Hang Time for a Watermelon

Today’s mail brought a new article by Jim Sweeney entitled, “Hang Time for a Watermelon: Did Thorpe Really Do It?” Jim first read about Thorpe’s celebrated feat in Bill Crawford’s 2005 biography, All American: the rise and fall of Jim Thorpe. Later, he read Steckbeck’s matter-of-fact recounting that implied superhuman feats were routine for the world’s greatest athlete.

The day was October 21, 1911; the place was Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and the opponent was the University of Pittsburgh. In the middle of Carlisle’s greatest season, Thorpe put on an exhibition that is still being talked about 99 years later. The Carlisle Arrow carried several accounts of the game from Pittsburgh newspapers, but the Dispatch told the story in the most detail:

“So fast were the Carlisle players that only twice during the many punting duels engaged in were Pittsburg players able to bring out the ball after it had been booted into their territory. Indeed, on two occasions, Thorpe, who kicked wonderfully well for Car lisle, got down the field under his own bootings, capturing the ball each time. Once he kicked a beautiful long spiral almost into the midst of five Pitt players and got down the field in time to grab the Pigskin, shake off three or four would-be tacklers and dart 20 yards across the line for a touchdown.”

Sweeney doubted that it was humanly possible to do what the reporter said Thorpe did. No one today could punt the ball from deep behind his line, recover from the awkward position a punter is in after kicking the ball, race downfield through his teammates and the opposition, position himself under the ball, and outjump others for it. Jim analyzed each aspect of the alleged feat to determine if it was even possible. When his article is published, I’ll inform you as to where it can be found so you can learn of his conclusions.

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