Who’s the greatest athlete of all time? At one time or another, we’ve all entered this debate, probably touting Michael Jordan or Babe Ruth. Maybe you suggested Jack Nicklaus, if you’re a less-than-exciting grandpa. But the truth is, one often-forgotten Adonis beats out all the other greats.
He rose out of complete obscurity to achieve athletic fame, with his career spanning decades and multiple sports. While this champion seemed immortal, his legacy took a strange and unfortunate fate years later. One tribute to the athlete is still shrouded in controversy.
Any visitors to the town of Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, will undoubtedly notice a shrine dedicated to an athlete of the same name. In fact, his tomb is right near the site. Many sports fans assume that Jim Thorpe was born there, but that’s far from the truth.
Los Angeles Times / David Zucchino
Jim Thorpe never even set foot in the Pennsylvania community. So how did he come to be buried there? That saga is a complicated one, and it begins on the Sac and Fox reservation in Oklahoma.
Born Jacobus Franciscus Thorpe, his childhood on the Native American reservation was never easy. Jim frequently tried to run away and was greatly depressed by the deaths of his mother and twin brother.
The Washington Post
There seemed to be little future for him in Oklahoma, but Jim had certain qualities that convinced him he was destined for greatness. His athletic prowess making him a god among men, Jim saw an opportunity to rise from his station in life.
Jim shipped up north to Pennsylvania, where he enrolled in the prestigious Carlisle Industrial Indian School. He wasted no time showing off his physical ability, as on his first day there, he confidently strode over to the track in street clothes.
Without even the proper gear — or a formal invitation — he approached the high jump bar and effortlessly cleared 5 feet, 9 inches. Jim’s try-out for the track and field team ended there. But he puzzled coaches when he suggested trying another sport.
What Jim really wanted to play was football. And he immediately showed his worth in practice by seamlessly switching between the halfback, defensive back, kicker, and punter positions. Nobody at Carlisle was surprised when Jim Thorpe was named an All-American — twice.
A pro career likely awaited Jim after graduation, but in 1912, he poured all his energy into training for the Olympics. The Stockholm games that year introduced the multi-event pentathlon and decathlon, which was perfect for Carlisle’s Swiss Army Knife of an athlete.
The unknown won the pentathlon with ease, though many bigger-name European competitors didn’t take kindly to Jim’s victory. Hours before the decathlon, he found his running shoes mysteriously vanished. He had no choice but to pull two mismatched shoes out of the garbage.
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Even in the face of such adversity, Thorpe came out on top. Not only did he win gold, but he also set an Olympic record that would stand for decades. Spectators could barely process what they just witnessed, but one monumental figure summed it up quite nicely.
King Gustav V of Sweden, as he placed the medal around Jim’s neck, declared, “You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world.” Jim, too cool to get caught up in the fanfare of the moment, replied, “Thanks, King.”
Jim’s subsequent professional career was the stuff of legend. Before his retirement at age 41, he played pro baseball, basketball, and football. At a time when the U.S. preferred to keep Native Americans out of the spotlight, Thorpe was a universally beloved champion.
Sadly, Jim’s post-athletic life was less than triumphant. Money issues, family troubles, and alcoholism proved to be bars that even he couldn’t leap over. After a period of poor health, the entire world mourned when he passed in 1953.
The large Thorpe family and a mass of fans came together in Shawnee, Oklahoma, to celebrate Jim’s life. They raised funds for a large memorial, and his Sac and Fox countrymen began their traditional burial ceremony. But they never got the chance to finish.
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Without warning, a police squadron arrived on the scene. They seemed to be taking orders from Jim’s third wife, Patsy. Shoving aside angry mourners, the authorities picked up the great athlete’s remains and drove them away.
Apparently, Patsy made a deal like no other. She decided that she should be compensated for the loss of her heroic husband and effectively auctioned off the burial rights to his body. Oklahoma fought to keep him, but one northern town was determined to get Jim Thorpe.
Near Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains, the tiny boroughs of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk were preparing to merge into a single town. Besides needing a new name, these communities needed a way to provide for their families.
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Mauch Chunk had long been a mining town, but that industry dried up by the 1950s. If they restyled themselves as a tribute to America’s greatest athlete, however, maybe they could become a tourist hotspot. The local government paid Patsy an undisclosed sum.
With that shady deal in place, the Olympian’s body was paid for, and the town officially became Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania. His remains still lie there today, though not without controversy. Since 2011, the Thorpe family has filed lawsuits attempting to win back their patriarch’s body.
