Throughout history, American army generals have faced bitter defeats before achieving their greatest military triumphs. General George Washington lost the Battle of Long Island before leading the colonial army over the British during the Revolutionary War. General Douglas McArthur was commander of military forces on the Philippine Islands when the chain fell to the Japanese army in 1942. Three years later he fulfilled his “I shall return” promise and the invaders were expelled, changing the momentum of the war in the Pacific. General Dwight Eisenhower also faced a devastating loss before leading one of the greatest military operations of all time, the D-Day invasion of Europe. Unlike Washington and McArthur, this setback did not occur on the battlefields of a war but rather on a football field in West Point, New York, nearly 100 years ago.
At the end of the 19th century, expansion in the United States was creating tension across the states of the Dakotas and Wyoming. The ideology of Manifest Destiny, which implied that the United States had the God-given right to expand from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific, was driving out Native Americans from their tradition lands. The plains tribes, in particular the Sioux, tried to defend their territories and the federal government charged the United States Army to deal with the Indians by any means necessary to ensure the protection of industry and settlers. On December 29, 1890, the conflict came to a boiling point in what became known as the massacre at Wounded Knee. The 7th Calvary was ordered to the Lakota Indian Reservation to remove all weapons from the tribe. In a heated negotiation, a nervous soldier fired his weapon and chaos ensued. The soldiers responded with overwhelming force, including the use of Hotchkiss canons fired from a ridge above the reservation. Before the day was over, an estimated 180 Lakota men, women, and children lay dead on the frozen ground.
There were many, including some in the federal government, who felt that the “Indian problem” needed to be dealt with by the complete eradication of the tribes. The Indian was nothing more than an uneducated, non- Christian, inferior human being who was standing in the way of the nation’s progress. Another proposed solution was to establish Indian schools as a means to indoctrinate Native Americans into Anglo culture by giving them a basic education and teaching them vocational skills that they could use to earn a living by working for the white man.
The Carlisle Indian Industrial School was started in 1879 in Pennsylvania by Army captain Henry Pratt. Pratt believed in “assimilation through total immersion” and the first order of business for Native Americans once they entered Carlisle was to be stripped of their heritage. Young boys had their hair cut, their buckskins exchanged for military uniforms, and were forbidden to speak their native language or practice their spiritual beliefs. Pratt professed that the goal of Carlisle was to “kill the Indian and save the man.” The success of Pratt’s experiment was marginal, as several students ran away, turned to alcohol, or committed suicide because of the restricted way of life they were forced to live. The only respite from this miserable existence was in the white man’s recreational games they learned to play on the fields of Carlisle. It was here that the Native American boys regained some of their freedom by playing baseball, basketball, and the relatively new sport that was popular on the eastern seaboard, football.
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Football at the turn of the 19th century was a brutal game played mostly by the Ivy League universities. Harvard, Yale, and Cornell were the top teams of the era in which the game was not much more than a glorified and violent scrum. Colleges loaded their teams with the biggest, strongest, and meanest people that they could find. The offensive strategy was simple. Go straight ahead, knock down anything that was in front of you, and push your player with the ball across the goal line. It was power football and its popularity was that it appealed to man’s primal instincts. It was common in games to have several fights, broken bones, severe head injuries, and an occasional death.
Pop Warner, the most innovative football mind of the time, was hired to coach the Carlisle team in 1899. Warner was revolutionizing the game of football by introducing new formations such as the single wing, encouraging the forward pass, and using deception by running counters and reverses. He became intrigued by the Native American players after watching his mighty Cornell team barely defeat Carlisle in an 1898 contest. Warner was fascinated with their athleticism and how the smaller Native American players played a faster game than the traditional powers. They had speed, agility, and a tenacity that enabled them to compete with much larger teams on their schedule.
At the same time that Warner was building Carlisle into a contender, the United States Military Academy at West Point became enchanted with football. It was natural at West Point, the training ground for future military officers, to embrace the competitive and strategic nature of the game. The football field became another battleground for the Army to claim victory and soon the Cadets were in the upper echelon of college football.
In 1912, both teams were at the height of their football prowess and were led by two players that epitomized their respective programs. Carlisle’s Jim Thorpe, the Oklahoma Sac and Fox fresh from winning the pentathlon and decathlon at the Olympics in Sweden, was the best runner, kicker, and passer on the field. His only weakness was that his level of effort didn’t match his talent. Warner was often frustrated by Thorpe’s lack of motivation.
