Football Through Film and Other Primary Sources

This post is by Carolyn Bennett, the 2018-2019 Library of Congress Teacher in Residence.

Football tends to be on students’ minds this time of year. What can they discover about football and American history through Library of Congress primary sources? An entertaining fictional film available on the Library’s National Screening Room can lead students to discover a football legend from the early twentieth century.

Always Kickin’, a 1932 short football comedy, has as much drama, suspense, and romance as any modern football flick. Students may notice anachronisms – telephones, cameras, scoreboards, and safety equipment all looked quite different, but the film employs many timeless tropes. Ask questions to help students think and reflect: Why is an underdog hero such a compelling literary device? How is the young woman’s encyclopedic sports knowledge received by the other characters? How do Mrs. Smith’s opinions mirror current concerns about concussions and player safety?

This fictional story has deeper historical roots than may initially be evident. Jim Thorpe, a member of the Sac and Fox Nation, makes a cameo appearance. His real-life football career changed the sport. In the film, the sports editor cites Thorpe’s most famous game: On November 11, 1911, the Carlisle Indians beat the Harvard Crimson 18-15, and Jim Thorpe scored the lion’s share of Carlisle’s points. Thorpe went on to become a record-breaking Olympic decathlete and played professional football, baseball, and basketball. Read background about Jim Thorpe at America’s Library or Today in History and then introduce primary sources to help students learn more about Jim Thorpe’s career and the 1911 Harvard game.

Classroom Scene, Carlisle Indian School, Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Frances Benjamin Johnson, 1901.

Students in Dining Hall, United States Indian School, Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Frances Benjamin Johnson, 1901

Chapel Service, Carlisle Indian School, Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Frances Benjamin Johnson, 1901

The Carlisle Indians were the football team of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, the first federal, off-reservation Indian boarding school. Browse images, including the photographs featured above; what can students discover about the school? What questions do the photographs bring to mind about the students’ experiences? Select prompts or follow up activity ideas from the Teacher’s Guides and Analysis Tool to help students dig deeper into the images and other featured primary sources.

What can students discover about the game’s context through this newspaper article published on the morning of the big game?

“Carlisle Coach Sure of Beating Harvard.” Norwich bulletin. (Norwich, Conn.), 11 Nov. 1911

“Indians No Like School.” Webster City freeman. (Webster City, Hamilton County, Iowa), 08 Aug. 1911

This newspaper article describes how some Sac and Fox families reacted to off-reservation compulsory schooling in 1911. How might that reaction have affected the football players and their classmates, far from home?

What can this political cartoon show students about past and present perceptions of Native Americans in the early twentieth century, and their relationship to Carlisle football? How might the team’s classmates have felt about their success?

The American Indian Past. Present. Albert Levering, 1906

After examining the true football legend behind Always Kickin’, ask students why renowned director James Gleason might have linked his football drama with the inspiring story of Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indians. As students rapturously follow their favorite team’s current season, Always Kickin’ can remind them of the timelessness of the sport: The big games that capture our eyes; the athletes’ struggles that capture our hearts. The Carlisle Indians football team fought past adversity to find victory, well beyond the gridiron.