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Carlisle Indian School Football Team is Subject of New Book
posted on AmericanChronicle.com, Thursday, February 28, 2008
In her 2007 book, The Real All Americans,
author Sally Jenkins looks at one of the greatest football teams of the early
1900īs. The team was from a small Indian school near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania
known as the Carlisle Indian School.
But the book is much more than the story of a football team. It is about a
turbulent time in American history when westward expansion of the white man
clashed with the indigenous inhabitants of the plains. The confrontations
between the two sides were often violent and bloody, but one man, who was caught
in the middle of it all, decided to do something about it.
That man was Richard Henry Pratt, a cavalry soldier who had fought during the
Civil War. After the war, Pratt spent another eight years as a Buffalo Soldier
in the Oklahoma-Texas-Kansas territories. Their job was to move tribes of
Indians into government designated reservations and out of the way of white
settlers who were expanding westward. It was during this time that Pratt, while
serving at Fort Sill in Oklahoma, witnessed first-hand the unfair treatment of
the Indian tribes by his own government. He came to sympathize and respect the
native people of the territory.
1875, Pratt was ordered to accompany 72 of the most violent and dangerous Indian
prisoners from the region to Fort Leavenworth in Kansas. Shortly after they
arrived there, Pratt and the prisoners were relocated to Fort Marion near St.
Augustine, Florida for an indefinite period of detention. While at Fort Marion,
Pratt asked for and received permission to try and "civilize" the savage
prisoners by teaching them to read and write the white manīs language.
Over the next three years, the prisoners worked
hard to learn everything they were taught. Eventually, in 1878, they had made so
much progress that the government released them back to their families on the
reservation. However, 22 of the prisoners/students decided to remain in the East
and continue their education. Pratt arranged for most of them to study at the
Hampton Institute in Virginia, but he knew that more needed to be done. He
wanted to help as many of the Indian children from the reservations as possible
to be accepted into American society.
Because of his success in working with the Indian prisoners at Fort Marion,
Pratt founded the Carlisle Indian School in 1879, just three years after the
battle at Little Big Horn. The school was located at the Carlisle Barracks in
central Pennsylvania, which was an old Army post that had been around since the
Revolutionary War. It had been sitting vacant ever since it was damaged during
the Civil War. Pratt liked the location of the school because most people in
Pennsylvania had never seen an Indian before. Therefore, they had no
preconceived prejudices against them the way people who lived closer to the
Indian territories had.
There was just one catch to starting up the school; the government told Pratt
that he had to include children from two very hostile Sioux tribes, the Oglala
and Brule, in the Dakota Territory, for his first class. The Department of War
and the Department of the Interior wanted to insure that these two tribes would
settle down and behave themselves while their children were "hostages" in
Prattīs care away at the school.
Surprisingly, Pratt managed to convince the leaders of the two tribes to allow
many of their children to attend Carlisle. His reasoning was that by educating
the children in the ways of the white man, they would be less susceptible to
being swindled the way the elders of the tribes had been. In October 1879, Pratt
headed back to Carlisle with 84 children from the two trides in tow, the
youngest was only10-years-old.
On November 1, 1879, the Carlisle Indian Industrial School officially opened.
There were a total of 147 students ranging in age from six to 25 that first
year. Some of Prattīs former prisoners/students from Fort Marion, who had
remained in the East, also came to the school to help out.
Over the years, the students were taught more than just reading, writing and
math. The boys were taught useful skills like wagon building, blacksmithing,
harness making, and carpentry while the girls were taught cooking, sewing,
canning and ironing.
In the late 1800īs, the game of football was gaining in popularity all over the
country. Students at Carlisle loved the roughness of the game and organized
their own teams, playing against each other on the parade grounds. But after
several students were injured, Pratt banned the game from the school in 1890.
Students lobbied to bring the popular game back and eventually, Pratt agreed. He
realized that football would be the perfect opportunity to showcase his students
to the rest of the country. Having them compete on the football field would show
that his school was making progress in assimilating the Indians into American
In the fall of 1893, Carlisleīs first organized football team began to take
shape. The schoolīs first football coach was Vance McCormick, who had just
graduated from Yale. He was the captain of the Yale football team in 1892 and
led the Ivy League team to an undefeated 12-0 season.
The Carlisle team began intercollegiate play in 1894. Their first season
schedule consisted mainly of second tier schools which, at the time, included
Navy, Lehigh and Bucknell. They had no home field to play on, so all of
Carlisleīs games were played on the road. The team did not win many games in its
first two years, but they earned a lot of respect for the way they played the
game from the media and by the fans of the opposing teams. Unfortunately,
referees were not always kind to the Carlisle team. They often called penalties
that were not there if Carlisle showed signs of winning. At times, the calls
were so blatantly questionable that fans of the opposing teams would begin
cheering for Carlisle to show their displeasure with the biased referees.
Some of the early players on the Carlisle football team had names like Delos
Lone Wolf and Ben American Horse, which shows that even though they were living
and learning in the East, their heritage was still deeply rooted in the West.
Carlisle had its first winning season in 1896 when they posted a 6-4 record.
In 1899, Pratt hired Glenn "Pop" Warner to be the head football coach and
athletic director at Carlisle. Warner had spent the previous two years as the
head coach at Cornell University. Legendary Yale coach Walter Camp recommended
Warner to Pratt for the job.
