Jim Thorpe Helped Create a Pro Football Team to…Sell Dogs?

A historical marker commemorating the Oorang Indians.

Jim Thorpe Helped Create a Pro Football Team to…Sell Dogs?

The Los Angeles Times has a very interesting story today by Brian Cronin, who reported on the story of the Oorang Indian Football team. Founded in 1922, the team was comprised entirely of American Indians, led by none other than super athlete Jim Thorpe, and played in the National Football League in 1922-23. None of this seems remotely strange, considering Thorpe was an incredible football player and in 1922 he was still only 34, young enough to play (and with his skill level, still young enough to dominate).

But Cronin’s piece gets weird, fast. He writes about Walter Lingo, who began breeding puppies at a very young age and eventually became one of the top breeders in the country, specializing in Airedale terriers. “Lingo bred larger Airdales (nearly twice the size of their British brethren),” Cronin writes, “that he dubbed ‘King Oorang.’ ”

Lingo lived in the small village of Larue, Ohio, which stood on what was once a Wyandot village. In 1919, Cronin writes, Lingo befriended Jim Thorpe, and by 1921 Lingo was taking Thorpe and his friend, Pete Calac (another star athlete from the Carlisle Indian School, where Thorpe was a standout) on a hunting trip.

“During the tripe, the trio formalized plans for the creation of a pro football team,” Cronin writes, “the point of the franchise was to advertise Lingo’s terriers. Therefore, to properly draw in crowds, Lingo’s plan was to essentially combine a pro football team with a traveling Wild West show. He had Thorpe recruit an entire team made up of Native American football players. The team was dubbed the Oorang Indians, in honor of Lingo’s terriers and his Native American players. They joined the NFL for the 1922 season.”

The players on the Oorang Indians would not only play on the team, they would work at Lingo’s dog kennels in Ohio. There was no football field in Larue, so the team became a travelling squad. Lingo’s dog-selling business was booming (he was selling dogs for over $100 apiece, which Cronin helpfully puts in perspective by telling us that the franchise fee for an NFL team was $100).

“So the Indians worked as a traveling advertisement for his mail-order business,” Cronin writes. “It was only at Thorpe’s insistence that the men be given an occasional break that Lingo agreed to have the occasional “home” game (since LaRue did not have a field, they had to play in nearby Marion, Ohio).”

We suggest you read the entire piece here, as you’ll read about how during halftime of their games, the players, including Thorpe, would do tricks with the dogs. Thorpe’s daughter Grace told Cronin that her dad was a willing participant, saying how Thorpe was a great lover of dogs, and in the Wild West-like halftime show, Thorpe would even do drop kicking exhibitions.

Eventually the novelty of these halftime shows dissipated (the Oorang Indians went 4-16 in their two season in the NFL), and Thorpe did more coaching for the team than playing.

Cronin sites the work of Sam Borowski who wrote a piece for the Lakota Times on the Oorang Indians (which we tracked down here), so give that a read, too.