A cold wind blew across the West Point gridiron during a game remembered more for its celebrities than its hype as a grudge match.
On one side stood a small but determined squad of Carlisle Indian School players with a reputation for speed and deceptive game play.
Their chief weapon was Jim Thorpe, who only months before won Olympic gold in the pentathlon and decathlon at the Stockholm games and was dubbed “the world’s greatest athlete” by the king of Sweden.
Waiting across the field was a relatively unknown Army cadet who, decades later, became the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe and the 34th U.S. President. His name was Dwight David Eisenhower.
“It was a made for Hollywood thing,” said Tom Benjey of Carlisle, explaining the significance of a game that took place 100 years ago today.
“Thorpe had already made First Team All-American,” Benjey said. “It was clear he was heading for another All-American. It was obvious to all the experts Thorpe was the best player to ever step onto the field. Many still think he was the best player who ever played the game.”
A force on the road
An expert on Carlisle Indian School football, Benjey has written several books about the players. “The team was famous almost from the onset,” he said. “Initially, it was because of the novelty, but then it was because they were good. They had become a force to be reckoned with.”
Because Carlisle Barracks was an Army installation, the athletic program was not allowed to charge admission, so there was very little incentive for the Indian School to host home games.
Instead, host schools paid big money to have the Carlisle team travel to their venue because of its reputation for high quality and for being such a huge draw at away games, Benjey said. He added it was good arrangement because the host schools preferred to play home games.
Carlisle arrived on the West Point field that day undefeated. The only blemish on its 1912 record was a scoreless tie with Washington and Jefferson College in early October. Meanwhile, Army was 3-1 on its season.
In physical size and numerical strength, the Carlisle Indian School fielded a much smaller team, said Bob Wheeler, author of “Jim Thorpe: World’s Greatest Athlete.” His book is regarded as the definitive biography of Thorpe by the National Football League.
While the Army team had bigger players, plenty of depth and many substitutes to spare, Carlisle played the entire game — offense and defense — with just 12 players, including Thorpe, Wheeler said. “The size of their heart is what mattered most in the end. There were so many lessons from that game of never giving up, not getting discouraged, of doing your best.”
One advantage the Carlisle players had was they were faster and more elusive, Wheeler said. Thorpe aside, another weapon of the Indians was the crafty mind of their coach Glenn “Pop” Warner who first developed the single wing formation and its variety of offensive plays.
“Deception was part of their strength,” Benjey said. He explained how the formation moved the quarterback from behind the center to a blocking back position behind the tackle while moving the right halfback to outside the end but up close to the linemen. The other two backs stayed 5 yards behind the center.
Because the ball can be snapped to multiple players, the defense had a harder time anticipating the play, Benjey said. “They didn’t know where the ball was going to go. They had to prepare for everything.”
The other great strength of this formation was having an extra blocker in the quarterback, Benjey said. To this day, coaches acknowledge that the single wing was the most powerful formation for the running game because, by having an extra blocker, a team could put more force at the point of the attack.
The Indians bested Army for much of the first half, but didn’t score due to errant forward passes in the end zone, Benjey said. It was during this time that Thorpe made large gains moving the ball down field.
“Thorpe squirmed and wriggled through the Army line and around the ends and once clear was a demon to bring down,” The Carlisle Herald reported. “The Army tacklers, as a rule unerring in their aim, were overworked in trying to bring the elusive Thorpe to earth.”
A turning point happened in the second quarter when Carlisle fullback Stancil “Possum” Powell punched the Army quarterback Vern “Nig” Pritchard. The penalty gave Army the ball at the Indian’s 25-yard line, setting the cadets up for a touchdown. The first half ended with Army ahead 6-0.
The unnecessary roughness continued in the second half when Army right tackle and All-American Leland Devore was expelled from the game after manhandling Indian left tackle Joe Guyon. The Herald reported that, at one point, Thorpe was injured but “pluckily resumed play.” The sports legend went on to make two touchdowns and to kick three goals helping the Indians to defeat Army 27-6.
In his book about Thorpe, Wheeler debunks a popular myth that the football career of Dwight Eisenhower ended after he was injured while trying to tackle Thorpe. Wheeler recalls an interview he had with the former U.S. President in August 1967 at Gettysburg College.
“His rocking chair came to a screeching halt, he got very animated and said ‘No, no, no,” Wheeler said. “He declared ‘I was not hurt in the Carlisle game. As a matter of fact, I was enjoying the challenge that Jim Thorpe was presenting. Except for him, Carlisle would have been an easy team to beat.’”
Eisenhower told Wheeler that he and another player came up with a plan to go after Thorpe and tackle the Indian together. Instead, the wily Thorpe anticipated the move, stopped short and let Eisenhower and the other player collide.
Benjey explained that other authors have spun the 1912 game between the Carlisle team and Army as a grudge match where the Indians finally got even with the “long knives” who conquered the Old West. It is believed that Coach Warner reminded his players that many of the cadets were the descendents of Army officers responsible for the downfall of the tribes, Wheeler said.
The problem with hyping the 1912 game as a grudge match is that it was not the first time Carlisle and Army met on the West Point gridiron, Benjey said. The first time was on Nov. 11, 1905, when Maj. William Mercer, then superintendent of the Indian School, had arranged for the game by gaining permission from the War Department.
That first game drew close to 10,000 spectators including the First Sea Lord of the Royal Navy. By comparison, only 3,000 people attended the 1912 game which drew no dignitaries and hardly any media interest.
“It was not the big game of the week,” Benjey said of the 1912 match-up.