“We were the last ones in the line, and they had signs printed up that read: Jim Thorpe,” Bill recalled. “And we got an ovation that just wouldn't quit. It gave me chills up and down my spine and arms. It was just amazing. That gives you an example of what happens when people hear dad's name.”
A native hope
One hundred years after Thorpe paved the way for American Indians with his 1912 Olympic performance, former Oklahoman Mary Killman is one of three American Indians competing in the London Olympics.
Normally Killman, a 21-year-old born in Ada, doesn't deal with many press inquiries as a synchronized swimmer, but that changed in anticipation of the Olympics. Looking for a connection to Thorpe's centennial anniversary, Killman's Potawatomi heritage was soon identified.
“It's funny, because it used to just be a little blurb on my bio,” Killman said. “Now, it's the story.
“I'm not only representing my country, but I'm representing my sport and my heritage,” Killman said. “That's what athletes do, right? We go to work as hard as we can, and then we represent who we are.”
American Indian leaders are turning to sports to help tribal members improve their health. Their campaign revolves around Thorpe, a member of the Sac and Fox Nation.
“He is like our Michael Jordan,” said Sandra Massey, a Sac and Fox spokeswoman. “He did extraordinary things, and he always retained his heritage. I think for a kid who maybe feels like they don't have a lot of options, something like that can inspire him to do better.”
This past summer, the first Jim Thorpe Games were hosted in Oklahoma City and brought together thousands of American Indian athletes.
It didn't take long for Sam McCracken, Nike N7's general manager, to sign on as a sponsor. N7 is McCracken's self-made program, committed to bringing sport specifically to American Indians.
“Ultimately, we just want to get them active,” said McCracken, who is a member of the Sioux and Assiniboine tribes. “If something bigger and better comes from that, then that's just a bonus. Whether it's Jim Thorpe or Sam Bradford or Jacoby Ellsbury, if any of those athletes can help inspire, then we deem it a success.
“As long as you keep kids busy on the field or on the court, they ain't got time to get in trouble,” said Wildcat Jumper, who brought his under-18 softball team from the Brighton Seminole Indian Reservation in Florida.
“It gives them so many other options, instead of doing drugs or getting into trouble.”
Sometimes kids are ill-equipped to transition into adult life, getting caught up in self-destructive tendencies involving alcohol, drugs and crime.
“I don't think the kids that get in trouble have anything to look forward to. They're just bored,” said Erena Billie, a 17-year-old softball player on Jumper's Seminole softball team. “It makes a big difference if you play sports because then you have your mind set on something. You have hope.”
As the inaugural Jim Thorpe Games drew to a close, R. Kelly's song “The World's Greatest” blared over loud speakers to the campers and provided a fitting final ceremony.
I'm that little bit of hope / When my back's against the ropes / I can feel it / I'm the world's greatest
The children sang along with the final line of the chorus, and in that moment, a century removed from his greatness, Jim Thorpe still had an audience, perhaps aspiring to be like him.