Thursday, April 24, 2014

Jim Thorpe Punts, Catches and Scores Touchdown on the Same Play - Myth or Legend?

 Did Jim Thorpe Really Catch His Own Fifty-Yard Punt in Mid-Air and Run it in for a Touchdown?

The Myth

On October 21, 1911, Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indians football team defeated the University of Pittsburg 17-0, ending Pitt’s streak of eleven straight shutout wins.  But as remarkable as the eleven-game shutout streak was, and the fact that Carlisle ended the streak with a shutout of their own, the game is remembered today for one of the most incredible, super-human, mythical feats ever performed on a football field.  Jim Thorpe, legend has it, punted the ball fifty yards, ran down the field, caught his own punt in mid-air and scored a touchdown. sportswriter, Vic Ketchman, wrote that Jim Thorpe would have had to be either Ray Guy (the only punter to be elected to the Hall of Fame) or Hall-of-Fame receiver (and two-time Olympic gold medalist and 100m sprinter) Bob Hayes to have caught his own punt.  Jim Thorpe was both.  But he did not catch his own punt in mid-air for a touchdown.  Although he probably had the physical skills necessary to perform the feat – the rules did not permit it.

Jim Thorpe

Jim Thorpe is widely considered one of the greatest athletes ever.   In 1999, the Associated Press placed him third, behind Michael Jordan and Babe Ruth, in their list of the greatest athletes of the twentieth century.  He was a collegiate football and track standout at the Carlisle Indian School, professional football and baseball star, and won two gold medals at the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm Sweden.

Jim Thorpe’s performance at the 1912 Olympics exemplifies his athletic dominance.  He narrowly missed a medal in the high jump, finishing fourth, and won gold in the pentathlon and the decathlon.  His score of 8412 points in the decathlon (contested over three days, as opposed to the now-traditional two-day format) stood as the world record for twenty years and would have edged out Guido Kratschmer’s 8411 points for the silver in the 1976 Montreal Olympics, behind Bruce Jenner’s world record-setting performance.  It would have won gold in every Olympics, but one, until 1972.  It would have medaled in every Olympics, but one, until 1996.  It would have placed a respectable sixth place at the London Olympics in 2012.

[Note: These last comments may be over-stated.  The decathlon scoring tables have apparently been changed since 1912 (see comments section).  But I still like to imagine Jim Thorpe mixing it up with Bruce Jenner in '76 or Dan and Dave in '92.] 

Jim Thorpe was one of the first big-name college players to play professional football and was named the first President of the NFL.  In baseball, his career major-league batting average of .256 is better than multi-sport phenom Bo Jackson’s career .250 batting average (although, in fairness, Bo had better on-base and slugging percentages).

A world-class sprinter (11.2-second 100m time in the 1912 Olympic decathlon) with a strong leg (he could drop-kick field goals from fifty yards out), Jim Thorpe had the physical skills to catch his own 50-yard punt for a touchdown.

The Carlisle-Pitt Game of 1911:

University of Pittsburgh - 1910
The Pitt-Carlisle game of 1911 was a showdown of two Eastern powerhouses.  The University of Pittsburgh, standing at 2-0, was riding an 11-game winning streak in which they had outscored their opponents by a total of 286-0.   Carlisle came into the game with a record of 5-0 on the season; outscoring their opponents 156-10 over that span.

The teams were no strangers.  Two years earlier, Pittsburg surprised Carlisle with a 14-3 win on a muddy field that neutralized Carlisle's speed advantage.  In 1911, Carlisle was out for revenge.  The field conditions were more favorable for the fast Carlisle team; although wet, the field is said to have been “fine and hard.” 

Carlisle won the rematch, 17-0, on the strength of three touchdowns and two extra points; touchdowns were still worth five points (they were increased to six points for the 1912 season).   According to the New York Sun

Carlisle - 1911
The game was the most bitterly fought in local gridiron history.  Thorpe was the shining star for Carlisle and tore around the ends and through the line for big gains.  Two of [Carlisle’s] touchdowns resulted from recovered onside kicks ([(punts)], which the Indians worked to perfection.

Thorpe scored one of those touchdowns after his own punt.  But contemporary accounts of the game differ in some of the details, leaving ambiguities in the story.  The headline from the Washington (DC) Herald read:

Thorpe is Hero of Battle, Recovering Own Kick and Runs Fifty Yards
– Redskins Play Open Game

The Times Dispatch of Pittsburgh reported:

Carlisle’s first two touchdowns were scored on record kicks, Thorpe grabbing one for a fifty-yard gain after booting the ball himself.

The Washington (DC) Times said:

Once, after booting the ball fifty yards, Thorpe recovered it himself. 

But although these various descriptions differ in some details, taken together, the various accounts all agree that Thorpe kicked the ball fifty yards, ran fifty yards, recovered the ball and scored a touchdown. 

But did he catch the ball in mid-air?  No, the rules would not have permitted it.

State of the Rules in 1911

In 1911, as it is today, the game of football was in the process of adapting to dramatic rules changes intended to reduce injury.  Whereas today’s focus is on the long-term effect of concussions, the focus in the early 1900s was reducing the long-term effects of death.

