“Wa-Tho-Huck,” Friend, Aug. 1992, 38
“Race you to the river!” Jimmy shouted to his nine-year-old twin. Charlie’s legs pumped as hard as he could make them go, but Jimmy’s light, springy bounds took him to the oak seconds ahead of his brother. “Hi!” He grinned. “Where’ve you been?”
“You always win,” Charlie pouted. “I can beat anyone else, but never you.”
Summer vacation had begun, that year of 1898, and the Thorpe boys were happy to be back on the Oklahoma ranch. The Thorpes were Sac-Fox Indians, and their home was a cozy log cabin twenty miles from the reservation.
The twins delighted their father, Hiram, who watched them wrestle, jump, and run, always winning the contests that the Indians liked to hold. Mr. Thorpe himself was never defeated, and the boys hoped to be just like him when they grew up.
Their parents told them legends of the Sac-Fox tribe. Best of all they liked the stories of the great chief Black Hawk, their great-grandfather. “You can become great braves in a different way,” Mr. Thorpe said. “You can prove that you have courage and skill. You can study in school so that you can take your place in the world. You can prepare yourselves to be winners in the things you do best.”
“What if we lose?” Charlie asked.
“Like Black Hawk did at last, my son? You must lose with honor, as he did.”
That night, Charlie whispered, “Did I lose that race with honor today, Jimmy?”
“Sure. You always do.”
“Sometimes I get mad when I can’t ever beat you,” Charlie admitted, “and I forget about being like Black Hawk.”
Jimmy hadn’t realized that his brother cared so much. “Maybe I run best,” he told Charlie, “but you are best at school. Someday you could even be a teacher.”
“Maybe so.” Charlie began to feel better.
One day in early winter, the boys planned to go hunting with their father. Charlie was so excited that he could hardly eat the spice cake Mrs. Thorpe had made for supper. “Do you feel all right?” she asked, feeling his forehead. “Why, Hiram, he has a fever!”
Charlie had to stay home. Jimmy could see that he was shivering under his pile of blankets. “I wish you could go,” he said awkwardly. His heart was heavy, for the twins had never been separated.
“Me, too,” Charlie whispered.
In two days Mr. Thorpe brought down three deer and a small bear. The third day he loaded the gun and handed it to Jimmy. “It’s your turn, son.”
Only once had Jimmy shot the big gun at a target. Although the recoil had knocked him over, he hadn’t missed! Now they were hiding in the brush near a little stream. When a big stag came to drink, Jimmy quietly sighted along the barrel. For Charlie, he thought as he squeezed the trigger. Boooom! Jimmy reeled backward, but the deer lay on the ground.
“Good work!” his father praised him. They loaded the horses, and Mr. Thorpe shouldered two deer himself for the long hike home.
“You must be as strong as Black Hawk!”
“Your eye is keen, your thinking straight, and your speed great,” his father returned the compliment. “Already you follow the path of Black Hawk.”
Jimmy thought about his Indian name, Wa-Tho-Huck (Bright Path). He hoped that whatever his “bright path” might be, it would be honorable, like Black Hawk’s.
Mrs. Thorpe met them at the door, but in spite of the great good luck of so much meat, tears streaked her face. “It’s Charlie,” she mourned. “He had pneumonia. He’s gone.”
Blindly Jimmy turned away. How could it be time for Charlie to go to the spirit world? If only he had let Charlie beat him just one time! He felt father’s strong arms around him.
For a long time, everything reminded Jimmy of his twin. Understanding his grief, the Thorpes arranged for him to go to Haskell Indian School in Kansas. There, for the first time, he saw boys kicking a strange, point-ended ball. Other boys were hitting a small, leather-covered ball with a club, and still others were using a pole to jump over high crossbars. Jimmy tried all the new sports, and he learned to love them.
Later he went to Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, where he led the football team to great victories over all the big teams in the country at that time—Yale, Harvard, Pittsburgh, Chicago, West Point, and many others. No one could run as fast, dodge as well, hit as hard, kick as high, or think as fast on the field as Jim.
He represented the United States in the Olympics in Sweden in 1912. He competed in the pentathlon, a series of five grueling contests, and the most difficult event, the decathlon, a series of ten punishing contests to select the top Olympic athlete. His decathlon score set a record that was not matched for many years!
The King of Sweden placed the victory medals around Jim’s neck and gave him his personal gift, a bronzed statue, saying, “You are the greatest athlete in the world!”
But heartbreak was ahead. His Olympic medals were taken away when it was learned that he had once been paid a few dollars for playing baseball. Jim hadn’t known that it would disqualify him for the Olympics. In 1982, thirty-nine years after his death, the honors were restored to his name.
Jim played professional baseball and football, and in 1950 he was named the greatest male athlete of the half-century. To many, he is considered the greatest male athlete of all time. A town in Pennsylvania changed its name to “Jim Thorpe” in his honor, and a movie was made about his life. Truly Jim Thorpe had followed the bright path set by Black Hawk; he had won at all the things he did best.