I got a call this week from a reporter out in Oklahoma who asked if Jim Thorpe was the first 2,000-yard rusher. Since my focus is on the people, not the statistics, I forwarded the question to statswiz Tex Noel. Tex quickly responded with career rushing statistics for the period in question:
Top 10 Career Rushing Totals*
Yards Player, Team Career
4469 Chris “Kenner/Red” Cagle, Southwestern Louisiana Institute/Army, 1922-29
3616 Jim Thorpe, Carlisle, 1907-08, 11-12
2729 Ted Hudson, Trinity MA, 1910-13
2516 Bill Banker, Tulane, 1927-29
2341 George Gipp, Notre Dame, 1917-20
2382 Alphonse “Tuffy” Leemans, George Washington, 1933-35
2369 Don Zimmerman, Tulane, 1930-32
2339 Willie Heston, Michigan, 1901-04
2140 Kayo Lam, Colorado, 1933-35
2124 Henry Benkert, Rutgers, 1921-24
*(C) 2011 Stars of an Earlier Autumn
From this, it is clear that Jim Thorpe did run for more than 2,000 yards in his career at Carlisle—a lot more–but he wasn’t the first player to rush for more than 2,000 yards in his career. That was the great running back from the University of Michigan, Willie Heston, who, almost a decade earlier, ran for 2,339 yards between 1901 and 1904. As an aside, this is probably why Bemus Pierce named his son Heston.
According to these statistics, Thorpe was the first 3,000-yard career rusher and it took the better part of two decades for Red Cagle to surpass his record. Something to keep in mind is that Carlisle always scheduled several tough teams, all on the road, not one or two each year as Warner advised in his books and as The Big Four and most other powers did. So, Jim Thorpe’s individual records were amassed against mostly stiff competition where many other top athletes played mostly against lesser opponents. Also, Pop Warner used his early-season games against easier opponents to take a look at younger players in game conditions and protected his stars against unnecessary injuries by severely limiting their playing time when they weren’t needed to win.
Now, I’ll ask Tex for single-season records to see how Jim Thorpe stacks up in those comparisons.