Thursday, October 11, 2007

Lars Anderson’s CARLISLE VS. ARMY—What Does it Tell us about the Way Things Used to Be?

Lars Anderson’s CARLISLE VS. ARMY—What Does it Tell us about the Way Things Used to Be?

By Kevin A. Stoda

I was back in the three state region—Kansas, Missouri, & Oklahoma—this past week taking care of my mother who has just gone a knee replacement surgery in Joplin, Missouri. Mom received a knee called Triathlon. The Triathlon brand for new knees would certainly have been welcome in bygone centuries. Some many people have suffered debilitating knee injuries—for example, the famous Kansan Dwight D. Eisenhower. The name Triathlon rings of championship, hard work, and overcoming pain and difficulties to gain victory.

This concept of pain, overcoming injury, and love of athleticism fit in well with the legends I was busy reading about upon my arrival in the town of Carl Junction, Missouri this very October 2007. The book I was enjoying while helping my mother out was entitled CARLISLE vs. ARMY: Jim Thorpe. Dwight Eisenhower, Pop Warner, and the Forgotten Story of Football’s Greatest Battle.

The book is by Lars Anderson is not only a form of homage to the characters recalled in its lengthy title, but it is a book that reminds American readers how far the country has evolved and changed since the days when Indians ran the plains and U.S. armies marched Indians off to reservations. It also is a reminder of how defeat can be snatched from victory and victory transformed from defeat (made into a positive gain for a nation—even after individual mistakes have ruined the day for some).

Glen “Pop” Warner, the legendary coach who wrote the book on how college football could be used to build a school’s image coached a total of 14 years at the tiny Carlisle Indian school in Pennsylvania and also rewrote permanently how the game of football would be played in the USA., is one of the three main characters in Anderson’s novel-like history book. Like me, he spent a number of years in North Texas’ Wichita Falls before becoming a football player and coach back out east where his family was from originally.

At the time he arrived to coach the Carlisle Indian School football players in the last years of the 19th century, Warner was certainly still full of the biases against which Native Americans had to confront from the day they were born. These included the belief that they were an inferior race or form of human being who could not compete with the world that the Western Europeans had built in North America.

Lars Anderson determines to remind the readers from the very beginning of his boot that almost every Indian boy or girl in America in those days knew of the disaster that had faced many native Americans in the years leading up to the Massacre at Wounded Knee in the 1890s in the Dakotas. It was, however, these very same offspring of these demoralized peoples whom Pop Warner agrees to coach—and, in fact, tries so valiantly on many occasions to make these native American youngsters recognized as the national football champions for the whole USA.

The author, Lars Anderson, and the actual protagonist of his story, the football coach “Pop” Warner, both portrayed the battle really being fought by the Carlisle football players in 1912 as a battle to balance integration within American society with Native American offsprings’ own developing desire to continue to have identities as native tribesman—which included their own centuries-old senses of tradition and destiny. The match-up in 1912 of the cadet team from West Point against the Indians of Carlisle is thus portrayed as a battle to balance the historical narrations of prior decades which indicated that Native Americans were not capable of beating “white men” at their own games (and culture).


At a personal level, “Pop” Warner, who himself had failed two decades earlier in his entrance exam to attend West Point, this match-up with Army was a chanced to have some sweet revenge. Moreover, as Warner sought a national championship once again that same 1912 season, Warner saw the game with the Indians-facing-off-against-Army as a way to demonstrate his own personal cunning in planning new ways to play football. (In that game, for example, his Indians presented the double wing offense for the first time in college football history.) That is, with the right strategies and techniques, his small group of Indian football talent--who were outweighed against by 25 pounds per—could and would prove victorious.

Anderson writes that this particular game in 1912 was not just any game, “this was the chance to prove that his [Warner’s] new style of football was superior to the power game that Army played. Warner’s players had wowed crowds all over the country with their great speed and agility and with their deception and their cunning. In this game Warner was going to use all his tricks to confuse the bigger Cadet players.

Warner, who understood what made Indian athletes tick better than any other white man in America in that era, knew exactly how to fire up his boys before the game.

