Books -- 'The Real All Americans'

Sally Jenkins
Author, Washington Post Columnist
Thursday, July 12, 2007 12:00 PM

Washington Post sports columnist Sally Jenkins takes questions about her book, "The Real All Americans: The Team That Changed a Game, a People, a Nation," an examination of how Jim Thorpe, Pop Warner and the Carlisle Indians changed the game of football. Jenkins was online Thursday, July 12 at noon ET.

A transcript follows.


Sally Jenkins: Welcome everyone. Thanks for your interest in "The Real All Americans," a story clawed up from the obscure mud of Victorian Americana, and a subject I'm still waiting to tire of. Ask away.


Window Rock, Ariz.: First, I want to thank Sally Jenkins for bringing to light this most monumental and inspiring story of the Native American people. It's great to know that through tragedy and despair, triumph and celebration can exist.

Second, I would like to ask how Ms. Jenkins was able to find information to document the story of the students at Carlisle Indian School and through her research has she been able to connect with some of the descendants of these students? As the author may be aware, the tragedies that have occurred in Native communities have been devastating and it would be great to know that the grandchildren of these Carlisle students can share in the glory of their ancestors and help inspiration to the descendant's lives.

Sally Jenkins: The story has been there all along, it just got sort of lost over time. The Carlisle Indian School football teams were very famous in their day -- and controversial -- but the school closed its doors in 1916, and the myths of Notre Dame took over on the major stage. There have been a couple of very short, but valuable books about Carlisle football, including a catalogue of their records called "Fabulous Redmen" by John Steckbeck. But they are long out of print and hard to find. So I just wanted to restore Carlisle to its rightful place historically.

The information wasn't that hard to come by. Carlisle was a federally funded project, so the student records are kept at the National Archives. Also, there is a first rate historical society in Carlisle, the Cumberland County Historical Society, where a lot of old school memorabilia and records are kept. Finally, the old Carlisle campus is now the U.S. Army War College, and the Army History and Education Center is right there, a gorgeous library and research center, where they hold some old school materials. The War College people were very kind in letting me on campus to wander around.

But maybe the most important thing I did was contact some descendants of former players, including a wonderful guy named Joe American Horse, a two-time elected leader of the Oglala-Lakota, who lives at Pine Ridge. I spent a few days driving around old Dakota territory and wound up at Pine Ridge where Joe and I met at a cafeteria and we had long talk about his grandfather, American Horse, and his great uncle, Ben American Horse, who was one of Carlisle's first great players, right in the wake of the events at Wounded Knee.

That trip was the most important thing I did for the book, I think. Every American ought to see that part of the country, the true old West, where the frontier ended and the country became continuous. It's staggeringly beautiful, and moving. You really get the true meaning of the phrase "love of country."


Bowie, Md.: Sally, love your work and am looking forward to the book, but I have to ask an honest question: I read a lot about Thorpe and Carlisle when I was in school, and loved every bit of it. Just wondering if there was something new you found to report, or to dig down deeper into that justified another Thorpe/Carlisle book?


Sally Jenkins: Hi. Well, yeah, I think the book does something new. There have been some very good Jim Thorpe biographies, and great literature about native American assimilation, but there wasn't a good nonfiction narrative about the Carlisle football story as a whole. Thorpe is a just a fraction of the story. The book opens in 1866, and some of the early pre-Thorpe teams are actually more interesting. Thorpe appears in the last third of the book.

I don't think, also, anyone has recognized Carlisle's role in the birth of the forward pass, or their other critical innovations. We're talking about the most important and influential team that ever played. All of Pop Warner's most important innovations took place at Carlisle.


Chantilly, Va.: Sally: Thanks for writing this book. I'm looking forward to reading it.

Do kids today have any interest in guys like Jim Thorpe, Red Grange or Bronko Nagurski? I suspect the answer is no.

Sally Jenkins: Well, what's more important to me is to interest them in a tough, complicated piece of American History. Mostly that period was something unpleasant I had to memorize answers to for civics tests. Like "the Dawes Act." And then I promptly forgot it. Hopefully this is an interesting way into that period.

