Oorang Indians, NFL’s Most Colorful Franchise

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If you were to drive down dusty State Route 37 in Ohio, past grain elevators and feed stores, to a broken sidewalk in the town of LaRue, you would find one of those blue steel historical markers that rise from obscure landscapes around America. This one says: Home of the Oorang Indians, NFL’s Most Colorful Franchise

 

The Oorang Indian football team was founded by LaRue native Walter Lingo (1890-1966), owner of the Oorang Airedale Dog Kennels. The team, comprised of Native American Indians, played in the National Football League (NFL) in 1922-23.

The star player and coach was Jim Thorpe (1887-1953), a Sac and Fox Indian. Thorpe gained international fame as a two-time gold medal winner (decathlon and pentathlon) in the 1912 Olympics and was acclaimed as the “World’s Greatest Athlete.”

The team gave LaRue the distinction of being the smallest community ever to have an NFL franchise.

You would notice the superlatives: “greatest” and “smallest.” You would notice the non-sequiturs: “1912 Olympics,” “Dog Kennels,” “NFL franchise.” You would immediately sense a cosmic convergence of large things into a small place in a single forgotten moment of time. And you would begin to know the story of the Oorang Indians.

If you stopped in the library and began to review old newspapers, you would see that the story includes other superlatives and non-sequiturs, the King of Sweden and at least two Presidents of the United States among them.

“Ours was a generation grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald at precisely the moment that the Oorang Indians began to play football. The story of the Oorang Indians is about the death of gods and the triumph of mortals. They were the Victorian gods of class and power that met their fate on the battlefields of Europe. And, to a lesser but still important extent, the playing fields of America.

There is a sweet smell during autumn in Ohio. It is the smell of life giving way to death, the sort of death that falls into the earth and gestates, and becomes life in the season that always comes. It is the smell of soil, turned and planted. It strikes at the nerve in the back of the nose, near the brain. It is difficult to ignore.

Jim Thorpe ignored the flat afternoon light and the pungent autumn smells. But he could not ignore the stiff leather pads that protected him from tacklers. The Springfield hunting rifle did not feel right wedged between the pads and his shoulder. He gripped the barrel and eyed the target 50 yards distant. An Oorang Airedale hunting dog pointed at the small wooden mark. With that, history’s most famous sportsman fired, and obliterated the target.

Ten thousand who had gathered for the National Football League game cheered both the man’s ability with a rifle and the dog’s ability to track prey. For the marksman, the crowd’s adulation twinged a warm recollection. Ten years before, at the 1912 Olympiad, fifty thousand Swedes in the steep horseshoe bleachers at Stockholm’s Olympic Stadium had cheered his victory in the pentathlon, and again when he won gold in the decathlon.

“Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world,” Sweden’s King Gustav V gushed upon presenting the second of the gold medals. Thorpe, the irreverent son of Native American parents and an Irish grandfather, performed no reciprocal curtsey to the king’s majesty. “Thanks, King,” he famously replied.

With the same constancy he had shown a king, the dog’s halftime co-star bowed his head and retreated to a place near the bleachers to join his team before the start of the third quarter.

It cost $100 to enter the NFL in 1922. It cost $150 to buy a genuine Oorang Airedale hunting dog. The latter were more valuable, based almost entirely on the P.T. Barnum-esque salesmanship of Walter Lingo, a LaRue resident who bred the dogs. He had used principles of science to create a superior hunting dog, the Oorang Airedale. Then he created the Oorang Indians, an original NFL team named for the dog.

The team, located in LaRue but playing its games in nearby Marion, was made up entirely of Native Americans. Jim Thorpe was hired as a player coach and to help sell the dogs at half time. Lingo published a newsletter, Oorang Comments, to promote the dogs. “Let me tell you about my big publicity stunt,” he wrote in his newsletter. “You know Jim Thorpe, don’t you, the Sac and Fox Indian, the world’s greatest athlete, who won the all-around championship at the Olympic Games in Sweden in 1912? Well, Thorpe is in our organization.” The Indians played football, and at half time they danced, showed off hunting skills, and on at least one occasion the team’s left tackle, Long Time Sleep, wrestled a bear.

Nothing about this would have seemed strange at the time. Native Americans were a part football’s genome from its inception. They are, in many ways, the reason for the game.

The Civil War, fought between 1860 and 1865, had immersed Americans in the science of warfare: The deployment of force, flanking maneuvers, offense and defense, aerial artillery, breaking through the enemy line, the rout. Diagrams of battle appeared in newspapers. There soon developed a game played on college quads that looked very much like those diagrams: two sides gaining and ceding ground on a field based on planning, angles, and surprise. As in warfare, scoring was based on complete dominance of the field, pushing an opponent past a boundary.

The game gained in popularity in the next decade, a period sometimes called “the Gilded Age.” William Shakespeare had observed, “To gild refined gold, to paint the lily… is wasteful and ridiculous excess.” Mark Twain borrowed this expression to satirize the excess and corruption of the post-Civil War era, in his little remembered novel, “The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today,” published in 1873. The book’s title came to define the period.

Opulent wealth, conspicuous consumption, ornate mansions, tailed jackets, those were the outward signs of The Gilded Age. But the excess manifested itself, too, in news reporting. Events were reported in a way to indulge the salacious appetites of readers. The American West presented an irresistible opportunity for weavers of tall tales, to create a self-aggrandizing mythology around the open lands and indigenous peoples, and the men who would conquer them.

