Winning Ways

TFK talks with author Steve Sheinkin about his first nonfiction book about sports, Undefeated: Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team

Jan 11, 2017 | By TFK Reporter Kade Friedlander
PHOTOQUEST/GETTY IMAGES

Steve Sheinkin’s new book, Undefeated, tells the true story of how athlete Jim Thorpe and his teammates beat the odds to become one of the “winningest teams in American football history.”

History textbook writer-turned novelist Steve Sheinkin is an award-winning author of nonfiction books aimed at engaging young readers in historical events, people, and stories. A sports enthusiast since childhood, Sheinkin always hoped to discover the perfect sports story to share with his fans. He found it in Jim Thorpe. A star football player and gold medalist in the 1912 Olympic Games, Thorpe was once considered the world’s best athlete. Today, however, his accomplishments are not as well known.

With Undefeated, Thorpe is back in the spotlight. The book tells the true story of how Thorpe, who was Native American, and his teammates at the Carlisle Indian School, in Pennsylvania, beat the odds to become one of the “winningest teams in American football history.” Through riveting detail and examples of innovative plays, moves, and strategies used by the team under the leadership of legendary coach Pop Warner, Sheinkin reveals how the team “invented football” and defeated powerful rivals. While the issue of mistreatment of Native Americans is expertly woven into the story, and parallels are drawn to modern-day concerns, Sheinkin focuses on the heroic nature of this group of young athletes, their mark on history, and how they always maintained their dignity and integrity in the face of discrimination on and off the field.

Sheinkin’s is a three-time National Book Award finalist and has received the Boston Globe/Horn Book Award, the YALSA award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults, and a John Newbery Honor. Undefeated is his ninth work of historical nonfiction.

TFK KID REPORTER KADE FRIEDLANDER:

Thank you for talking with me today because I’m a huge sports fan and historical nonfiction is my favorite genre. I really enjoyed reading Undefeated.

STEVE SHEINKIN:

That’s great, thank you, that’s so great to hear.

TFK:

Growing up, did you like to watch and/or play football?

SHEINKIN:

Yes and no! I definitely loved to play football. I was never big enough, or honestly good enough, to be on a team. You know, I don’t know if my parents even wanted me to play, but [people] weren’t as worried about football then as they are today. Anyway, I wasn’t big enough, but I loved to play pick-up games with my friends. We would play with a Nerf ball, just touch games, and sometimes tackle games.

TFK:

What made you interested in Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team?

SHEINKIN:

I love sports stories. I think I’m like you, actually. I love sports stories and I love underdog stories. Honestly, I didn’t know much about the story, but I came across it just reading magazines, newspapers, and blogs, like I always do, and I thought, wow, what an amazing story. I had heard of Jim Thorpe as this amazing athlete but I didn’t know anything about him or about the Carlisle Indian School football team. But when I started to read about it, I said, I really think it’s the best underdog sports story I had ever read or come across. And so I thought, since I always wanted to write a sports story but I had never found just the right one, maybe this is my chance to finally do this.

In this photo, Jim Thrope competes for Carlisle Indian Industrial School at the U.S. Olympics trials in Celtic Park, New York, in 1912.
TOPICAL PRESS AGENCY/GETTY IMAGES
In this photo, Jim Thrope competes for Carlisle Indian Industrial School at the U.S. Olympics trials in Celtic Park, New York, in 1912.

TFK:

Jim Thorpe survived a childhood filled with hardship and suffered a life full of tragedies, from the death of his twin brother to that of his son. How you think Jim maintained his kind, calm, happy demeanor, his gentle nature, and huge heart?

SHEINKIN:

I think he was a fascinating guy. He was a nice guy. I think he was troubled, especially when he was older, but everyone who knew him said he was just the nicest guy. They all described him as like a big kid. I think that comes across, that he loved to fool around and didn’t take himself too seriously. He was kind of a simple guy. He liked to play sports. He loved to be outside. He never really liked school, obviously. But he found enjoyment in simple things in life. And so he was able to maintain that kind of joy even though there was a darkness to his life too.

TFK:

I thought it was amazing that Jim and his teammates were able to withstand being uprooted from their homes and families, forced to assimilate into white culture, stripped of their identities, endure military-style discipline and hard labor [while at Carlisle Indian School], yet remain peaceful, kind, hardworking, and successful individuals. What do you attribute this to?

SHEINKIN:

Yeah, isn’t that amazing? I think it was totally unfair but they knew they had to, they knew they were going to be held to an unfairly higher standard. The same thing happened to Jackie Robinson when he started playing baseball, as the first black baseball player [for a major-league team], but that was many years later. So these guys were really the first to play an integrated sport. And so they knew they were going to be held to an unfair standard and they did it. I think they really loved the game, and they really, really wanted to play it and so they were willing to. And they were big enough, I mean in a moral way, big enough to rise above it and be better behaved than those all around them. And you are right, that was something that even sportswriters, even if they went in racially prejudiced against Indians, they noticed that and talked about it in their articles all the time: Wow, these guys are the most gentlemanly football players we’ve ever seen.

