeze strummed the branches. Above the Indians as they jogged onto Cullum Field, the cold sky was heavy with an underbelly of clouds that threatened to flood the ground with sleet. It was the kind of football weather that Warner loved: raw and foreboding, perfect for the most important game of his career.
Located forty-five miles north of New York City, the field at West Point was laid out on the granite cliffs high above the Hudson River. Hundreds of feet below the grassy field, scores of boats that had ferried fans from Manhattan and other ports along the Hudson were docked on the rocky shoreline. Late-arriving fans streamed out of the tiny West Point train depot. Once they stepped off the coal-driven locomotive, they climbed the steep hill that led to the broad green plain of the United States Military Academy, anxious to see the battle between Carlisle, the most famous underdogs of the early twentieth century, and the Cadets of Army.
While the Carlisle players warmed up, halfback Jim Thorpe loped around the field in his easy, graceful gait. Every movement he made to prepare for the game looked effortless. He kicked forty-yard field goals that cleaved the uprights, he flung beautiful passes that spiraled sixty yards through the air, he sprinted up the field with the ball in his hands and faked out imaginary defenders with feet as light as a ballroom dancer’s. The twenty-four-year-old Thorpe had participated in the decathlon and pentathlon at the Fifth Olympic Games in Stockholm, Sweden, just four months earlier, and had generated more newspaper stories than any other athlete in the summer and fall of 1912—more than Ty Cobb of the Detroit Tigers, Shoeless Joe Jackson of the Chicago White Sox, or the Kentucky Derby winner, Worth. At this moment Thorpe was operating at the height of his athletic powers, and a stadium full of onlookers followed his every step, his every kick, his every snap of the wrist.
On the other side of the field a twenty-one-year-old Cadet player with blond hair and penetrating, icy blue eyes loosened up. Jogging in his gold leather helmet, black jersey, gold knickers, white socks, and black cleats, Dwight David Eisenhower didn’t look intimidating—he stood five feet, ten inches and weighed 180 pounds—and he wasn’t as fast as Thorpe nor as muscular. But Eisenhower possessed something that Army coach Ernest Graves couldn’t teach: determination as strong as the gray granite of the Cadet barracks. Ike charged around the field like no one else on Graves’s roster, and though he was only in his first year as a starter, Eisenhower had already established himself as Army’s hardest hitter and toughest runner. Like every other player warming up on the field, Eisenhower played full-time on both sides of the ball—halfback on offense, linebacker on defense. Now, as he stretched and prepared for the game, his mind was focused on two things: stampeding over Thorpe and the other Carlisle defenders when he had the ball in his hands on offense, and punishing Thorpe with vicious hits on defense.
Ever since Eisenhower and his Cadet teammates found out that Carlisle and Jim Thorpe would be coming to West Point, a day rarely passed at the Academy when the Army players didn’t talk about how they were going to “stop Thorpe.” A Cadet would become famous, the Army players believed, if he knocked Thorpe out of the game with a hit so powerful it kidnapped Thorpe from consciousness. Eisenhower especially had been looking forward to this game for months. Finally, he would come head-to-head with the great Jim Thorpe on the football field.
As Eisenhower continued to warm up on this chilly afternoon, he had nearly as many eyes locked on him as Thorpe did. Ike, as his friends called him, had been prominently featured in The New York Times a few weeks earlier. The paper ran a two-column photo of Eisenhower and called him “one of the most promising backs in Eastern football.” Ike was a bruising inside runner who had a knack for dragging tacklers along with him for five, ten, even fifteen yards. And on defense, from his linebacker position, the rough kid from Abilene, Kansas, fully expected to be the chosen one—the player who was going to deliver the knockout blow that would send Thorpe out of the game and into a hospital bed.
Minutes before kickoff, the bleachers on each side of Cullum Field were full. A cluster of sportswriters from New York City stood on the sidelines with pencils and notebooks in their hands. Walter Camp, the former Yale player and coach known as the “Father of American Football,” also was on the sideline. Wearing an overcoat and top hat, Camp wondered the same thing that every other fan did: Could Thorpe and the Carlisle Indians keep their national title hopes alive by beating Army, a team that Camp ranked as one of the best in the East?
Just then, the field shook and the air rumbled: A cannon on the north end of the field had fired a thunderous salute to the crowd. The fans erupted in applause. The team captains—Thorpe for Carlisle, Leland Devore for Army—met at midfield and shook hands. The coin spiked upward—Thorpe won the flip and elected to defend the north goal. Devore told the referee that Army would kick off. Thorpe walked back to the sideline, where Warner gave his players a few last-second instructions and then ordered them onto the field. Thorpe was the team’s deep return man, and he cantered onto the field with the cool of a confident thoroughbred approaching the starting gate. With a bitter wind feathering his cheeks, Thorpe buckled his helmet strap tightly under his movie-star chin. He was ready to play.
