The story improves with age. It begins in 1909, with a train pulling in to Easton, Pa., and a small group of passengers appearing on the platform.
Some versions say there were as many as seven people in the party, while others report only two. Yet all accounts agree that the track coach at Lafayette College was startled that the Carlisle School could travel so light.
"Where's your team?" he asked one of the visitors.
"This is the team," came the reply.
"Only two of you?" the Lafayette coach said, according to the New York Times.
"Only one," Jim Thorpe said. "This fellow's the manager."
America's most accomplished athlete endures largely through anecdote anymore. Few statistics survive from Thorpe's football career, and his Olympic feats have been surpassed. He is a lapsed legend, deprived the resonance of nice, round numbers and the validation of videotape.
Bob Whitman is out to bring Jim Thorpe back to life. The retired Clermont County school superintendent is among those lobbying to have Thorpe recognized as athlete of the century. He is running interference, as it were, for immortality.
"When I wrote my book, the (Thorpe) family wouldn't talk to me," Whitman said. "They felt their father had been exploited over the years. But they don't want him to be forgotten."
Thorpe was the greatest
In a 1950 media poll conducted by the Associated Press, Thorpe was overwhelmingly voted the greatest male athlete of the first half of the century. He received 252 first-place votes - more than all other candidates combined - and MGM was moved to make a movie of his life.
Burt Lancaster played the title role in Jim Thorpe-All-American, but Thorpe received only $1,500 for the film rights. When he died in 1953, even his body was bartered. The town of Mauch Chunk, Pa., saw fit to change its name to Jim Thorpe for the right to be the great man's resting place.
Bob Whitman would enter the picture much later, but he has been intrigued by Jim Thorpe nearly all of his life. Whitman was raised in LaRue, Ohio, where Thorpe once starred for the National Football League's most obscure franchise. The Oorang Indians - named for LaRue's Oorang Airedale Kennels - operated in 1922 and 1923, mainly on Thorpe's name.
Whitman published a book last year on the short-lived squad, Jim Thorpe and the Oorang Indians, and last month helped dedicate a historic marker on the site of the team's practice field. He might have left it at that, but Thorpe's daughter, Grace, has urged him to press on. She is an anti-nuclear activist, and believes in the power of publicity.
"I do think dad stands a darn good chance (at athlete of the century)," Grace Thorpe said Saturday, from her home in Oklahoma. "But I want the world to know about it. He's an old-timer, and a lot of the young people haven't heard of him."
The best, no doubt
Babe Ruth had broader appeal, and Jackie Robinson made a more lasting impact, but in the narrow context of athletics, Jim Thorpe's achievements are unmatched. He was a charter member of Pro Football's Hall of Fame, a big-league baseball player, and won both the decathlon and pentathlon competitions at the 1912 Olympics.
"You sir," Sweden's King Gustav V told him, "are the greatest athlete in the world."
"Thanks, King," Thorpe replied.
Dwight Eisenhower's football career at West Point ended with a Thorpe-induced knee injury. One report of the 1912 Carlisle-Army game claims Thorpe had a 92-yard kickoff return nullified, then took the subsequent kickoff 97 yards. Another account calls it a 45-yard punt return.
"They were not keeping statistics back then," Bob Whitman said. "It was more of a word-of-mouth thing. But all of the great athletes of the time had glowing reports of Jim Thorpe."
Thorpe won varsity letters in 11 sports at Carlisle and was also the intercollegiate ballroom dancing champion. He was, literally and figuratively, a one-man team.