TFK:

Clearly this book touches on some very hard topics, such as the mistreatment of Native Americans. How do you tell stories like this one without influencing the story with your own bias?

SHEINKIN:

That’s a good point. I think it’s pretty clear that I’m on their side, right? It’s not like I totally tried to be objective and say, “Hey, all these guys are equal or they all the same.” I didn’t feel that way. I was clear that these guys were up against unfair odds on and off the field, but you’re right, I also don’t want to go on a rant because that doesn’t make really good storytelling. It’s almost more powerful, I think, to let the reader come to his or her own conclusion.

TFK:

Do you think Pop Warner betrayed Jim when he was accused of being a professional athlete and his Olympic medals were stripped from him? If so, why?

SHEINKIN:

Yes, in a word, yes. I think their relationship was complicated, almost like a father/son [relationship], but yes, he did betray him. Everyone that has looked at it is convinced that he knew that Jim had played professional ball and didn’t care. But instead of saying, “Hey, we knew but didn’t think it was a big deal,” he betrayed Jim and said, “No, I can’t believe it. I’m outraged. How could you have done that? You knew it was illegal. I would’ve never been involved in anything like that.” So he lied publicly to save his own skin and his own career and in the process he threw Jim Thorpe under the bus. Jim knew, and all his teammates were furious, but Jim’s just not the kind of guy who ever talked about stuff like that. When you read things his children said, years later, they said he never got over this feeling of being betrayed by Pop Warner, which is really sad. A sad ending to their time together because they were so successful together. They totally changed sports together.

TFK:

At the end of the book, you write that Jim Thorpe was "one of the most inspiring stories” you’ve written about but also “one of the most heartbreaking.” What made you feel this way?

SHEINKIN:

I was really inspired by the team, the whole team, what they did, what they overcame and even knowing what they’d be up against. But then, also knowing how sad the story was, I did find it heartbreaking, too. What’s amazing, and this is what I think is great about sports stories, is that the games themselves and the seasons are really exciting. That was part of it, too. I was rooting for them! I thought, I hope they win this game, forgetting for a second that it happened 100 years ago and I can’t really change the outcome. So I was hoping that when others read it they’ll get into it. That was part of the emotion, too, that I wanted to convey, that you are rooting for them.

TFK:

What was the hardest part of writing this book?

SHEINKIN:

That’s tough, I would say the history of how Native Americans are treated obviously is the biggest tragedy of all, but I still got more caught up in the personal stuff. I think it comes down to the end and the Olympic scandal where Jim Thorpe is disgraced and stripped of his medals. To me that was the saddest part of the story. I don’t think he ever really got over that emotionally. He lived a whole life after that and had ups and downs but he should’ve been this great celebrated national treasure for the rest of his life and he just wasn’t. He was just totally forgotten about. He took really crummy jobs and he never really had any money. To me, that fall of this young guy in his prime, when he should have had this whole great life ahead of him, that was the saddest part.

TFK:

What was your favorite part to write and why?

SHEINKIN:

I think the games. I read about hundreds of them that I couldn’t put in the book but I tried to pick four or five that I thought were, like, the highlight games of the book. Those, to me, were the most fun to write. Wherever Carlisle went, especially in the Jim Thorpe years, they were a huge story. Some games had 10 to 12 newspaper articles about them. Each was different with details and quotes and there were no film to look back on. Well, it certainly existed back then but for some reason nobody ever filmed games as far as we know. Wouldn’t that be amazing to see? I wanted to recreate them for readers just like you. I want you to feel like you’re watching highlights, and really in the game. That sometimes can be missing from these kinds of books when they are written by people who aren’t really big sports fans. So to me that was the most fun part: Trying to recreate the games and those key plays.

TFK:

What was one of the most surprising things you learned in writing this book?

SHEINKIN:

As I looked back at newspapers, I saw they drew a lot of cartoons—you have to just call them flat- out racist cartoons—where one of the Carlisle players would be running down the field swinging a hatchet. That was really common and it was clearly meant to be funny in the newspapers. History is surprising, well, it’s not really. When you think about our history it’s not surprising, but it was shocking to see it and to know that these guys would have read it and seen those articles. And so to know that that’s how people were seeing them and that somehow they had to try to overcome that, that was surprising.

TFK:

Do you think the book will be made into a movie?

SHEINKIN:

You know I would love that! I just think, wouldn’t it be amazing to film the games themselves? I think they would look really cool on film. If you really captured just how crazy and violent and rough the games were. There were guys slugging each other, piling on, and pulling each other’s noses and ears, I think the action of the games would be really cinematic. And of course you’d have these really cool moments like when they went to Harvard and West Point, the trick plays that they did, their speed and passing. It would look really cool on film. So I would love it. I’m kind of surprised that it hasn’t happened before, so maybe this book will help the story get noticed more.