HomeNewsLinksUpcoming EventsChampionsTriviaViewing TipsDisclaimerAbout UsContact



Operation Gridiron Airlift

My Articles

My Games

My Favorite

Football Movies


A Brief History

of Football


2,000 Yard



College Bowl



Heisman Trophy



College Football

National Champions


College Player Awards


College Football Trophy Games


Super Bowls

Past & Future




Back to Articles Menu


Carlisle Indian School Football Team is Subject of New Book

by Randy Snow

Originally 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.

In 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 culture.

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 Indian issues.

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 School.

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 children.

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.


Back to Articles Menu