The end of the frontier wars and the Victorian age aren't the sexiest periods to study -- unlike 1776 or the Battle of Shiloh or something -- but they're critical. I was hoping to use a dramatic football story to help tell a formative phase of American history. American football was invented in the industrial age when we became fearful that American culture might become weak, that men were spending too much time in Victorian parlors. Football is what happened when the west was won and there were no more frontier wars to fight. It was as though American men didn't know what to do with themselves. So they invented that bastardized, dynamic, fascinating battle game.


NE D.C. : Hello Sally,

How did you come up with the title "The Real All Americans"?

Sally Jenkins: It was something Pop Warner said. He wrote the phrase in his memoirs of his days at Carlisle, said his teams there "were the Real All Americans." I seized on it right away as the perfect title.


Carlisle, Pa.: Ms. Jenkins - as a resident of Carlisle, I was wondering if you visited the Barracks where much of this book presumably takes place?

Sally Jenkins: Oh yes, many times. I spent a night in the old athletic dormitory, in fact, which is now a guest house for visitors. And I took a run around the old Indian Field, which is still there. It was wonderful, to sprint around the track where Thorpe ran and trained.

Also, I was invited back for the commencement of the U.S. Army War College by commandant, Gen. David Huntoon, who was hugely supportive of the book. And he also let me attend "Jim Thorpe Sports Day," a heated and riotous interservice competition between the War Colleges. It was very moving, because most of the graduates would be shipping out for Iraq and Afghanistan afterwards. It was the last time they were competing without consequences. The War College is a wonderful American institution. It's written on the wall there, "Not to promote war but to preserve peace."


Jackson, Mo.: I love your book and read excerpts from it in my Education Foundations class. The Carlisle kids picking out a new name with a stick was quite compelling as we still do a variation of that in schools now. What do you think was the "saddest" and the "best" thing done in the name of education to these children?

Sally Jenkins: The saddest thing done to the early students was the shearing off of their braids. The boys wept when their hair was cut, and they even talked briefly about staging a kind of insurrection over it. One boy balked until he was the only one left with his long hair. That night, he hacked his own braids off with a knife, and then howled in the quadrangle with grief. All the other boys started wailing, and you could hear them all the way in town. A devastating chapter.

The best thing Carlisle did was educate students to go home and become advocates for their people. Some of them returned home to fight some long and bitter battles -- Delos Lone Wolf, a star football player -- went home and fought the opening of the Kiowa reservation to allotment all the way to the Supreme Court. It became a famous case, "Lone Wolf vs. Hitchcock." He eventually lost, but in the meantime, he preserved Kiowa lands for about a dozen years. He was a great football player, and a great leader of the Kiowa. That's what Carlisle could do.

Another example: Albert Exendine, great receiver, caught the first great 40 yard bomb on a major stage in college football history, became a lawyer and went home to protect his people from getting cheated.


Washington, D.C.:

I love your book. In the midst of the history and drama, I kept finding beautiful moments like this one:

"Carlisle red wasn't claret, ruby, blush, crimson, or any other subtle derivation or blend. It was the kind of red that comes from a bucket of paint or an artery."

Does that take weeks, or does it just come to you?

Sally Jenkins: Ahhhhhh, what a question. It's the only real question for writers. That sentence came quickly, it was a bolt of inspiration. But the thought behind it probably fermented unconsciously for weeks and weeks. In writing about places and people long dead, you spend a lot of time staring at pictures and artifacts trying to make them come alive in your mind. Color and detail are important in trying to make something live on the page, so I would go to a glass case at the Cumberland County Historical Society in Carlisle, Pa., where a lot of Carlisle School banners and memorabilia were kept, and gaze at it. I noticed early on what a vivid shade of red the school color was, but it wasn't until I was working on that chapter one day in the New York Public Library that the sentence came out, fully formed. It just flew out.

A few weeks later, something really fun happened. Carlisle's school colors were red and old gold. I knew what shade of red it was, from the banners, but for the life of me, I couldn't really tell what "old gold was." One afternoon I was in the University of Tulsa's McFarlin library sifting through the letters and papers of a guy named Gus Welch, quarterback of the 1912 team and Jim Thorpe's best friend. I opened an old envelope, and his Carlisle varsity letter fell out. It was a burnished gold color -- old gold. I picked it up and held it. This may sound silly, but it was a thrilling moment.

