Sports: Football, the Indian Way

In 1879, a cavalry officer named Richard Henry Pratt founded the Carlisle Indian School, a remarkable 40-year chapter in this country's failed social policy regarding Native Americans. Pratt, who was a veteran of the Indian wars, believed that the only way to assure full American citizenship for Indians was to take the sons of tribal leaders—boys whose ancestors had fought this country in battle—and eradicate any manifestations of their native culture. Pratt's one overriding faith could be described quite simply: "Kill the Indian, Save the Man!" When four decades of forcible education ended in 1918, it wasn't entirely clear what Pratt's experiment had killed and what it had saved.

But there was one indisputably notable legacy—the Carlisle football team. In the early 20th century, the Carlisle Indians ascended to the pinnacle of the collegiate game. In those years, the small and obscure Pennsylvania school began to engage all the Ivy football powers on the gridiron. And from 1911 to 1913, which included the season in which the legendary Jim Thorpe returned from the Olympics to score 25 touchdowns, Carlisle had a 38-3 record, including a 27-6 rout of West Point. That game, played just 22 years after the last Army battle with the Sioux at Wounded Knee, not only featured Thorpe, but nine future generals—including a linebacker named Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Washington Post sportswriter Sally Jenkins has produced a fascinating and elucidating new book, "The Real All Americans: The Team That Changed a Game, a People, a Nation" (Doubleday. $24.95), that examines the Carlisle legend in wonderful detail. At the turn of the century, football was exploding on the college scene, particularly at the Ivy elites, where the sons of the gentry could prepare for the rigors of leadership on the gridiron. They preferred their football brutal—their game resembled a rugby scrum. Conversely, the Carlisle team was inexperienced—many on the team had never played before they reached college—undermanned and seriously undersized; in a 1903 game against Harvard, Carlisle's biggest player weighed in at 165 pounds.

But Carlisle was blessed with gifted athletes and a wizard of a coach, Pop Warner, who would become a football legend through later tenures at Pitt, Stanford and Temple and the namesake of today's youth leagues. Because Carlisle couldn't match the brute force of its rivals, Warner created an entirely new brand of football, relying on speed, deception and guile. "Anything went, so long as there wasn't a rule against it," writes Jenkins. "There was not an artifice, con, contrivance, dupe, trap or double cross the team didn't want to run." Or as the coach would later say: "Nothing delighted them more than to outsmart the paleface." In that 1903 Harvard game, Carlisle used the hidden ball trick to score on the second-half kickoff. While the return man pretended to cradle the ball, another player had it tucked into a pocket sewn inside the back of his jersey and ran unmolested 103 yards for a touchdown.

The press, which had patronized the Indian players in their earliest efforts, came to embrace the Carlisle show, especially when it came at the expense of the upper-crust Ivy League lads. As Carlisle's football fortunes prospered, crude stereotypes of the Indians on the sports pages gave way to a newfound respect for their creative and intelligent play. After the 1903 Harvard game, The New York World's leading sportswriter, Charles Chadwick, wrote: "The poor Indian, so often sized up as deficient in headwork, has at least earned the right to be considered as something more than a tireless, clumsy piece of football mechanism … Where outside of the columns of the Harvard Lampoon or the Yale Record would anyone hope to see such a delightful combination of football with hide and seek, such a burlesque of strategy put forth in all earnestness."

It was far more than just crude trickery. Carlisle developed new blocking techniques that compensated for its size disadvantage: the spiral throw that put the long pass, with its premium on speed, into the offense and a repertoire of fakes; reverses and misdirection that remain a central part of the game. It took brains to concoct the schemes and intelligence to execute them. These innovations did not go unrecognized. After Carlisle trounced Army in 1912, The New York Times hailed the conquerors from Carlisle for playing "the most perfect brand of football ever seen in America."

If Carlisle was a precursor of the brand of football that this country would come to embrace, it was also a precursor of unfortunate developments that have shadowed the game. The football team appeared to become more important than the school that produced it. That was a particularly sad recognition for its founder, who hoped to expound on his education ideas when he met President Theodore Roosevelt early in his first term. Instead, the president greeted him like this: "Hello, Pratt! How's football?" Even sadder, to maintain the football program at its elite level, Carlisle apparently resorted to illegal payments and subsidies that kept veteran stars in school.

Still, today this country celebrates sports like no other endeavor and football like no other sport. Jenkins does a marvelous job of making a direct and intimate connection between our beloved, modern game and the unlikely team that, a century ago, helped make it what it is today.