Radiolab

Navigate
Return Home

Ghosts of Football Past

Back to Episode

Carlisle Indian School Football Team 1907, entire squad. Carlisle Indian School Football Team 1907, entire squad. (Cumberland County Historical Society, Carlisle, PA (may not be used or copied without permission from the CCHS))

It's the end of the 19th century -- the Civil War is over, and the frontier is dead. And young college men are anxious. What great struggle will test their character? Then along comes a new craze: football. A brutally violent game where young men can show a stadium full of fans just what they're made of. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Penn -- the sons of the most powerful men in the country are literally knocking themselves out to win these gladiatorial battles. And then the most American team of all, with the most to prove, gets in the game and owns it. The Carlisle Indian School, formed in 1879 to assimilate the children and grandchildren of the men who fought the final Plains Wars against the fathers and grandfathers of the Ivy Leaguers, starts challenging the best teams in the country. On the football field, Carlisle had a chance for a fair fight with high stakes -- a chance to earn respect, a chance to be winners, and a chance to go forward in a changing world that was destroying theirs. 

Guests: Sally Jenkins, Cleveland State University Emeritus Professor David Adams, Biographer Barbara Landis and Librarian Cara Curtis from the Cumberland County Historical Society, Dr. Conrad Crane from the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center, and Dr. Eric Anderson from Haskell Indian Nations University

Read more:

Sally Jenkins, The Real All-Americans

David W. Adams, Education for Extinction

Michael Oriad, Reading Football

Tom Benjey, Doctors, Lawyers, Indian Chiefs

Robert Wheeler, Jim Thorpe

Comments [11]

Aurolyn Luykx from El Paso, TX

This was a fascinating story. However, I feel it did a real disservice to history in its misrepresentation of the Carlisle Indian School and its founder, Robert Henry Pratt. Pratt was certainly no "believer in racial equality" (!!!) nor a friend to Indian tribes. The system of boarding schools he set up were another front in the war to destroy Native American societies. Yes, Carlisle students played football -- they were also victims of systematic mental and physical abuse as well as labor exploitation. Many died. They were never going to "pass as white men," as the podcast suggests -- intense segregation and discrimination remained in effect for another half century. I would urge listeners to read the linked article posted above by Justin -- http://goo.gl/66mVID

Aug. 29 2016 04:32 PM
Ann from San Francisco

As a lover of football since being 9 years old, 60 years ago, I enjoyed American Football.

As a former school teacher, I am compelled to say that there is no such word as "complicatedness." The word is "complexity."

Jan. 30 2016 04:18 AM
Sue from Traverse City, MI

I loved hearing this angle on the history of football. I just finished reading Kent Nerburn's book on Indian boarding schools, so I was familiar with the basics but didn't know about the football connection.
I am also glad you were able to clarify the number and causes of death of some of the Native American students at Carlisle.

Sep. 08 2015 11:22 AM
Les!if Wheelock from Washington DC

Thanks for the great piece on Carlisle. My grandfather was on the first travelling football team - introducing the sport to a young Jim Thorpe.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_Wheelock#Early_life_and_education

Sep. 06 2015 12:30 PM
Chris Whitehouse from Hong Kong

Really interesting episode!

Here is a photo of my Grandfather's high school football team in 1897. As you can see, they are still using the Rugby ball that would have been impossible to throw.

http://i.imgur.com/q2Toqbb.jpg

Historical note: The player at the front-right, Ernest J. King, went on to head the US Navy during World War II.

Mar. 10 2015 11:36 PM

I only wish this piece would have come out right before the AFC Championship game. It would have mercifully taken the wind out of the Deflategate sails.

Feb. 09 2015 02:18 PM
Chloe from Seattle

I found the episode really interesting and love the pictures from Carlisle... But I was also hoping for a picture of "The Tank"! His interview was very sweet.

Feb. 03 2015 12:39 PM
Aldous T Chrinchton

I think this was very interesting because I played football when I was a kid and I still like football today.

Feb. 02 2015 10:33 PM
Justin from United States

Interesting story, for me, however, it left a bit to be desired.
Here's why - http://goo.gl/66mVID

Feb. 01 2015 04:30 PM
Emily from United States

What a great story! Especially for those who look at Bill Belichick's trick plays and complicated plans and cry "cheating!" - he's just thinking of ways to score that haven't been ruled out yet!

Jan. 31 2015 04:40 PM
Donna LaVallee from United States

Thank you for this wonderful episode. My great-grandfather attended Carlisle in the 1903 time frame and because of your reporting - I went to the Carlisle Indian archive and found all kinds of wonderful information and documents in Grandaddy Bert's own handwriting! I knew he was on the track team, (I have a medal he won), but I did not have any other information about his time there. Now I do.

Jan. 31 2015 02:06 PM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.