Sally Jenkins: Really it made Gus Welch very real to me.


Sausalito, Calif.: Hi Sally-

I look forward to checking out your new book.

Could you please comment on the phenomenon regarding your Redskins columns, where you write a negative article about the Redskins (as you did in November 2005) and the team goes on a winning streak, but when you write a positive article (as you did in January 2006) the team loses?

Could you also please refrain from writing a positive article about the Redskins this year? Your last article was quite negative, and fans are hoping you'll allow the team to ride your reverse-jinx through the season.


Sally Jenkins: You've noticed that??? Me too! It's absolutely true. Whenever I show up, they lose. I'm convinced I was what killed their chances in the playoff game against Seattle.

Seriously though, it's a lot more fun for all of the sportswriters at The Washington Post when the team wins. Me included. Everybody gets along better in a winning franchise, the players are more candid and the coaches more expansive. For instance, the Colts have been a lot of fun to visit the last couple of years, because they're so relaxed, Dungy will chat for an hour after practice and tell you whatever you want to know.

Hopefully, when the Redskins do win, I'll give credit where it's due. And I'll talk to my boss about how to break this jinx. Maybe we'll burn some herbs, or something, in my office.


Rockville, Md.: Did the changes to the game brought about by Carlisle start the process rolling in which collegiate athletics became a business largely unrelated to education, and student-athletes became very little the former?

Sally Jenkins: Ohhhhhh no. No, the Ivies started that, believe it or not. One thing I learned in doing the research for this book is that there was never a "pure" era of college football. It was associated from the beginning with cheating and all sorts of vice, payments to players, ringers etc. I came across some hilarious stories of local fireman and even a circus performer and in one case, an Australian, being brought in to play on the biggest college teams of the day. It was arguably harder for Carlisle to use ringers -- only Indians were admitted to the school.

In 1905-1906, McLures magazine did an expose on college football, and found evidence of Princeton paying players via cigarette concessions, of Yale admitting a 26 year old as an undergrad to play football, etc. It concluded that the only two teams playing the game cleanly were Army and Navy.


Jackson, Mo.: I loved it when you would visit with Tony Kornheiser on his Washington Post Radio Show. When he comes back from vacation, will you be on again, or even in the mean time? You are one of the few who can get a question in to Junior.

Sally Jenkins: I love doing Tony K's show. It's the only time I get to see him any more, since he goes to bed so early. He used to come out for an occasional glass of red wine, but those days are gone. I'm glad you like the show and I hope to go back, if only to hear the next installment of the Animal Revolution. By the way, me and Jeanne McManus and Tracee Hamilton are trying to write a song we can sing for the show. Like the Andrews Sisters.


Washington, D.C.: Sally,

I enjoyed your book greatly. I am struck by the brutality on the field, the lack of fair play and the utter lack of conscience on the part of the college players of the period towards the Indians. I never realized that out of the gentile Victorian (cultured) society came young men who were capable of such behavior. History seems to have covered over the savages that were us all in years gone by. Please comment.

Sally Jenkins: There's a great story in the book. A Carlisle player named Pete Hauser, a Cheyenne, came limping off the field after getting kicked by an Ivy opponent. Pop Warner said, "What happened?'

Hauser said, "He kicked me."

Warner said, "Did you do anything about it?

"Yeah," Hauser replied, "I said, 'Who's the savage now?' "

Carlisle had strict rules against retaliating. Richard Henry Pratt, the school founder said, "Don't you see, if you slug, they will say, 'there, see, there's the Indian in them.' " They had to prove they weren't "wild Indians" or savages. So they had to be better than the gentlemen's sons they were playing against.


Mission, S.D.: Has the University of Notre Dame reacted to your findings?

Sally Jenkins: No, I haven't heard from them. But they won't have a problem with it. Knute Rockne himself always did his best to correct the record when it came to who invented the forward pass. He said credit belonged to Pop Warner at Carlisle and to a lesser known coach named Eddie Chochems at St Louis. Rockne was a good sort, and very honest that he and Gus Dorais in 1913 weren't the first to throw the ball downfield.

The record is incontrovertible, by the way. The evidence is right there in the newspapers and newsweeklies of the day. Harper's Weekly at the end of the 1906 season gave Carlisle credit for opening up all the possibilities of the "new" football with its forward passing.