He reminded them loudly just before the game that it was “the fathers and grandfathers of these very Army players who had killed their fathers and grandfathers in the Indian Wars. They were the ones who murdered innocent women and children at Wounded Knee. They were the ones who spilled Indian blood all over the plains.”[p. 278]


Anderson adds that Pop Warner ended his pre-game speech on the day of the big game with Army to his players, who represented so many different North American tribes that “[I]t was the Indian’s time to fight back. It was time to make their ancestors proud. It was time to beat the living daylights out of Army.”[p.278]

It is surprising to read such strong language from a white man, but—as noted above--no coach in the USA knew the psyche of Native American athletes better than Warner—who had recently taken two of his Carlisle athletes to win several Olympic medals in Sweden earlier that 1912 summer. These two Carlisle athletes included the “World’s Greatest Athlete” James Thorpe of Sac and Fox heritage from an Oklahoma reservations and the Hopi Indian tribesman & long-distance runner, Lewis Tewanima, from an Arizona reservation.

Before that second decade of the 20th Century was over, Thorpe would have demonstrated his skills in professional boxing, horse-riding, baseball and several other sports before helping found the predecessor league to the NFL in 1920. Already, in 1912, James Thorpe found himself recognized as the greatest athlete in the whole world after winning most of the events (and finishing lower than 4th in any) of a total of 15 (decathlon and pentathlon) events he took part in at the Olympics in Stockholm.

Naturally, Thorpe was also already well-known as possibly the best college football player in the entire nation by the start of the 1912 college football season. The many cadets and Army fans could only applaud him when the Carlisle team under the captainship of Jim Thorpe defeated their West Point team 26 to 7 that October date.

Although the emotional Oklahoman, Jim Thorpe fell far too often into the stereotype of a drunken Indian at times during his various sports careers, in that autumn of 1912, Pop Warner was often able to get Thorpe back on track that fall. He reminded Jim constantly, “You’ve got to behave yourself. You owe it to the public as well as your school. The Olympic Games have made you into a public figure and you’ve got to shoulder the responsibility.” [p. 265]

Jim, as did all of his Carlisle Indian teammates, recognized that very many Native Americans looked up to him. He regularly demonstrated an ability to reflect on his own mistakes and renewed his pride throughout that final season as the Indians finished 12 and 1 (falling only to Penn State).

However, there was a tendency for young confused Indians caught between (1) modern society and (2) historically important facets of Native American culture to wander off away from the particular disciplines required by the modern world. Many young natives ran away from Carlisle over the 3 decades of the school’s existence. Others, like Thorp, ran from all the attention of the media and the control of Pop Warner in Pennsylvania.

For nearly 2 years, Thorpe actually had gone missing or AWOL from Carlisle--in both 1909 and 1910 —turning up in Oklahoma at his sister’s home every autumn after spending time barnstorming with minor league baseball teams in the Carolinas. Eventually, a fellow Indian from his days at Carlisle—who Thorpe looked up to as a big brother--finally successfully persuaded the ever stronger young athlete to return to the discipline of the football gridiron and college life in both 1911 and 1912.

That wasn’t the case for his fellow Olympic medalist, Lewis Tewanima, though. Even as Tewanima successfully medaled in the Olympics in Sweden, he determine simply to return home to herd sheep on the Hopi lands of his ancestors in Arizona once the Autumn 1912 school year was under way.


Although as a whole, Anderson,tells a fairly sanitized version of the lives of Thorpe, Warner and Eisenhower, he is less romantic or sympathetic to the boy from Abilene, Kansas who fought on the gridiron for Army in the greatest match-up of its day. Unlike Thorpe, who lost both his twin brother and mother at an early age, Dwight Eisenhower grows up in a very full house with other Eisenhowers in the working class section of Abilene. Both his parents see him off to the day he leaves the home for the train east to join other new cadets at West Point.

Like his Oklahoman football nemesis Thorpe, “Ike”, as he is called by all, was a sometimes moody fellow who could show great determination when he so desired—and he often was very determined. Even though, Ike was not very fast or as huge as Thorpe, Eisenhower could carry quite a few tacklers or barrel them over as he charged down field.

Anderson notes that Ike grew up in a town where his neighbors would tell stories of the wild days of Abilene, Kansas—two decades earlier--when gunslingers, cattle, brothel’s and saloons ran the streets of the city. The young Eisenhowers were mesmerized with first hand accounts of what the prairie boomtown was like when Wild Bill Hickock was the sheriff of the town (when Abilene was the original end of the line or railway head for the Chisholm trail coming out of Texas).