Forty-five people reportedly died from football injuries from 1901 to 1905 - that’s nine deaths a year!  The causes of those deaths, all directly related to injuries sustained while playing football, included internal injuries, broken necks, concussions, broken backs, paralysis, heart failure, lockjaw, blood-poisoning, hemorrhage, and spinal meningitis.[i]  One particularly gruesome day in New York City prompted a number of universities to petition for rules changes.  On Saturday, November 25, 1905, a Union College player died in a game with NYU[ii], and a Columbia player was nearly killed in its season finale against Penn.[iii]  The subsequent pressure, and the personal intervention of President Teddy Roosevelt (who had previously called for change[iv]), helped bring about major rules changes for the 1906 season. 

The biggest rule change for 1906 was the addition of the forward pass.  The ability to throw the ball down the field was expected to open up the game and reduce the number of injuries and deaths caused by mass pile-ups at the line of scrimmage.  Other rules changes included prohibiting blockers from interlocking arms, making it illegal to hurdle the line, requiring guards and tackles to line up on the line of scrimmage, and increasing the yardage needed for a first down (in only three plays, not four) from five yards to ten.[v]

In addition to the forward pass, the new rules for 1906 also included what amounted to a forward kick; the onside punt.  Just as you could only throw the ball to teammates behind you before 1906, you could also only kick the ball to teammates behind you before 1906.  Teammates behind the ball-carrier were said to be “on-side,” a concept similar to onside and offside in modern-day soccer and hockey.   

The 1906 rules created exceptions to the old-style on-side rule, which put certain players in front of the ball-carrier “on-side” for the purpose of forward passes and punts.  Vestiges of this rule still remain in today’s kickoff rules; players on the kick-off team are “onside” after the ball has travelled ten yards, and may legally take possession of the ball. 

When Jim Thorpe and Carlisle played the University of Pittsburgh in 1911, the on-side punt rule permitted players on the kicking team to recover the punt after it touched an opposing player or touched the ground at least twenty yards past the line of scrimmage.[vi]  In other words, Jim Thorpe could not have legally caught the ball in mid-air to score a touchdown, unless it had first touched an opposing player or the ground; but that doesn’t make such a colorful story.  

What Really Happened?

The record does not reflect whether Thorpe’s punt was an early-down, surprise “quick-kick” or a third-down punt.  With only three downs to make a first down (it was changed to four downs for the 1912 season), quick-kicks were a more important part of the game.  Quick-kicks were more effective under 1911 rules, because defenses did not play as deep as modern defenses because forward passes were limited to twenty yards or less.   

It seems likely that Thorpe’s self-caught, touchdown punt was an early-down quick-kick; if the defense had expected a punt, it would have had a receiver in position to make a fair catch (fair catches were permitted under 1911 rules).  If the punt had enough hang time for Thorpe to cover his own kick, it seems likely that a receiver in position would have had time to call for and make the fair catch.  A booming kick over the top of and past an unprepared defense playing closer to the line would have resulted in a chase for and scramble for the ball; precisely the kind of play envisioned by the rules-makers in 1906 who were trying to open up the game.   

Thorpe’s world-class sprinter’s speed came in handy on that day, resulting in the legendary (although not quite so mythical) touchdown.  Although we do not know exactly what happened on that play, he could not have caught his own punt out of mid-air, except on the rebound. 

[i] The Evening Statesman (Walla Walla, Washington), October 18, 1905.
[ii] Los Angeles Herald, November 26, 1905.
[iii] New York Tribune, December 2, 1905.
[iv] Rock Island Argus (Rock Island, Illinois), October 27, 1905.
[v] Walter Camp, Spalding’s Official Football Guide (1906), pages 93-96.
[vi] Walter Camp, Spalding’s Official Football Guide (1911), page 113 (Rule XX, Section 4).


  1. This entire blog is incorrect. Decathlon scoring tables were updated 1932, 1950, 1962, and 1984. Jim Thorpe's score would be beaten by many high schoolers today. His results of 100m 11.2, LJ 6.79, SP 12.89, HJ 1.87, 400 52.2, Discus 36.98, 110H 15.6, PV 3.25, Jav 45.70, and 4:40 for the 1500 give a score, using modern tables, of 6649. On the same scoring table Ashton Eaton score 9045 with. This score is an upper bound, because the Javelin was redesigned a few times since then to be harder to throw, so he'd lose points there, and we have no information about the weight of the shot or disc. There are decathletes in the USA who scored over 8000 and were left home from the Beijing World Championships today. The last place finisher, at Beijing 2015, scored 6678 after scoring 0 in the pole vault.

    Jim Thorpe was a phenomenal athlete, but his decathlon standards have no comparison to today among the elites, or even elite high schoolers.

    1. Excuse me for being hyperbolic, I was just referring to the decathlon section, I know nothing of football. I took Thorpe's results from wikipedia and plugged them into a decathlon calculator table of today, instead of using the pre-32 tables.