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.

Gridiron Guts: The Story of Football's Carlisle Indians

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Welcome to the program, Sallie.

SALLIE JENKINS: 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.

JENKINS: 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.

JENKINS: 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.

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.

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.

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.

JENKINS: 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.

JENKINS: 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.

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?

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.

JENKINS: 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.

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: Thanks very much.

JENKINS: Thank you.

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

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