The antithesis of Thorpe was Army’s Eisenhower. “Ike” came to West Point a scrawny but scrappy farm boy from Abilene, Kansas. His passion was football and he trained relentlessly to be the best player he could be. Not the fastest or the biggest on his team, Ike’s tenacity made him the team’s best runner and hardest hitting tackler. His effort and dedication endeared him to his coaches.
On November 9, a titanic collision of football powers occurred as Carlisle met Army at West Point. It was the most anticipated game of the season with national championship implications. Carlisle—the only blemish on its record a single tie—boasted the best offense in the nation. Army had only lost once and claimed the best defense. The contrasting styles of play also added to the intrigue. The Cadets still played traditional power football with larger players while Warner had his “dream team” of athletic players with which he built his game plan around speed and deception. Adding fuel to the fire was the massacre at Wounded Knee, still fresh in the minds of both sides, a point that Warner referenced in his pre-game speech to motivate his team.
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The Cadets were also not lacking motivation, as they were envious of the headlines that Carlisle’s circus style of football was generating. Ike was obsessed by the fact that he would compete against Thorpe. Winning wasn’t enough: Ike wanted to create his legacy at West Point by hitting Thorpe so hard that it would knock him out of the game. The game became a battle within a battle as the over- achiever was looking to outshine the world’s greatest athlete on the game’s biggest stage.
Tensions were high on both sides from the opening kick. A first-half fight led to the ejection of players from each team. Army used its power running game to score first. Carlisle confused the Cadets with a new formation, the double wing, and took a 7-6 lead at halftime in a physical game. Ike managed a salvo of hard tackles on Thorpe—including one that dazed the Olympic champ—but the star never missed a play. At halftime, Ike was still driven to take Thorpe out of the game. He and a teammate planned that the next time they had the opportunity they were going and use a high-low tackle on the Indian. The move would prove to be a tactical blunder by the future General Eisenhower.
In the second half, Ike finally had his chance for the hit he had been planning. Thorpe broke through the middle of the line at full speed. His defining moment in hand, Ike lined him up in his cross-hairs. Ike aimed high while teammate Leland Hobbs went low. They launched their bodies at Thorpe with all they had. Anticipating the tackle, the athletic Thorpe instantaneously stopped his momentum causing the two tacklers to fly by. Ike and Hobbs crashed into one another and lay semi-conscious on the cold, hard field. Undaunted, Thorpe gained 10 more yards before being pushed out of bounds. Hobbs would need a stretcher to take him off the field, dazed and confused. Ike struggled to stand and required assistance to reach the sidelines. His knee was completely destroyed by the collision, effectively ending his day, his playing career, and his chance for football immortality.
Carlisle and its deceptive double-wing formation ran roughshod after that, confusing the Cadets and claiming a decisive 27–6 victory.
The players knew that they had not only won a football game but also a triumph for all Native Americans. They proved they were not inferior to the white man by beating him at his own game.
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The celebration was short lived. The following week, with the National Championship at stake, Carlisle fell to Penn. Pop Warner would eventually leave the schoolafter the 1914 season and the football program would never be the same. The Carlisle Indian Industrial School would be closed down in 1918 by the War Department. The government believed that it was more important to use the campus to house the World War I wounded than continue the education of Native Americans.
Thorpe never returned to athletic greatness. He was stripped of his gold medals when it was found out that he had played minor league baseball prior to the Olympics. After Carlisle, he had limited success in Major League Baseball and the upstart National Football League. When he retired from athletics, Thorpe bounced from job to job, including acting, where he was often cast as an Indian chief. Thorpe died at age 64 of a heart attack.
Eisenhower struggled to get over the Carlisle outcome. A bout of depression made him consider leaving the Army and returning to Kansas to become a farmer. He held himself personally responsible for the loss. Ike knew that he had committed the cardinal sin that many players do when playing in a big game. His ego and obsession with knocking out Thorpe caused him to play out of his realm as a player.
Although he did not create his defining moment on the football field, Ike may have applied a lesson from the epic game that would aid him in his greatest military victory 32 years later. With Hitler’s mighty German army entrenched in northern France, anticipating an Allied invasion force, General Eisenhower stole a play from Pop Warner’s playbook. On June 6, 1944 he used deception and speed to land his troops further south on the beaches in Normandy catching the Germans by complete surprise. Ike had his D-Day victory and cemented his legacy as one of this nation’s greatest generals.
Originally published in This Land Vol. 3, Issue 20. Oct. 15, 2012.