Real All-Americans

It is rare if not completely unheard of to find a book about sports that is really about something far more profound — the human condition and the impact of a game that helped change if not entirely improve it.

In 1879, an imposing Army lieutenant, Richard Henry Pratt, who had spent much of his career in what was then Indian Territory and is now Oklahoma, went over the heads of his reluctant and unsympathetic commanders to win approval from the U.S. Interior Department to establish a school for American Indians at Carlisle, Pa. Pratt was convinced that the only way to preserve the nation’s aboriginal population from complete annihilation was to Americanize it.

The establishment of the school took place only three years after Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer’s demise at Little Big Horn in Montana and at a time when the so-called Indian wars had not been settled and those running the U.S. military still considered “the only good Indian … a dead Indian,” in the words of Gen. Philip Henry Sheridan.

Pratt’s task was made more difficult by the imposition of conditions by governmental authorities and the necessity of persuading major Sioux and Kiowa chiefs to put their children in his hands, not an easy task given the hate generated by years of governmental and civilian mistreatment and outright criminal abuse heaped on the tribes of the Great Plains. Somehow, this Civil War veteran managed to succeed.

The telling of this fascinating story and the impact that Pratt’s actions ultimately had on the game of football and in changing attitudes about American Indians is long overdue. In bringing the Carlisle adventure to America’s bookstores, sportswriter Sally Jenkins has given us one of the best reads of the year.

“The Real All Americans” (Doubleday) is far more of a sociological treatise than the average tale of athletic-field heroism, but it is written in the lively style of a first-rate journalist whose newspaper columns long have been among the more perceptive in a field often noted for some of the best storytelling in the business.

Most Americans of a certain age are familiar with 20th-century athletic wunderkind Jim Thorpe, a Sauk Fox from Oklahoma whose incredible prowess was unmatched. A punishing running back and kicker; an Olympic decathlon champion; a startling if short-lived professional-baseball hitter and a founder of professional football, Thorpe clearly was among the best all-around athletes in history if not the best. As an assistant football coach at Indiana University immediately after World War I, he would put on exhibitions at halftime, standing on the 50-yard line and dropkicking the ball between one goalpost and then quickly turning to do the same between the other.

But few really know how Thorpe and other talented refugees from the violence and deprivation of manifest destiny were given the opportunity, as stern as it often was, to develop their natural abilities. In a day of uncontrolled, smash-mouth football, the lighter, sometimes undernourished boys of Carlisle, guided by the genius of the legendary coach Glenn Scobey (Pop) Warner, simply outran and outsmarted the competition — and changed the game.

The crowning achievement came in 1912 in a long-anticipated match between Carlisle and West Point. The Indians were finally getting their chance to meet the Army on a level playing field, and they could hardly wait. At last there would be some, even if minor, measure of retribution for the decades of watching their culture disrupted and all but destroyed due to one broken promise and treaty after another. In the backfield for West Point was a young cadet named Dwight David Eisenhower, who, somehow fittingly, was carried off the field because of a concussion he received when trying to tackle Thorpe. Carlisle upset Army, 27-6.

Every American who considers himself or herself patriotic should read the Carlisle story. Jenkins has written an important text that probably should be required fare not only in every reservation school but also in every high school history class in the nation. It truly is a thrilling profile in courage.

(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)