Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise
Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise

A Q&A With Sally Jenkins

Illustration for article titled A QA With Sally Jenkins

Sally Jenkins is one of the most formidable sportswriters in this great land of ours; her work for The Washington Post won her the Associated Press' Sports Columnist Of The Year award, which is a real award and actually kind of esteemed, if you can believe that. She's the co-author of It's Not About The Bike with Lance Armstrong and somehow remains friends with Tony Kornheiser.

Jenkins' new book, The Real All-Americans, is a fascinating history of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, a school founded for displaced Native American children in the early 20th Century that turned out to be perhaps the most important in college football; not only did it produce Jim Thorpe, it also is where Pop Warner started out and clearly had the most fun. (It's also where the forward pass was really invented.)


It's an outstanding, mesmerizing book, alternately about football and just what life was like for Native Americans trying to rebuild their world after White Man decided it wanted more land. We also think Jenkins is pretty awesome, so, after we plied her with alcohol, she agreed to answer some questions for us about the book, after the jump.


Did you have an inherent interest in this time period when you started the book?

Well, I had an inherent interest in history, as all sportswriters probably do, and I'm a Texan with a certain vested interest in the period. One great grandmother was born in a covered wagon and another was part Native American. But as for the whole Victorian time period, generally it was something I initially regarded as homework. You know, it's chock full of material that I had to memorize for tests in high school: the Dawes Act, the Continental Railroad. But once I started to read about it, I discovered that it's a gripping period, unbelievably exciting, and formative — it encompasses the Civil War and the Indian Wars, the conquering of the frontier. It's when modern America is really born — and football, with it. As the book opens, a great Sioux leader named American Horse is at his height as a plains warrior, but just 10 years later he's wearing a suit from Saks, and his son is playing football for Carlisle against Yale at the Polo Grounds in New York.

Carlisle played the first night college football game ever under electric lights, for example, in 1898 in Chicago. President Benjamin Harrison was so afraid of electricity that he wouldn't touch the newly installed light switches in the White House. He made the servants do it. So, that kind of thing was fun to learn and write about and sew into the book.

Was there a sense of correcting the record, particularly in regard to the myth that Knute Rockne invented the forward pass?

Absolutely. I wanted to restore the whole Carlisle football story. Doing the book, I felt like I was uncovering a fabulous fresco. I sort of knew from casual reading the Carlisle Indians had experimented with the pass early, as well as a variety of trick plays, but when I sat down to do the real hardcore research, I was amazed at just how inventive, and ahead of their time, they were. They absolutely invented the pass — and refined it, too. I found old game accounts from 1906 and 1907 when they were throwing 40 yards downfield, 16 and 18 times a game. Notre Dame and Rockne didn't even think about the pass until 1913.

Rockne always tried to correct the record, by the way. He insisted to anyone who asked that Pop Warner and the Carlisle Indians were the first to use the pass on a major stage. It was sportswriters who muddled the picture because they didn't want to give the Indians credit for anything. A fair amount of bigotry was at work.


By the way, every significant contribution Pop Warner made to football came at Carlisle. All of the things he later got credit for when he won championships at Pittsburgh and Stanford — the reverse, the flea flicker, the crouching start, the single and double wing offenses — were from his Carlisle bag of tricks. It was a meeting of minds between him and the Indian kids, who had a taste for trick plays, and were too small to play power football. Warner actually became a much more conservative, conventional coach after he left Carlisle. He was never so innovative again.

Illustration for article titled A QA With Sally Jenkins

We think the book's most fascinating character is Pratt, the general who founded the school and was initially bewildered by football before embracing it as a promotional tool. You're good about not passing judgment on him in the book, but while we have you here, do you think he ultimately did good for the Indian population, or not?

Pratt is a confounding figure. There's no easy answer to the question — if you asked American Indian descendants of the Carlisle school, you'd get split answers from them, too. Some students worshipped Pratt — like Albert Exendine, who was the first great collegiate receiver in 1906-1907 — and others detested him. Pratt truly believed in racial equality; he wanted to absorb students into what he called "the American family." But that meant eradicating their Indian-ness, as he put it, and his methods were harsh.

But you have to try to understand who he was — he made himself from the ground up, and that's what he wanted his students to do. His father was a gold-miner (a 49er) killed for his stake. The U.S. Army gave him an opportunity and identity and a pride. He served with incredible gallantry in the Civil War. He's a very American character, noble and deeply flawed, and he personified his age, whether you admire or dislike him. He was his country.

