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As a Matter of Fact, We ARE Ready for Some Football

Spring practice has come and gone, minicamps, two-a-days and OTAs are done, and–mercifully–we’re finished with preseason games for the pros. College football started last weekend and the NFL starts in a few days; let the anxiety and heartburn begin!

The oldest football film in the Library’s collection is the 14 November 1903 match between Princeton and Yale in New Haven, Connecticut. It was registered as a paper print by Thomas A. Edison, Inc. on 19 November 1903 and makes for fascinating, if somewhat bewildering, viewing. To the modern eye, the game appears closer to rugby as the ball comes skittering out from a scrum of players towards a quarterback who picks it up and either hands it off or runs with it himself. You certainly won’t see any passing because that wasn’t legalized until the 1906 season.

Jim Thorpe in his football heyday. Courtesy of the Prints & Photographs Division.

One of the first college teams to employ a passing attack after the 1906 rule change was the Carlisle (Pennsylvania) Indian Industrial School, which was founded as a boarding school for Native Americans in 1879. Led by its legendary coach Glenn “Pop” Warner, the Carlisle Indians fielded an impressive football squad for several years, culminating in the 1912 national collegiate championship. The star of that team was a man widely regarded as one of the finest all-around athletes in the history of sports, Jim Thorpe.

Thorpe could do it all. He played running back on offense, was a defensive back, and handled all the kicking duties; he was especially hailed for his mastery of the now arcane art of dropkicking. He was an exceptional track-and-field performer, played baseball and lacrosse, and was even an intercollegiate ballroom dancing champion in 1912 (one suspects he would have triumphed on Dancing With the Stars). And if winning the football and ballroom dancing championships in 1912 wasn’t enough, he also won gold medals in the pentathlon and decathlon in that year’s Summer Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden. He later had successful careers in both Major League Baseball and the nascent National Football League, and was one of 17 charter inductees into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963.

Press sheet for Always Kickin’ (Educational Pictures, 1932)

Unfortunately, Thorpe’s post-athletics career was blighted by underemployment and alcohol, and he eventually died penniless in 1953 at age 64. He appeared in a few films as an extra and has a small speaking role in Knute Rockne, All American (Warner Bros., 1940), which was named to the National Film Registry in 1997. But he has a pretty significant role in the 1932 short Always Kickin’, directed by character actor James Gleason; Eugene Pallette is around for reliably comic relief. Thorpe plays himself, and provides Pallette’s nephew with a valuable lesson in the fundamentals of dropkicking. We have a 16mm copy in the J. Fred MacDonald Collection.

 

 

 

Always Kickin’ (Educational Pictures, 1932)

 

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