Eisenhower was obviously more gifted academically than was the Oklahoman, Jim Thorpe, however, he had several character flaws just as Thorpe did, and these were flaws which often got him into grave trouble or fights.

Abilene legends include the hour-long fist-fight he had with a bigger and older boy when he was just 13-years old. In short, as his mother warned him often, Ike needed to learn to not let anger control his actions or thoughts. After the Army loss to Carlisle, in which Cadet Eisenhower severely injured his knee for the first time, Ike would become very depressed and do several things that almost ended his military career before it got started. For example, despite being told by doctors that he should not ride a horse, Ike not only rode a dangerous horse but jumped off the horse. This jump-off a horse on an already-bad knee effectively ended his football career in late 1912.

Thorpe had only done such a dangerous jump after being basically called slacker by the officer in charge of the horses. The pride and anger in Eisenhower was such that he felt that he had to stand up to the challenge. However, in his rage that day, Ike had ignored all the retreats of fellow cadets to back off.

The depression that followed this loss of his sporting ability almost led the young Eisenhower to leave West Point later the following spring. Later, near the end of his time at West Point the future commander of U.S. Armed Forces in Europe and later the two-term President of the USA needed to receive fudged results of his physical to be allowed to continue in the military. (The West Point doctor knew Eisenhower, his health, and character well enough. The doctor, however, ignored the army regulations and despite the weak knee allowed Ike to continue his military career in 1915.)

The fact is that Ike’s injury in the Carlisle and Army Game of the Century occurred because young Ike was out of control and trying to undertake too much. That is, he was seeking to take on the Greatest Athlete in the World in the second half of that game. On that game day, Ike was so angry and desiring so badly to win the game at all cost that he and his peers tried to hit, knock, or tackle Jim Thorpe so hard that Thorpe would have to leave the game. However, eventually it was Ike who ended up having a severe injury on the gridiron.

This is how it happened.

Ike and another football playing cadet twice intentionally tried to injure Thorpe. In the first tackle they were partially successful—leaving Thorpe looking a bit dazed after the hardest hit of the day.

However, a few minutes later when Ike and his comrade on the field once again tried the same double hit on Thorpe, Thorpe simply juked them both. Juke stopped and then shifted. This led the two Army players to hit each other so hard that they both were immediately sidelined—Eisenhower for the rest of the game—while Thorpe continued running down field.


Anderson called Eisenhower the “Huge Kansan” because Ike played like a giant and was considered the most hard-working player the Army coach had ever seen.

Unlike Thorpe, though, Ike got his life back on track a year later. Ike would never play football again but he became a greater leader after that. He volunteered in 1913 to lead Army fans in cheers. At the same time, Ike also learned to lead men as he became a coach for the junior varsity for the cadets of West Point’s Cullum Hall.

Lars Anderson, without stating so specifically in his narration, reveals that there were, in fact, a lot of similarities between Thorpe and Eisenhower. For example, they both came from large families and learned to fight and do various sports on the plains in Kansas. (Thorpe was attending Haskall Indian College in Lawrence, Kansas when he first learned to play football.) The two also both played minor league baseball before returning to their first loves: football
This fact concerning how they both major American figures of the 20th Century had had semi-professional baseball stints is where the key differences between the two men’s lives are also to be found.

The young Eisenhower cheated—as many players did in that era. Eisenhower played under the name “Wilson” while Thorpe played under his own name.

The point is Eisenhower had more adult counsel and American cultural information than Thorpe had about how to succeed in a white man’s world.

Eisenhower knew that if he wanted to play college football some day, he would have to protect his identity. Thorpe, who had grown up part of the time as either a ward for the state at Indian schools (in Oklahoma, Kansas and Pennsylvania), motherless, or simply dropping out of school before heading often out to rural Oklahoma again-and-again, never fully comprehending until after the scandal of his professional status hit the nation’s newspapers in the winter of 1912-1913 that he had done anything wrong by accepting money to play baseball (before running in the decathlon and the pentathlon at the Olympics in Europe).

In short, although Thorpe had not always demonstrated the best judgment in trying to make his own way in the world—i.e. leaving Carlisle for two years and playing baseball over the objections and the opinions of his coach, his teammates, the state, or the American cultural icons of his era. Nonetheless, Thorpe had never intended to break certain rules and bring dishonor to himself or his people while he played semi-professional baseball. He had seen it as simply a way of earning money at doing what he loved sport while trying to figure out what to do with his life in a fast changing America, which was never quite his home.

