Football Writers Association of America 2002 BEST WRITING CONTEST
COLUMN | ENTERPRISE | FEATURE | GAME | LOOSE DEADLINE

FIRST PLACE: ENTERPRISE
John Canzano, Fresno Bee/San Jose Mercury News

BOULDER, Colo. One by one, they remove their football helmets, wrinkle the acne-sprinkled skin on their foreheads, and try to remember who in the world Jim Thorpe is or was. A few insist they read his name somewhere in a book once. Others look to teammates for help. Some of them figure, that since we're standing on a college football field, Jim Thorpe must have been a football player.

And some of them just guess. "I'm not sure, but I think he's a senior tour golfer," Fresno State long-snapper Kevin Murphy says Saturday.

The Jim Thorpe Classic kicks off today. It's a college football game between Colorado and Fresno State in which the talk has been focused on offenses, defenses, coaches and quarterbacks. A fair share of it should have been on Thorpe.

"Our minds are wrapped up in football," Fresno State coach Pat Hill says. "Jim Thorpe hasn't crossed my radar, but I guess it should have."

Thorpe is a lot of things ex-Olympian, football great, baseball legend, hero to fellow American Indians, the greatest athlete of his time. But make no mistake, he is not anywhere near the focus of the football game that bears his name. And that seems silly.

John Canzano
Fresno Bee, San Jose Mercury News
Age: 31
College: Cal State-Chico
Background: Canzano is the NFL and Major League Baseball columnist at the San Jose Mercury News. He wrote this winning enterprise story while at the Fresno Bee, where he worked as a columnist from 1999 to 2002. Previously he covered Notre Dame football and Indiana University basketball for the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel during the 1998-99 seasons.

There is no banquet-style dinner for the participating teams in which guest speakers will talk about the victories and injustices that surrounded Thorpe in life and death. There is no history lesson in which it's pointed out that Thorpe won gold medals in the pentathlon and heptathlon in the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, was stripped of the medals after a dispute about his amateur status, and after a 70-year battle, the medals were returned to his family.

There are, however, complimentary nylon book bags for the players with a Jim Thorpe Classic logo stitched on one side.

"They're nice bags," says Jim Omps, one of the event organizers.

It's called "swag." And it falls short of helping make this football game about anything other than a $600,000 television payday for two college football teams. Especially at a time in which Thorpe's family is entrenched in another fight for his memory.

"We want dad buried where he wanted to be buried," says Jack Thorpe, 64, the youngest of Thorpe's five remaining children. "We want his remains brought home."

Jack Thorpe is in Boulder because he's been asked to participate in the football game's pregame coin toss. He understands that the captains from both teams will be more interested in heads or tails than the last name of the man flipping the coin or even what his father stood for.

Jack also knows that, if he approaches Fresno State offensive lineman Rodney Michael and asks him who Jim Thorpe is, Michael is likely to say he's not sure. "I don't have cable television," Michael says.

Jack Thorpe is at peace with this.

"You choose your battles," he says.

Jack knows this better than most. Right now, he and other siblings want their father's remains returned to Oklahoma for a proper American Indian burial in a cemetery in his hometown of Prague. Officials of Jim Thorpe, Pa., the tiny town that adopted Thorpe's name, erected a memorial in his honor and built a tourism industry around it, are promising a war.

"They want us to relinquish this man voluntarily that's not going to happen," Jack Kmetz, president of the Jim Thorpe Hall of Fame says. "If Jack and his family wants to fly in here and ask that question, they're just wasting their airfare."

Jim Thorpe was an Olympian. He was a multi-sport star some 75 years before Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders made it fashionable. He played college football for Carlisle Indian School, where he reportedly steamrolled future President Dwight Eisenhower on a running play in a game against West Point.

"According to our newspaper records at the school, somebody yelled at Ike to 'Get that Indian!' and Jim Thorpe promptly ran him over," says Darren Geimausaddle, of Haskell Indian University. "People still talk about it to this day."

