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Carlisle Indians Made It A Whole New Ballgame

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Sunday, May 13, 2007

In 1879, a cavalry officer named Richard Henry Pratt established an experimental boarding school for American Indians in an Army barracks in Carlisle, Pa. His purpose was to "civilize" his students and make them U.S. citizens. "Kill the Indian, save the man," Pratt liked to say.

On Carlisle's athletic field, however, a different experiment took place, this one conducted by the pupils. In 1895, the students took up the American game of football, still in its formative years, and began to schedule the Ivy League teams. For the next 20 years, the dispossessed Carlisle Indians ranked among the foremost football powers in the country. Under the creative tutelage of coach Glenn Scobey "Pop" Warner, they developed an innovative array of trick plays, reverses, end-arounds and flea-flickers. And in 1906-07, they threw the first spirals through the air on a major stage. Today, every time a quarterback feigns a handoff, or rears back to throw, a debt is owed to the Indians.

The talent for deception was partly out of necessity: With a student body of just 1,000, ranging in age from 12 to 25, Carlisle was perpetually outmanned and dangerously undersized. By the early 1900s, football had become a lethal sport, with 18 deaths and 149 injuries reported on the field in the 1905 season alone. President Theodore Roosevelt insisted on reform, which led to a half-dozen rule changes, the most experimental of which was the legalization of the forward pass.

Previously, there had been no necessity for anything but the "slam bang method of attack," as Warner put it. But in September 1907, Warner and the Indians began to explore a new kind of football.

* * *

Warner and the Carlisle players were, as always, able to fire each other's imaginations. In the harness shop, Warner devised something called a "bucking strap" to teach new techniques in blocking and tackling. On the field, Warner and the Indians tinkered with the forward pass. "It may be basketball, but it's in the rules, so let's try it," Warner said.

Warner was back at Carlisle after a three-year hiatus during which he coached his alma mater, Cornell. He agreed to return as the school's head coach on Dec. 1, 1906, in the midst of the Army-Navy football game. The contest was held at Philadelphia's Franklin Field, and Albert Exendine, captain of Carlisle's football team, was standing on the sideline, listening to the uplifting strains of a new anthem debuted that afternoon by the Navy band called "Anchors Aweigh," when his old coach clapped him on the back and said hello. By the end of the afternoon, Warner and Carlisle's superintendent had reached a deal. As Exendine left the field to catch a train, Warner said, "I want you to meet the new football coach." By the end of the month, Warner was Carlisle's athletic director.

He was pleased to be back in the company of athletes whose capabilities clearly fascinated him -- and still bewildered him, too. That spring, Warner met the athlete who would amaze yet confound him more than any other. Seemingly out of nowhere came that unaccountable great, Jim Thorpe.

On a late-April afternoon, the 17-year-old Thorpe ambled along across the upper end of the athletic field with some friends, on his way to play in a football match between trade schools. Even at a saunter, the young Thorpe possessed a physical ease that caused the sportswriting legend Grantland Rice to remark that he moved "like a breeze."

Thorpe stopped to watch the track team practice the high jump. The bar was set at 5 feet 9 inches, and nobody in the school had ever cleared that height, not even Exendine, Carlisle's track captain. Body after body jackknifed through the air, but with each leap, the bar clattered to the cinder track. Everyone knocked it down.

"Can I try?" Thorpe asked.

Thorpe was dressed in overalls, a work shirt and a pair of borrowed gym shoes. The varsity boys laughed at him and told him to go ahead. They stood around and waited for Thorpe to crash into the apparatus.


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