Jim Thorpe was the world’s “greatest living athlete” and the most famous professional football player in America 100 years ago. There’s a statue of him in the center of a Pro Football Hall of Fame’s rotunda in Canton, Ohio.
He popularized the game and the NFL during its infancy.
Thorpe became a household name after winning gold medals in the decathlon and pentathlon in the 1912 Olympic Games and on the baseball diamond for Hall of Fame coach John McGraw’s New York Giants. It was most likely Thorpe joined the Knights of Columbus during his time with the Giants since McGraw was a member of the Knights as well.
By 1915, Canton Bulldogs general manager Jack Cusack signed Thorpe for $250 a game, making Thorpe the first big-name athlete to play professional football. The move proved to be a success for Cusack and for football, as Thorpe shined on the field and was a box-office draw. The Bulldogs won three championships with Thorpe leading the way (1916, 1917, 1919).
Five years later, in 1920, the NFL found its origins as the American Professional Football Association. Thorpe was elected its president by the charter members. In total, he played 12 seasons of professional football, which included serving as a head coach for the Oorang Indians, an all Native American team.
In the NFL’s Top 100 Greatest Game-Changers, Thorpe was listed as number 24. When the NFL created their All-Time NFL Team, he was included and named “The Legend.” He was also elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s inaugural class in 1963, ten years after his death.
Thorpe is only one of many Knights of Columbus who helped influence the game. They include legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi, who led his team to two Super Bowl titles; Dave “The Ghost” Casper, a Pro Football Hall of Famer considered one of the greatest tight-ends of all time; Matt Birk, Super Bowl Champion and recipient of the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award; and Kansas City Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker who holds the record for most field goals made by a rookie.
Just like Babe Ruth in baseball, a Knight of Columbus made his mark on one of the premier American sports with his popularity and skill that helped the sport grow.
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