After college, Thorpe played outfield for the New York Giants, Cincinnati Reds and Boston Braves from 1913- 1919. He played professional football for Canton, Ohio; Cleveland; the Oorang Indians of Marion, Ohio; Toledo, Ohio; Rock Island, Ill.; the New York Giants and the Chicago Cardinals, making his final appearance in 1929. In 1950, Thorpe was voted the best athlete of the 20th century in an Associated Press poll.

After Jim Thorpe's death from a heart attack in 1953, Patricia Thorpe, Jim's widow and third wife, struck a deal that resulted in his remains ending up in a tiny Pennsylvania town, even though her husband had never set foot in it during his lifetime.

Thorpe's body was supposed to be buried in Oklahoma, where he was born in a single-room cabin in 1887, but things changed when that state's governor, Johnston Murray, vetoed legislation that would have financed a $25,000 Thorpe memorial in his home state.

Instead, Patricia took his remains to Pennsylvania, where two small towns on the Lehigh River Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk agreed to merge, become Jim Thorpe, Pa., and raise a granite memorial in his honor.

Jack Thorpe says he and his siblings were never consulted. He has asked that the city return his father's remains.

"It's a great honor to have a town named after your father," he says. "We want them to succeed, but they don't need my father's bones to do it."

Citizens of Jim Thorpe, Pa. disagree. They argue that having Jim Thorpe's remains as a tourist attraction has turned a pair of dying coal-mining towns into a small city that is a popular bed-and-breakfast spot, complete with antique shopping malls.

"They just don't understand [American Indian] culture," says Jack Thorpe, a former Sac and Fox chief who is director of housing for the Kickapoo tribe based in McCloud, Okla. "There's a proper way to honor people and put them to rest. You come from the ground and you return to the ground. Dad never had his tribal rites."

The Thorpes have received no word since asking for their father's remains in January. They are working with an attorney and say they're ready to go to battle. But, now, that battle seems to have even divided the family. "It has caused problems between us at times," says Grace Thorpe, 79, the youngest of Jim Thorpe's daughters.

"We don't talk as openly as we used to with each other. I think it would cause too much trouble to move the body now. I think they've been good to his memory. And I think the city of Jim Thorpe, Pa. has a legal right to keep my father there."

Grace feels so strongly about it, she says she is prepared to testify on behalf of the city of Jim Thorpe.

"Oklahoma already had its chance," she says. "And I don't think tribal rites are reason enough to move him. As a family we're divided on that."

This is a family that fought for seven decades to have the medals returned and Jim Thorpe's Olympic records restored. Those symbols of his accomplishments had been taken away after it was learned, shortly following the 1912 Games, he'd accepted $15 a week to play professional baseball in the Eastern Carolina League in 1909 and 1910.

And it's the family who helped put together the Jim Thorpe Classic, which will provide scholarships for American Indian students across the nation.

"We can talk about book bags and football games, but scholarships are really what this game is about," Jim Omps says. "We'll be awarding various scholarships to American Indian students from the University of Colorado during halftime. And that doesn't happen without a game like this to fund it."

Only one of the 15 Fresno State players asked knew much about Jim Thorpe. One Bulldogs player thought Thorpe played for Colorado. One thought he was a great NFL linebacker from the 1960s. One said he'd never even heard of anyone named Jim Thorpe.

It's a sad testimonial, but the ratios and responses probably wouldn't differ much if you polled any team of young athletes.

"I know he played a lot of sports and that he was an American Indian," Bulldogs quarterback David Carr says. "It's the Jim Thorpe Classic, he must have been great."

Comment from the judge, Gene Duffey: A well written, well researched, interesting angle on what most people view as just another game.

Second place: Jon Solomon, Anderson Independent-Mail
Third place: Steve Ellis, Tallahassee Democrat
Honorable mention: Vaughn McClure, South Bend Tribune; Adam Thompson, Denver Post; Ed Graney and Mark Zeigler, San Diego Union Tribune; and Joe Schad, Orlando Sentinel