Jim Thorpe, the Pro Football Hall of Famer who was remembered as “probably the greatest natural athlete the world had seen” when he died in 1953, has for decades been the subject of legal wrangling over what should be done with his remains. On Friday, his two surviving sons won a ruling that will likely result in his body being moved from Pennsylvania to Oklahoma.
Thorpe is currently buried in the town that took his name: Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania. That was the wish of his third wife, who was with him when he died.
But Thorpe’s only surviving children, Bill and Richard Thorpe, are both from his second wife. And they have always argued that Thorpe should have been buried on American Indian land in Oklahoma, where he was born and raised. A federal judge’s ruling could clear the way for that to happen.
U.S. District Judge Richard Caputo said in his ruling that the law gives special consideration to “the sanctity of the Native American culture’s treatment of the remains of those of Native American ancestry.”
Playing for coach Pop Warner, Thorpe was an All-American for the Carlisle Indian School in 1911 and 1912. He became a professional football player in 1913 and was chosen in 1920 as the first president of the American Professional Football Association, which would become the National Football League. Thorpe played a total of 52 NFL games as a member of the Canton Bulldogs, Cleveland Indians, Oorang Indians, Rock Island Independents, New York Giants and Chicago Cardinals from 1920 to 1928. In 1963 he was chosen as a member of the inaugural class of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.