Gridiron Guts: The Story of Football's Carlisle Indians At the turn of the 20th century, the little-known Carlisle Indian Industrial School was a gridiron powerhouse. As author Sally Jenkins recounts in a new book, many of football's tricks were born at the experimental boarding school for Native Americans.
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Gridiron Guts: The Story of Football's Carlisle Indians

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Gridiron Guts: The Story of Football's Carlisle Indians

Gridiron Guts: The Story of Football's Carlisle Indians

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"The Real All Americans" is the new book by Sallie Jenkins that inhabits far-flung territory and meld seemingly disparate themes - the destruction of the Plains' Indian culture and the invention of modern football. It travels from the Indian Wars of the Great Plains to the gridirons of the Ivy League at end of the 19th century.

It documents of the government's attempt to destroy native Indian culture while educating Indian children. And it includes bigger than life characters like Jim Thorpe, Pop Warner and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Sallie Jenkins joins us from the studios of KERA in Dallas to talk about it.

Welcome to the program, Sallie.

Ms. SALLIE JENKINS (Author, "The Real All Americans: The Team that Changed a Game, a People, a Nation"): Thank you for having me.

YDSTIE: Now, the man who brings all these themes and people together is an Army officer named Richard Henry Pratt, who's a veteran of the Civil War and the Indian Wars. And he founded the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. Tell us about this complicated and extraordinary man and where this story all begins.

Ms. JENKINS: He's as tough as boots, cavalry officer who've fought in some of the bitter Civil War fighting and some of the most bitter Indian War fighting in Oklahoma Indian territory. But he also was an abolitionist and a humanitarian and a well-intentioned man.

His slogan was Kill the Indian, Save the Man. He wanted to civilize these kids that he brought back to Pennsylvania and fit them for American citizenship. But, of course, the ultimate question is what he killed and what he saved. His legacy is very mixed, and he's the tough character to write about and to deal with. I ended up liking him for his faults.

YDSTIE: Yeah. The heart of this book is about this football fever sweeping the country in the late 1800s. And Pratt is initially leery of bringing organized football to Carlisle, but he finally relents. Tell us why.

Ms. JENKINS: Well, Pratt was sick to death of "Buffalo Bill's Wild West" show. He hated what he called, quote, "show Indians." He was trying to demonstrate to American audiences that American Indians could become literate members of local communities that they would work, and he felt like the "Buffalo Bill Wild West" shows was really setting back his cause.

He disapproved of football. A lot of people disapproved the football in the 1890 because it was a very violent game. There were deaths on the field. It was associated with a lot of vice. But Pratt also understood that if these kids could schedule Harvard, Princeton and Yale and maybe managed to beat them, it might do more than anything to persuade people that American Indians were deserving of a hand up and deserving of a place in the American community.

YDSTIE: As you said, football at that time was extremely violent and populated by very large, often very mean, players. And that presented a real problem for the Indians at Carlisle because the players tended to be small.

Ms. JENKINS: Well, their average size was about somewhere between 140, 150 pounds. A lot of them were undersized, underfed, starving, about half starving. Pop Warner, the coach of the Carlisle Indian School for many years, when he first arrived there and took a look at the squad, he said to Pratt, you know, these kids don't belong on a football team. They belong in hospital beds. And Pratt said don't worry. They are thin from a summer of working on the farms but they'll fatten up and you'll see that they are really going to be pretty good players - and they were.

YDSTIE: And Pop Warner was himself a kind of a risk-taking, bigger-than-life sportsman. And he pushed the envelope of football - changed it, really, with these smaller, quicker players.

Ms. JENKINS: The game was continually evolving. American boys were making it up as they went along. And so were people like Pop Warner, who was a bit of a rogue, he was a social climber from upstate New York who went to Cornell, probably wished he had gone to Harvard or Princeton or Yale, had spent some time in Texas. He was a card player. He was a gambler. His ambitions met the ambitions of these Carlisle kids head on. And together, they collaborated on what really became the modern game.

YDSTIE: And the Ivy League played this power brand of football just straight ahead, run over them, wedge, plays where people would lock arms and run right to a line and these guys just did it totally differently.