Washington, D.C.: Have you faced any validity setbacks from critics about the accuracy of facts, especially who first utilized the forward pass? Dethroning the almighty Fighting Irish has to arouse some skepticism of your sources and research methods.

Sally Jenkins: I think I just answered this, but no, no one has challenged the veracity of the material about the forward pass, because the record is really clear. Anyone who looks into it for even 10 minutes can see that. What's amazing is that the notion that Rockne and Dorais invented the pass at Notre Dame has been perpetuated for so long without correction, when even Rockne himself tried to set the record straight. The answer, I suppose, is that the legend of Notre Dame was too romantic and sportswriters didn't want to ruin such a nice myth with an inconvenient truth that a team of Indian kids were the real innovators of the pass.


New York, N.Y.: Have you ever had the sausage patties at the Hamilton Restaurant in Carlisle? Home-made and delicious. I miss going there to see the Skins. A sweet little town. The Army War College is a fascinating visit and the story of the football-Indians is a worthy one. I look forward to your book.

Sally Jenkins: The Hamilton Restaurant is where I ate lunch every day! But I mostly had the BLTs with my pal Barbara Landis, who is the ultimate authority on Carlisle. Barb is an archivist at the Cumberland County Historical Society who introduced me to how to best research the Carlisle story. Her links on the Internet have become the place to go for descendants looking for info.


Rockville, Md.: Sally, is it true you're writing a book about your father, the legendary sportswriter Dan Jenkins?

Sally Jenkins: Well I had thought of it, after I wrote a magazine piece on him a few years ago that was well received. But I think he should write his own memoirs. That's the book I'd really like to read, and one I'd like to see him write. His stories are much better than mine. I mean, wouldn't you like to read the memoirs of a guy who played golf with Hogan, was Nicklaus and Palmer's chief chronicler, as well as Jean-Claude Killy's and Joe Namath's, and who had cocktails with Bear Bryant, not to mention Sonny Jurgensen and Billy Kilmer?


Annapolis, Md.: I finished the book just last night, as it happens, and I think it's great. The first thing I took away is an appreciation for the innovative nature of Carlisle football, which generally moved football away from being a giant fistfight toward a game of genuine skill, speed, brains, and artistry. The second is the rise and fall of the Carlisle school, and the third are vivid figures like Pratt, American Horse and Ben American Horse, Exendine, and Warner. Are there other things you hope people will get out of the book?

Also, do you think you can fit the rise and decline of Carlisle into the larger picture of Indian relations and/or education?

Sally Jenkins: Hi, thanks for the fine compliment. The main thing I hope people get from the book is a sense of a crucial period in American history. Industrialization and the Victorian age is a boring topic, until you look at the fascinating details. The first great stadiums were built, and the penny press was invented to feed large new urban populations. So was penny candy -- Tootsie Rolls and Cracker Jacks were invented. Electricity was installed in the White House -- but Benjamin Harrison was so afraid of it he refused to touch the light switches.

A great writer named David Wallace Adams has written that football perfectly expressed the new American man -- "Half Boone, half Rockefeller."

That's what I hope people get, a sense of the period. And a sense that our games are indivisible from the rest of our culture. They reflect our American values and who we really are, with all our flaws.


Phoenix: Congratulations on a fine book. The story of American Horse and his children was especially poignant. Being an academic, I am curious about where you found your source materials.

Sally Jenkins: The source materials for American Horse's family were fascinating. At the end of his life he gave some interviews to a white friend name Eli Ricker, a Nebraska judge with an interest in preserving Lakota memories. The Ricker Papers were very helpful. And American Horse was a very famous figure who made lots of trips to Washington, so there was a good deal of coverage of him in places like the Washington Post. Also, the Carlisle student papers documented his visits to the school, and published translations of his speeches to the students. Lastly, Richard Henry Pratt kept all of letters and correspondence, which are now at Yale. There are some letters from Pratt to American Horse, sent via Indian agents, that were helpful. There is a lot of material on him at the Dakota Historical Society. And lastly, there was my interview with his grandson Joe American Horse (the youngest son of his youngest son) at Pine Ridge, and some material I found at the Ogalal-Lakota College there.