But each suit has fizzled on its way to the higher courts. The Pennsylvania town has no qualms about keeping their mascot either. “We lived up to our end of the bargain,’’ explained mayor Michael Sofranko. ‘‘That’s about as American as you can get.”
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Even if the final resting place of Jim Thorpe is never fully settled, nobody can dispute his golden legacy. The Native American champion opened up doors for athletes of all colors. Baseball’s bravest hero certainly looked up to him.
Born in Cairo, Georgia, as the youngest of five siblings, Jack Roosevelt Robinson didn’t have much in the way of opportunity growing up. His parents were poor sharecroppers, and after moving to Pasadena, California, in 1920, he joined a street gang.
Jackie Robinson Foundation
But Jackie’s family — especially his brother, future Olympic silver medalist Mack Robinson — didn’t want to see him go down the wrong path. Seeing his younger sibling’s immense physical gifts, Mack encouraged Jackie to pursue his interest in sports.
Jackie shined as an athlete at John Muir High School, excelling at basketball, football, track, and, of course, baseball. He even played tennis, winning the Pacific Coast Negro Tennis Tournament in 1936.
His athletic dominance continued into junior college and his time at UCLA, as he won the 1940 NCAA championship in the long jump while also earning varsity letters in basketball, football, and baseball. He never finished college, instead choosing to pursue a career in pro football.
Jackie Robinson Foundation
But all that changed in 1942 when Jackie was drafted into the U.S. Army following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Jackie was commissioned as a second lieutenant following OCS training, though his military career soon hit a snag.
While riding an army-commissioned, nonsegregated bus, Jackie was told to sit in the back by the driver. He refused, leading to his arrest by military police and a subsequent recommendation for a court-martial.
Baseball Hall of Fame
Despite a slew of fabricated charges against the 25-year-old, Jackie was ultimately acquitted by an all-white panel. He received an honorable discharge in November 1944 and saw no combat, though Jackie wouldn’t soon forget the racially charged treatment he’d received.
After taking a job as the athletic director at Sam Huston College in Austin, Texas, Jackie received an offer to play in the Negro baseball league. He accepted, though the disorganization of the league and its grueling travel schedule soon left him wanting more.
That chance came on November 1, 1945, when Brooklyn Dodgers owner and general manager Branch Rickey signed Jackie to the team’s International League farm club, the Montreal Royals. The move marked an enormous victory for athletes of color, though the goodwill wouldn’t last long.
Jackie’s time in the minors was met with open hostility and racism, with some ballparks even forbidding him from playing. Still, Jackie’s star power was undeniable, and by season’s end, he’d captured the International League’s Most Valuable Player award.
On April 15, 1947, Jackie made history by becoming the first player since 1884 to break professional baseball’s color barrier. Though he failed to record a base hit, it was clear that the 28-year-old Georgia native had changed the sport forever.
Baseball Hall of Fame
Racism from fans and players alike continued to plague Jackie throughout his early career, though instead of fighting hate with hate, he let his bat do the talking. He established himself as a premiere hitter and base runner.
As Jackie’s prowess on the baseball field grew, so too did his fame outside of it. The Dodgers second baseman could be found on everything from baseball cards to cereal boxes, and children flocked to see him almost everywhere he went.
The early ’50s saw Jackie lead his Dodgers to several World Series appearances, though each time they came up just short to the New York Yankees. It wasn’t until 1955 — Jackie’s worst season statistically — that the Dodgers took home the title.
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Jackie retired shortly after the 1956 season following a proposed trade to the New York Giants. See, the 37-year-old had already agreed to become vice president of personnel for Chuck full O’Nuts, making him the first black person to serve as VP of a major corporation.
In 1962, Jackie became eligible for induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame, though he encouraged voters to consider him on the merits of his play rather than his cultural impact. He was elected on the first ballot, making him the first black player in Cooperstown.
Baseball Hall of Fame
Baseball remained a major part of Jackie’s life. He became an analyst for ABC’s Major League Baseball Game of the Week telecasts in 1965 — the first black person to do so. He also briefly served as a commentator for the Montreal Expos.
Jackie remained heavily involved in community outreach in his post-baseball life. He served on the board of the NAACP, founded the Freedom National Bank in Harlem in 1964, and established the Jackie Robinson Construction Company in 1970 to build housing for low-income families.
Sadly, Robinson wouldn’t get to enjoy his retirement for long. The combined effects of heart disease and diabetes deteriorated his body and made him nearly blind by middle age, and on October 24, 1972, Jackie died of a heart attack at age 53.
Gardens of Stone
On April 15, 1997, Jackie’s jersey number, 42, was retired across MLB, and every year since 2004, April 15 has served as Jackie Robinson Day for all players, fans, and personnel — a testament to a hero both on and off the field.
