Looking for something offbeat in a sports read? Chris Willis, the head of the research library at NFL Films, provides that with one of the least-known and unusual stories in pro football history. In “Walter Lingo, Jim Thorpe, and the Oorang Indians,” he writes about how a team made up entirely of native Americans led by the legendary Jim Thorpe spent two seasons in the 1920s as a crowd-drawing curiosity during the NFL’s formative years. The team that dog breeder Walter Lingo assembled wasn’t very good (they won only a handful of games), but the showman owner saw the potential in using a traveling team to promote his business of raising and selling Airedales from his La Rue, Ohio, kennel.
Here’s an excerpt from Walter Lingo, Jim Thorpe, and the Oorang Indians:
“During the summer, Jim Thorpe made contact with several Native American football players throughout the country. Most of his team would be made up of former players he knew from Carlisle or had played against at Indian schools, for example, Haskell or Sherman Institute in California.
“It is somewhat tricky to determine who played for the Oorang Indians, mainly because Walter Lingo wanted to play up the Native American motif anytime he could, so he gave the players Indian nicknames. For some of the players, especially the lesser-known and inexperienced ones, that was the only name they went by. When looking at the game lineups in the newspapers you might see nicknames instead of real names, making it tough to know who actually played in some of the games. Thorpe and Lingo built a team that had a few quality players, but the majority of the team lacked football experience, especially at the professional level.”