Although Carlisle was not actually a college,
its football team played against many of the top college teams in the nation
including Michigan, Wisconsin, California, Harvard, Yale and Princeton. The
Carlisle players were much smaller than many of their opponents, but they made
up for it on the field with speed, deception and trick plays. In Warnerīs first
season with the team, they posted an 8-2 regular season record and were ranked
fourth in the nation. Their running back, Isaac Seneca, was honored by being
named a first team All-American.
In a 1903 game against Harvard, Carlisle unveiled the most controversial plays
in all of football. Warner called it the Hunchback play, but it is more commonly
known as the Hidden Ball play. As Harvard kicked off to Carlisle to start the
second half of their game, several Carlisle players gathered around the player
who had caught the ball. He then placed the ball under the back of the jersey of
one of the other players in a specially sewn compartment with elastic bands to
keep the ball in place. As the Harvard kickoff team came towards them, the
Carlisle players scattered in different directions. The lineman who had the ball
under his jersey, Charlie Dillon, raced to the end zone for a touchdown
untouched. The Harvard coaching staff protested the play, but there was no rule
against such a deception at the time, so the play stood.
Warner took a lot of criticism for the play from the media and from other
coaches. The play was never used again. Eventually, rules were put in place to
ensure that it could not be used ever again.
Towards the end of the 1903 season, the relationship between Warner and his
quarterback, James Johnson, became strained. When Warner approached Pratt about
disciplining the insubordinate student, Pratt sided with Johnson. Warner
resigned from Carlisle after the 1903 season. He returned to Cornell and became
head football coach once again. In February 1904, a 16-year-old boy by the name
of Jim Thorpe arrived at Carlisle.
In June of 1904, Pratt was relieved of his post as the superintendent of
Carlisle by the War Department after 25 years at the school. Pratt had made many
enemies in Washington over the years for siding with the Indians and against his
own government. After his "retirement," Pratt went on to lecture and write about
One of the last things that Pratt did before leaving the school was to name a
new head football coach. He selected Ed Rogers, a former student at Carlisle who
had gone on to graduate from the University on Minnesota. He was the captain of
the 1903 Minnesota football team and had earned a law degree there as well.
Rogers led the 1904 Carlisle team to a 9-2 record but he was replaced after just
one season buy the new school superintendant. In 1906, the school tried to hire
University of Michigan coach Fielding Yost, but he declined.
With Pratt gone, "Pop" Warner returned to Carlisle as football coach in 1907. He
had a genuine affection for the school and the hard working players who loved
the game. Besides being a coach, Warner was a great innovator of the game and
was always looking to give his team an advantage. Like the time he had football
shaped designs sewn onto the front of the Carlisle jerseys. The idea was to
confuse the opposing team so that they would not know which player was holding
the real ball and which players were only pretending to have the ball in their
arms! He also invented shoulder pads, the reverse and various practice aids like
the tackling dummy. He even wrote the school song and varous school cheers.
Jim Thorpe grew into a fine football player for the Carlisle team. He also
participated in baseball, basketball, lacrosse and track. After winning the
Pentathlon and the Decathlon in the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden, Thorpe
returned to play one final season of football at Carlisle. The big game that
year was between Carlisle and Army. Thorpe was the star of the game, but the
Army team featured a future president of the United States at linebacker, Dwight
D. Eisenhower. Carlisle won the game 27-6.
The 1912 season was Thorpeīs last at Carlisle. Soon after the season ended, the
story broke that he had played baseball for money during the summers of 1909 and
1910 and he was stripped of his Olympic medals.
"Pop" Warner remained at Carlisle through the 1914 season and then became the
head football coach at Pittsburgh. He went on to coach at Stanford and Temple
before retiring from coaching in 1938 with a lifetime record of 341-118-33.
Things were never the same after Warner left Carlisle and the school played its
last season on the gridiron in 1917.
As for Carlisle itself, the school was closed in August 1918 and converted into
a hospital that treated wounded soldiers returning from World War I. During the
24 years that Carlisle competed on the gridiron (1894-1917), the football team
actually helped support the school. Profits from ticket sales helped to renovate
buildings, purchase much needed supplies and made life better for all of the
students at the school.
Today, what is left of the Carlisle Indian School is part of the U.S. Army War
College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
As for the schoolīs best know athlete, Thorpe went on play professional baseball
and football and was even the very first president of the newly formed American
Professional Football Association in 1920. The APFA changed its name to the
National Football League in 1922.
Thorpe died in 1953. The following year, the Pennsylvania towns of Mauch Chunk
and East Mauch Chunk combined to become the town of Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania.
Thorpe was buried there in 1954. The town is just 90 miles from the old Carlisle
In 1963, Thorpe was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
A statue of him greets every visitor who enters the building. In 1982, the
International Olympic Committee reinstated Thorpeīs records and in 1983,
replicas of his 1912 Olympic gold medals were presented to two of his seven
I read The Real All Americans with the sole purpose of learning more
about the fabled Carlisle football team. What I did not expect was to be pulled
into the compelling story of the plight of Native Americans at the turn of the
last century. Sally Jenkins does an excellent job of weaving both stories into
one great book. I highly recommend it.
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