Many athletes today continue to honor Jackie’s legacy through their work. With the help of his LeBron James Family Foundation, the basketball legend has donated millions toward improving living and education standards for the people of Akron, Ohio — his hometown.
But what is perhaps James’ most significant act of giving is the creation of his I Promise School. After learning of Akron’s high school dropout rate, James created the IPS to provide a stable education for at-risk children.
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2. Serena Williams: Like James, Williams has provided hundreds of thousands of dollars in youth scholarships, but she’s even worked to build schools in underprivileged nations like Jamaica and Kenya.
Not only that, but Williams is also active in violence prevention. Her Serena Williams Fund is dedicated to assisting families and communities affected by senseless violence.
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3. J.J. Watt: While he’s definitely not the type of guy you’d want to cross on the football field, as president and founder of the Justin J. Watt Foundation, the football star has raised over $1 million toward helping children get involved in athletics within a safe environment.
Watt’s giving doesn’t stop there, as in 2017, he was a major part of Houston’s Hurricane Harvey recovery effort. Through crowdfunding and his own personal donations, Watt raised almost $40 million for the city and was subsequently named the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year.
4. Maria Sharapova: Tennis and charity seem to go hand in hand, as, like Williams, Sharapova is also actively engaged in helping those in need. Through her Maria Sharapova Foundation, the legendary Russian tennis player has donated over $500k to communities affected by the Chernobyl disaster.
Sharapova is also heavily involved in global disaster recovery and tragedy relief efforts as well. The tennis star donated $50k to those affected by the Beslan school hostage crisis in 2004 and even aided fellow competitor Monica Puig in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria.
5. Russell Wilson: The star quarterback holds dozens of charity events in and around Seattle, and in 2016, his Wilson’s Why Not You Foundation raised $1.06 million for the Seattle Children’s Hospital’s Strong Against Cancer initiative.
While Wilson’s charitable contributions are no doubt impressive, the personal relationships he’s forged through his philanthropy are just as valuable. When he isn’t training or prepping for game day, Wilson makes weekly visits to Seattle Children’s to spend time with sick fans.
6. Kristi Yamaguchi: A shift from figure skating to charity work may not seem like a natural transition, but the 1992 Olympic champion has taken to her new passion in stride. Yamaguchi works to provide literacy programs to underserved children nationwide.
Yamaguchi has also expanded into the world of fashion through her active lifestyle brand, Tsuya. The clothing line is designed to empower women to look and feel their best, and a portion of the proceeds from Tsuya sales are donated to her youth literacy efforts.
7. John Cena: The WWE legend is one of the most charitable athletes out there, having granted the most wishes for the Make-A-Wish Foundation with 500… and counting!
Even in the ring, Cena has been an ambassador for numerous charities. From late 2011 to early 2012, Cena sported a “Rise Above Hate” shirt to promote the “Be a Star” anti-bullying campaign, and during his October appearances, he wore pink in support of Susan G. Komen for the Cure.
8. Mia Hamm: For a woman that’s done it all both in and out of the sports world, Mia Hamm’s charitable pursuits are no less impressive. As the founder of the Mia Hamm Foundation, the soccer legend strives to empower and create athletic opportunities for young women.
Mia Hamm Foundation
Since her brother’s death from aplastic anemia in 1997, Hamm has also been an advocate for the demand for bone marrow and cord blood transplants in the U.S. Through her foundation, Hamm encourages enrollment in the national bone marrow registry.
9. Eli Manning: He’s won two Super Bowls and raised millions for causes like the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Operation Smile, and the Wounded Warrior Project. Surprisingly, however, the future Hall of Famer’s mission of giving extends far beyond the borders of New York and New Jersey.
In 2007, Manning donated $2.5 million to the Blair E. Batson Hospital for Children in Jackson, Mississippi to create The Eli Manning Children’s Clinics. The quarterback is also heavily involved in his hometown of New Orleans, having assisted in the delivery of 30,000 pounds of relief supplies following Hurricane Katrina.
10. Colin Kaepernick: There’s no denying the good that Kaepernick has done since taking a stand against injustice in 2016. The former NFL star pledged to donate $1 million to “organizations working in oppressed communities” and has since encouraged other celebrities to do the same.
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Kaepernick’s philanthropic efforts haven’t gone unnoticed, and since 2016 he has received numerous accolades. In 2017, Kaepernick was named GQ‘s “Citizen of the Year” and honored with Sports Illustrated‘s Muhammad Ali Legacy Award. In 2018, he was given the Ambassador of Conscience Award and the W.E.B. Du Bois Medal.