Ms. JENKINS: Pop Warner used to remark that he Indians would much rather outwit their opponent than win with conventional straight-ahead football.

YDSTIE: The 1907 game between Harvard and Carlisle, where the development of modern football really all came together. Tell us about that game.

Ms. JENKINS: Well, 1907 is the year that Carlisle really pioneers the forward pass. They threw the ball 15, 16, 17 times a game, 40 yards downfield at a crack and absolutely electrified the nation.

But most schools were very uneasy with the forward pass, didn't know how to use it. Most people didn't even know how to throw an overhand spiral - that was another invention of the Carlisle Indians.

Carlisle, because they were habitually experimental, just went ahead and started throwing the ball all over the field in 1907. And in the final game of the season, they played the University of Chicago and won on a glorious 45-yard bomb from a guy named Pete Hauser to a great, great Carlisle player named Albert Exendine.

YDSTIE: And that was - that involved deception.

Ms. JENKINS: Yeah. Albert Exendine - because the Chicago players were really crowding him and they were basically mauling him every time he tried to run down the field to go out for a pass, what he ended up doing to get away from the defenders was he allowed the Chicago players to push him out of bounds.

The players then stopped and turned back to the field, while Exendine kept going behind the Chicago bench, ran behind the entire Chicago team and then jogged back out on the field in the Chicago end zone, where Pete Hauser launched the ball to him and he caught it in the end zone. The touchdown stood and Carlisle won the game.

YDSTIE: You know, actually, I'd love to have you read a piece of that, if you would. You described the crowd as being mesmerized by this. And it's really a moment that changes football.

Ms. JENKINS: (Reading) Exendine darted back on to the field all alone near the Chicago goal. The spiraling ball seemed to defy physics. What made it stay up? When would it come down? In that long minute, 27,000 spectators may have felt their loyalty to the home team evaporate in the grip of a powerful new emotion. They may have noticed something they had never before - that a ball traveling through space traces a profoundly elegant path.

YDSTIE: The narrative arc of your book really begins out in the Great Plains, in what really one of the last real battles of the Indian Wars. Why did you choose the Featherman(ph) Battle to open your book?

Ms. JENKINS: I made the choice up because, first of all, it involved American Horse, who, I knew, had sent so many children to Carlisle, whose son then was on the first football team. And it was just an irresistible bookend, to open the book with American horse in that battle that he was engaged in, and then to end the book with the Army game in 1912, with Jim Thorpe playing Dwight Eisenhower. It just seemed the perfect frame for what to me is a story about a period of American history.

YDSTIE: Describe that 1912 game between Army and Carlisle.

Ms. JENKINS: The U.S. government, for many years, did not allow Carlisle to play the service academy teams because they felt that the tension would just run too high.

By 1912, they agreed to permit it. And it meant so much to them that Pop Warner had designed a new offense - his famous single wing and double wing offenses. He held them back and he said, which team should we - would you like to debut this offense against? And the Carlisle Indians said unanimously the soldiers. They wanted to use the new offense against West Point.

Now, Captain Leland Devore was six-foot-six and well over 250 pounds, whereas, Jim Thorpe was the biggest of the Carlisle players. He was about 6 foot and 180 pounds.

And then, of course, Army's halfback was Dwight Eisenhower, who was one of nine future generals on the team.

YDSTIE: And there's a passage in the book where Eisenhower meets Thorpe.

Ms. JENKINS: Eisenhower and Thorpe meet on the field when Eisenhower tries to tackle Thorpe and basically bounces off of his legs and staggers over to the sideline, and the Army coach basically says, you know, that's it for you today. You've had enough.

YDSTIE: Sallie Jenkins is the author of "The Real All Americans: The Team that Changed a Game, a People, a Nation." She spoke with us from the studios of KERA in Dallas.

Thanks very much.

Ms. JENKINS: Thank you.

YDSTIE: For more about how the Carlisle Indians came up with some of their famous football plays and outwitted the Harvard Crimson, read an excerpt at

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie.

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