In any case, as anyone knows today (and it was already true for Pop Warner’s Carlisle sports squads) in America college athletes get paid either (a) under the table, (b) through scholarships, (c) aid from booster associations, or (d) indirectly in other ways to play sports.

This was already a very confusing fact about college sports life and boosterism at Carlisle in Thorpe’s time their under Pop Warner. For a young poor superstar Native American from the prairies to have comprehended in 1910 or 1911 that accepting any money for playing sports would bring disgrace to him, his teams, and his peoples would have taken tremendous insight.

In short, as Pop Warner would say about the American Press and politicians who closed down Carlisle Indian School less than four years after Jim Thorpe left the school, there were people in America who were out to get the Indians at every turn. The system was not set up to be fair too all.


I certainly recommend Lars Anderson’s narration. It does a good job of telling and intertwining three, four or more major histories simultaneously in one work.

There have been books, for example, about Eisenhower—as leader, general and president. There have also been many books about Thorpe and Pop Warner over the decades. However, never before has a book tried to tie together the lives of these three individuals so well.

Anderson shows how these three individuals’ lives came together on a single field on a single date in time. By placing the shadow of Wounded Knee over this narration of a football match between Army and Carlisle, Anderson does a great service to the American reading public by indicating how history needs to be told.

Good history writing must be broad enough to:

(1) Link the past with modernity.
(2) Connect dots in a way that dots have not been connected before.
(3) Fill in the blanks where previous narrators have trod but not extended their research..
(4) Introduce new sources that extend the research presented by prior good scholarship.
(5) Provide either an example of how the past fits into the future or indicate where future researchers need to go to find out more about the past

It is only on the second and fifth point that Anderson seems to occasionally falter often. For example, I have noted above that Anderson was reticent to explicitly note that Eisenhower was favored by both knowledge of culture, historical context, personality, personal connections, and race in his day. This is in contrast to Thorpe, who represented Native American peoples whom were mistreated in fact and fiction of the day. (Eisenhower’s connection were cultivated over time. He was not born into wealth and connections as some recent U.S. presidents were. Interestingly, though, Ike’s older brother Arthur once shared an apartment with Harry S. Truman in Kansas City, but such connections never led to a presidency for Eisenhower. It was his leadership that got him there.)

Many other players played semi-professional sports or baseball under assumed names throughout the 20th Cetnury, but it would be Thorpe who would have his name, reputation, and Olympic medals mistreated for decades. Moreover, it would be Jim Thorpe and Carlisle who would suffer for the success of their training and for their somewhat poor indoctrination into the sports world at the turn of the century.

By 1917, Carlisle would be closed by the U.S. government and turned over to the Army to open as a hospital for U.S. troops coming home from WWI. Meanwhile, Caucasian Warner would get a slap on the wrist by the media world and went on to get for national titles coaching for Pittsburgh State.

On the other hand, the Greatest Athlete in the World would get little respect and advice from a society which continued to try to force Indians to either assimilate, go on a reservation, or die throughout the first half of the 20th Century.

It would have been helpful if Anderson had indicated what institutions one might turn to in order to further help Native Americans make their way in a Caucasian dominated world. All of us need to donate money, time and service to help integrate and empower the many native peoples who are still marginalized in the USA. My family has donated money to Indian missions and projects for decades. I would like to do more and see more done—especially by successful Native Americans in the area of creating awareness of continuing needs in Native American communities, too.

My mom just sent a check upon her return from the hospital with her new Triathlon knee to the St. Labre Indian School in Montana. Looking on-line, I see that there is a Jim Thorpe Association in Oklahoma that helps Native American Athletes. That appears to be a great cause to support. I’ve donated to Hopi and Navaho projects through the Mennonite Central Committee and Quakers. Look around America! See what can be done and do it!

On the hand, I would certainly recommend the book by Lars Anderson on CARLISLE VS. ARMY. It is a good read and could certainly be used in ethnic studies programs and American studies programs around the world. I’m sure that Bedouins and marginalized peoples around the world have similar tales to tell. These should be encouraged, collected and published.


Anderson, Lars, CARLISLE vs. ARMY: Jim Thorpe. Dwight Eisenhower, Pop Warner, and the Forgotten Story of Football’s Greatest Battle , New York: Random House, 2007.

Jim Thorpe Association,

New Narratives in Olympic Sports,


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