Everyone should go to Pine Ridge, by the way. It's a great American community, gorgeous and proud and agonized, all at the same time.


Washington, D.C.: What are your thoughts on the use of native Americans as mascots?

How do you think the public would respond if Washington's NFL team was called the "Washington Blackskins?"

Sally Jenkins: My thoughts are that it's absolutely wrong and the team should change the name. It's not like the Seminoles. It's not a tribal name, it's a slur. That simple.


Falls Church, Va.: You made your reputation by examining the academic deficiencies of Maryland athletes during the late '80s; did you examine what academic requirements were enforced on Thorpe and other Carlisle athletes? Pop Warner, their coach, was known for cutting corners on academic and recruiting standards at Carlisle, Stanford and Temple, according to the historian Murray Sperber of Indiana University.

Sally Jenkins: You may be thinking of someone else. I don't recall writing any stories on Maryland's academic deficiencies. I do recall covering Maryland basketball when Len Bias died of cocaine overdose, but I'd hate to think that made my reputation.

As for Carlisle, it was a strange, bastardized curriculum. The books explains at length it's odd status academically, it was somewhere between a trade school and a prep school. A lot of the players were actually among the best students, and a good many went on to four-year colleges. A great Carlisle quarterback named Jimmie Johnson graduated from Northwestern, Gus Welch and Albert Exendine went to on to Dickinson Law, etc.

A lot of the incoming Carlisle students had little or no previous education. So some students were literally starting from scratch, especially early on it took years just to make them fluent in English. One of the more touching things I came across in the student files was some handwritten letters by students, who had beautiful penmanship taught to them by the Carlisle lady schoolteachers, but they wrote totally broken English.


Springfield, Va.: On behalf of my family, I want to thank Sally for a story about my grandfather, Martin Wheelock, that we were unaware of, the story of the young Jim Thorpe hanging all gaga around Grandpa and his teammates. It's great to see this perspective on American football come out of the Dark Ages of prejudice and get the recognition and attention it deserves.

Martin and other Oneida (and other) tribal members played later for the town teams that preceded the Packers in Green Bay, a history recently honored in the Walk of Legends near Lambeau Field, a project sponsored by the Oneida tribe with the cooperation of the Packers.

Now if we can just get certain teams to reconsider their mascots ...

Sally Jenkins: Thank you.


Thorpe, Ike and history: I'm looking forward to reading the book, particularly after the excerpt in a recent edition of SI. As a kid I devoured any biography of Eisenhower I could find and was struck by the mythic descriptions of the Carlisle teams that he played. My memory is a little foggy on this but am I right in thinking that we owe Carlisle for the "happy" accident of his knee injury that led him to be posted in less physically demanding positions upon graduation (like teaching some of the first tank corps drivers during WWI) and thus to his ultimate position as CiC of the ETO?

Of course for me, Thorpe was my only real knowledge of Carlisle and it seems clear from what little of your work on the subject that I have read so far, that there is a great deal more to be known, enjoyed and preserved.

Sally Jenkins: The Ike knee injury is actually a legend. He was knocked out of the game after trying to tackle Thorpe, but it was actually a head injury, he got his bell rung. The knee injury came a week later, against Brown. And then he reinjured it vaulting a horse, and that was it for his career.

Ike admired Thorpe, but he hated losing that game. His comments about it, some of which I've heard on tape, had a real edge. He was a very competitive man. And it's interesting that so many of his commanders in World War II were football players. He really believed they made better battle leaders.


Mt. Vernon, Va.: Hi Sally, Haven't read the book so I apologize if it's covered in it, but what took you down this particular road, and do you see any parallels in other sports?

Sally Jenkins: What took me down the road was a sense of the importance of the story. I wanted to make Carlisle live again, and restore them to glory, really. And I wanted to write a book about the real meaning of American football, as a reflection of American character, its virtues and flaws and dynamism. Games are important reflections of who we are at various periods. If you think about it, any phase of American history could be told through the games that are important to us. The women's movement -- and Billie Jean King. The Civil Rights movement and the integration of college football and basketball. So the Carlisle story seemed an important way to talk about the emerging America of the Victorian age.

Thanks everyone.


Sally Jenkins: Thanks for all the great questions, folks. The book was a real labor of love, and I'm actually sorry it's over.


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