The annual Native All-Star Football game played on July 9 this year was renamed in Jim Thorpe’s honor. Roughly 60 high school players from more than a dozen tribes traveled to the University of North Texas near Dallas to compete. Thorpe—one of the greatest athletes of the 20th century—was Sauk and Fox from Oklahoma. His Indian name, Wa-tho-huck, means “Bright Path,” and organizers hope the game will encourage Native youths to find their own bright paths.
Although the all-star game is entering its 10th year of existence, a new charity called Native Revision is running the event for the first time. Steve Cardwell (Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma) and his volunteers are working to make the game into a major national event, the crowing achievement of Native players’ high school careers.
Cardwell renamed the game (now called the Jim Thorpe Native All-Star Football Game) after Thorpe’s family contacted him. “Bill and Jack Thorpe said their dad had always dreamed of an organization like Native Revision,” he says. “They always wanted to do it as a non-profit to honor him, so they asked me if I would honor their dad and use his name.”
Jim Thorpe lived from 1887 to 1953. He led Carlisle Indian School to victories over Harvard and other elite universities in various collegiate sports (from football to ballroom dancing). At the 1912 Olympics in Sweden, he won gold medals in the pentathlon and decathlon. Afterward, the King of Sweden shook Thorpe’s hand and declared, “You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world.” After legendary careers in professional baseball and football, Jim Thorpe’s imposing physique adorned Wheaties cereal boxes, and he was among the first players inducted in the National Football League Hall of Fame. Former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower once played against Thorpe, and 40 years later said, “no other athlete possessed his all-around abilities.”
No role model could be more appropriate for today’s native youth, says Cardwell, who adds that the Native Revision program is dedicated to promoting athleticism among Native people. He also wants to draw attention to the exemplary modern athletes in Indian country today. “Athletics will teach discipline and hard work,” he says. “When you’re in that mode, you’re not going to want to go party and stay out late. Athletics helps us to make better choices, whatever sport you play.
“It’s a different culture today, but football’s still the same game, and so is baseball and basketball,” he says. “Technology will never change the fact that you have to work hard to be a good athlete. You still have to get up and run, lift weights and eat right.”
The all-star game is open to graduating seniors with tribal enrollment cards from any federally recognized tribe in the United States or Canada. The event began in 2002 in Lawrence, Kansas as a recruiting tool for the football team at Haskell Indian Nations University.
Cardwell and his company, Brenco Industrial Services, a green energy and construction business, started sponsoring the game in 2009, after he met Cody Wilson (Oklahoma Choctaw), a coach for the event. They were talking football, the all-star game came up, and Wilson asked if Cardwell wanted to help. “‘Absolutely!’ I told him,” Cardwell says. “I’d never heard of this game, so I wanted to go, especially if I’m writing the check. Then, my wife and I went up there and the rest is history.”
After watching a game in Pullman, Washington (at Washington State University), he says he was astounded by the caliber of talent and the dedication of the families of players who paid their own travel expenses to car-pool across the country. “It was a hard-hitting football game, they were moving the ball up and down the field, there were helmets flying, and between plays they were playing powwow music, and for a native American, it was just the most amazing thing I’d ever seen,” he recalls.
His only disappointment was the crowd—only 50 or so spectators were in the bleachers. Cardwell vowed to generate more recognition for the young athletes.
In 2010, the Native All-Stars went to Bacone College in Muskogee, Oklahoma, and Cardwell is optimistic that the game has now found a permanent home in Denton at the University of North Texas. Native Revision hopes to arrange performances by Native musicians and celebrities to help fill the stadium at future all-star games.
Players attend a week of practices before the game. Along with those two-a-days, they meet college recruiters, football scouts and Dallas-area corporations. They also receive a special tour of the Dallas Cowboys stadium. “For almost all of these kids, it will be their first time visiting a Division-I campus, staying in a dorm and getting a taste of what college life is like,” Cardwell says. “That’s why I was adamant to get this at a D-I school, to help inspire them, and the Dallas-Fort Worth area makes a fun trip for the rest of the family, too”
“What’s really cool about these kids is that they have such clear goals and initiative,” Wilson says. “Otherwise, they wouldn’t go out of their way dedicate themselves so much.” He estimates than 80-90 percent of the players will attend college, and maybe half will play college football.
Cardwell believes athleticism is fundamental to traditional Native identity. The stickball games popular with many tribes are just one historic example, though Native athleticism goes deeper than sport. “When our ancestors were living off the land, there was a lot of physical fitness involved,” Cardwell says. “A lot of us have gotten away from that. You certainly couldn’t have lived in the old days and been a weak person. There was a lot of endurance and physical fitness required to survive.”
In addition to the all-star football game, Native Revision hosted the Jim Thorpe Track Meet in June for the first time at the Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It will also host coaching clinics, sporting events and cultural programs throughout the year. It’s a non-profit organization, largely financed by Cardwell’s company, and he would like to attract donors from tribes and other Native businessmen.
He says sports played an important part in his life growing up. It taught him teamwork skills and a strong work ethic, which he applied in the oil fields of western Oklahoma at the early age of 15. He also gained self-confidence through competitive athletics, which helped him achieve entrepreneurial success in establishing Brenco Industrial Services. The company currently has offices in Texas, Arizona and Colorado and was named the American Indian Business of the Year in 2010.
He grew up in a white community in Oklahoma. Many family members struggled with substance abuse. They were poor, and as a young child, he felt like an outcast. “But in school, I found that I was much stronger and faster than a lot of the kids. And while I wasn’t accepted by the white community, when I got into a game and scored a run or touchdown, we were all on the same team.”
He says the cheering fans, and the celebratory dog-piles were fun. Then he realized that sports could provide a forum for changing people’s misconceptions about Native Americans. “We don’t live in teepees, and we’re not all drunks,” he says. “I’m very proud to be a Native American and proud of my accomplishments, and I want the kids to understand they are accepted by the game, whatever game they play.”