Eisenhower lined up with the other defenders on the kicking team. Warner glowered and paced the sideline, another cig pinched between his lips. Standing on the opposite sideline, Omar Bradley, a reserve Army player, surveyed the field. The Army kicker, Devore, booted the ball high into the gray sky. It landed in Thorpe’s arms at the Carlisle fifteen-yard line. Warner yelled for Thorpe to run. Eisenhower sprinted as fast as he could toward Thorpe as the Indian slashed up the field.
The thrill of possibility now pumped in the hearts of everyone on the field. Just twenty-two years after the battle of Wounded Knee ended the Indian Wars, whites and Indians were at it again.
SHOT LIKE BUFFALO
The end came at dawn on December 29, 1890, in a remote valley in South Dakota next to a creek the Indians called Wounded Knee. As the first blush of sunlight spread across the endless Dakota sky, a bank of storm clouds grew larger on the western horizon. About 450 Sioux Indians had set up camp along the winding creek, and as the last whispers of smoke from the previous night’s campfire drifted through the frosty winter air, they shook off the heavy sluggishness of sleep. They could see that on the bluffs all around them stood four troops of the U.S. Seventh Cavalry, outfitted in long blue woolen coats and muskrat hats. Each soldier carried a Winchester rifle slung over his shoulder. Each troop had a small-caliber Hotchkiss cannon. These instruments of death were mounted on light carriages with two wooden wheels, and all the barrels were pointed directly at the camp.
The Indians had a few old rabbit guns and a handful of knives, bows and arrows, and hatchets. At around 8 a.m., five Indian men emerged from their teepees and sat down in a semicircle. The colonel of the cavalry troops, James W. Forsyth, cautiously approached and told an interpreter to shout an order to the Indian leaders: Return to your lodges immediately and bring me all of your weapons.
Reluctantly, the Indian men stood up and walked toward their teepees. In their limited English, they told Forsyth that they didn’t want to fight. The cavalry troops ignored them. Pointing their rifles at the Indians, they quickly moved within fifty feet of the camp. A few Indian women inside the teepees peeked through the slits of the entryway, and what they saw left them cold with fear: The bluecoats were so close the women could see the scuffs on their black boots and the brass buttons on their uniforms gleaming in the morning sun.
On the instructions of President Benjamin Harrison, the cavalry’s mission was to eradicate the Native American practice known as the “Ghost Dance.” The dance, which was performed over four or five days, combined singing and chanting with slow, shuffling movements that followed the sun’s course. Many Indians believed that if they danced the Ghost Dance, a new springtime of bountiful green grass and cool running water would come. The buffalo would reappear, and the white man would vanish. They thought they’d be lifted into the air and transported to a place as perfect as a garden full of fruits, plants, and flowers as far as the eye could see. Here their ancestors would greet them with bright smiles and open arms. The Ghost Dance would take the Indians back to a happier time, and its seduction was so powerful that in the early 1890s it was prevalent in Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, the Dakotas, Texas, and Oklahoma. Hundreds or sometimes thousands of dancers shuffled around a pole staked in the earth, or “tree of life.” They wore Ghost Dance shirts, which were blue around the neck and adorned with brightly colored birds, suns, and moons. They believed that these shirts were magical and made them invulnerable to bullets—a belief similar to that of the Boxers in China’s 1900 rebellion.
Settlers had reacted with alarm. A federal agent on the reservation at Pine Ridge, South Dakota, in the southwestern corner of the state, panicked at the sight of these Ghost Dances and asked that troops be sent in for reinforcement. “Indians are dancing in the snow and are wild and crazy,” the agent wrote to his superiors. “We need protection and we need it now. The leaders should be arrested and confined at some military post until the matter is quieted, and this should be done now.” The agent’s request was ultimately granted, and within days the cavalry was galloping into Indian country.
General Nelson Miles, the head of the cavalry, suspected that the movement was fomented by the Sioux chief, Sitting Bull, and so he ordered his arrest. The fifty-six-year-old Sioux warrior and holy man was working as a farmer at the Grand River on the Standing Rock Reservation. The federal agent there, James McLaughlin, wasn’t as fearful of Indians as the agent in Pine Ridge who asked for reinforcements. McLaughlin regarded Sitting Bull as an obstructionist, but he would have preferred not to intervene. Hoping to avoid a clash, McLaughlin arranged for the arrest to be carried out by Indian police with the cavalry as backup. Before sunup on December 15, 1890, a group of forty-four Indian police rode on horseback to Sitting Bull’s log cabin. They were under the command of a former Sioux chief, Lieutenant Bull Head, who had been at Sitting Bull’s side in the fights against the cavalry at Rosebud and Little Bighorn.
From the Hardcover edition.
Meet the Author
Lars Anderson is a Sports Illustrated staff writer and a graduate of Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of The All Americans. He lives with his wife in Birmingham, Alabama.
From the Hardcover edition.
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