In 1876, the federal government dispatched the army to the Western Territories to secure the areas for settlement, in a series of military engagements loosely called “the Indian Wars.” General George Custer, a cavalry officer and Civil War hero, lost a decisive battle against the Lakota Indians at Little Big Horn. He and his entire company were slaughtered. General Custer had been maneuvered into a trap by tribal leaders Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.

Eastern newspapers could not report the loss for what it was: the white West Point graduate being out-generalled by Native Americans. The story was recast as a popular tale of civilization against savagery. Custer’s civilized restraint was no match for the brutality and savagery, was the basic theme. The mantle of nobility was placed upon General Custer in the tall tale, even though he was defeated after his raid on an encampment of sleeping families.

In the fall of 1876, only four months after General Custer lost the Battle of Little Big Horn, representatives of Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and Columbia formed the Intercollegiate Football Association. College football was an allegory of civilization and savagery played on a 100 yard pitch. Harvard coach W. Cameron Forbes, grandson of the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, would later call football “the ultimate expression of Anglo-Saxon superiority.”

To be superior it is necessary to prevail in some measurable way against inferiors. Unless you don’t or can’t, which destroys the entire pose. The Carlisle Indian School was founded in 1879 at the site of the present Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Native American students boarded at the school, where they were trained in reading, writing, and the sort of domestic habits – hard shoes, starched clothes, short hair, etc. – that were then considered the demarcation between civilization and savagery.

It was a time when gentlemen (as they called themselves) thought it their duty to better the world by seeking self-perfection in association with one another, and then visiting their own perfection upon the lesser classes. Colonialism, Victorian morality, elitism, self-satisfied sanctimony were the detritus that resulted. Rudyard Kipling captured the mood of the times in his ode to empire, titled The White Man’s Burden:

Take up the White Man’s burden –

Send forth the best ye breed –

Go bind your sons to exile

To serve your captives’ needs;

To wait in heavy harness,

On fluttered folk and wild –

Your new-caught, sullen people,

Half devil and half child. 

These pretensions spawned something pretentiously called, “The Olympic Movement,” named for a mountain in Homer’s Iliad where the gods lived. The first modern Olympics took place in 1896. It was meant as a friendly competition among members of the upper classes. The working classes labored six days a week and sports were generally prohibited on Sunday.

Amateurism was the final barrier that excluded those who traded time for money from the club of sportsman. It presumed, with Victorian priggishness, that athletic competition, like sex, was tainted if done in exchange for money. It dishonestly claimed justification under the pretext of Greek mythology, even though there was little support in ancient Greek texts for this Victorian invention.

By 1900, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, a campy opera on horseback about cowboys defeating Indians, was being performed to packed houses. Buffalo Bill Cody was America’s most recognizable celebrity. Owen Wister had just published The Virginian, a novel set in the old West glorifying these themes. He dedicated his novel, the first in a new genre of cultural parable that would come to be called a “Western,” to then President Theodore Roosevelt, an Oyster Bay patrician who had risen to the presidency by creating his own self-aggrandizing mythology, cleverly associating himself with Western conquest.

Glen “Pop” Warner coached the football team at the Carlisle School. He also coached the track team. In 1907, he permitted the school’s best track athlete, Jim Thorpe, to run a few plays in football practice. Warner immediately discerned the benefit of world class speed in the backfield. Put Thorpe in the halfback position on the single wing, and run around defenses. It did not hurt, either, that Thorpe could punt the ball 80 yards, as the imperative of the “foot” had not yet been lost in the game named for it.

Thorpe played for Carlisle in 1907 and 1908. He drifted away from Carlisle for a few years, to play baseball in the Carolina summer league, and to help his sister work her farm. He grew physically during his self-imposed sabbatical.

The game of football changed too. In the span of two weeks during the 1909 season, an Army lineman, Eugene Byrne, died in a game against Harvard, and Archer Christian, the University of Virginia’s halfback, died in a game against Georgetown. The Chicago Tribune reported that twenty-six players were killed playing football that year. Congress threatened to ban the game. Instead, college administrators, led by Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson, got together and changed the rules.

It was decided that all plays had to begin with seven players on the line of scrimmage. No longer would linemen form a flying wedge in the backfield and hit one another with a running start. Consideration was given, also, to expanding the field, widening it to 100 yards to match the length. More space to roam, it was thought, would help to avoid the deadly scrum that characterized the game.

The problem was that Harvard had just constructed a large 40,000 seat concrete football stadium near the Thames River (it still stands as Harvard’s home field) at the cost of $3 million. It would not be possible to widen the field without making the stadium obsolete. Instead, the administrators decided to encourage the passing game. Before 1909, passing was allowed, but an incomplete pass was a 10 yard penalty. The penalty was eliminated. The forward pass effectively widened the field within its existing dimensions.

The modern “open” game was born.

A stronger Jim Thorpe returned to the Carlisle Indians in 1911 to take advantage of the new rules. He scored four field goals and a touchdown, all of his team’s points, in an 18-15 upset of Harvard. The Indians lost only to Penn at the Polo Grounds, in a game where a constant deluge of rain neutralized the Indians’ air attack.