How much time did you take off to write and research this? Did you spend days looking through microfiche?

I'd been researching Carlisle and the origins of American football for a number of years casually. But I took about 12 months to do the hard-core research and writing, and I took a six-month leave from the Washington Post right after the Torino Olympics to basically finish the manuscript. I spent seven days a week in libraries; it was like time travel. I read the old newspapers of the era on microfilm, which were fascinating, and old Harpers Weekly magazines. I dug through the Carlisle student files, which are at the National Archives in Washington — it's an amazing thing to hold Jim Thorpe's old report cards in your hand. I read collections of letters and papers that some of the players had left. At the University of Tulsa I was going through the letters of Gus Welch, who was Thorpe's best friend and quarterback, when his old gold varsity letter fell out of an envelope. That was a great day. I actually cried - - it made the players feel so alive to me.


But maybe the best thing I did was, I drove all over Oklahoma, Wyoming and South Dakota, visiting the places where the students had grown up. Great trip.

We know we're a little overly PC about this, but we think it's appalling that the Washington Redskins name still exists. (Four years at a college newspaper covering Chief Illiniwek will do this.) Do you have thoughts on this? Do the people you talked to for the book have opinions on it?

It's a slur. Nothing overly PC about it. It's not like Seminoles or even Indians. Redskins is a racial epithet, like calling Asians yellow. Look, I'm a free speech absolutist — people should be able to say what they want — but I think it's inexcusable that the NFL markets a team with an epithet. The league ought to do something about it. Would we tolerate it if an NFL team was named the Darkies, or an epithet for Jews? I wish the American Indian lobby was powerful enough to make the league and the networks feel some pain. And yes, the people I talked to for the book have opinions — if you mean the American Indians I talked to. They think it's a slur, and they feel like Indians just keep getting disenfranchised and insulted. History for them is a current event. It's disgraceful.


You interview players all the time; that alternately scares and bores us. Do today's athletes show a respect for history? Does Santana Moss know who Jim Thorpe is? Or is he just the name of a trophy?

It depends. It's a pretty varied assortment of guys you meet in the professional leagues. Some of them have no sense of anything but their own narcissism, but most of them are not dumb, and a few have a nice sense of the history of the leagues, and the history of their country. Reggie Miller is real, real smart. Antawn Jamison, now there's a bright guy. And let's not forget female athletes. The first time I ever met Kara Lawson, who's one of the best things in the WNBA and on ESPN, she was reading the David Maraniss bio of Vince Lombardi. She was a college freshman at Tennessee at the time. Super smart and curious.

As a group, I think NFL players are pretty curious and well read. Here is an interesting stat: The New England Patriots and the Indy Colts, who have pretty much monopolized the NFL playoffs, have the highest numbers of college graduates in the league. Basically the smartest teams in the NFL are also the winningest. Interesting huh? So it's not so easy to write them off as entitled overpaid jerks who don't read. Not fair and not true. They don't have time to read like you and me, necessarily, that's all.

What's the Carlisle school like now? We know it's an army school, but is it considered a historical artifact?

The Carlisle campus is still there and intact, and it's now the U.S. Army War College, which is where we send officers to learn to become generals. It's a graduate school of sorts for the U.S. Army, and a brilliant one. By the way, did you know all of our generals have advanced degrees? Guys like David Petraeus come out of the War College, and they get masters and doctorates from places like Princeton and Yale. Anyhow, the Carlisle campus is home of "the thinking Army," where they study issues like insurgency and try to find solutions. The campus is beautifully kept — the War College staff has, as you might imagine, a sense of history. The old dormitories are still there, and the fieldhouse, and the football field and track, which I jogged around every morning when I was there. Very ghostly experience. The athletic dorm is still there, too, and is actually a guest house where I stayed. Security is heavy, but if you call the war college public affairs office and ask for a tour, you can get one.

Illustration for article titled A QA With Sally Jenkins

We know it's fun now, because everyone just tells you how good your book is, but was the process of putting this all together an enjoyable one? Or just exhausting?


It was the greatest working experience of my life. I never had a single day on it that wasn't a joy and an adventure. People pay good money to take cruises that are a lot less fun than the time I had doing this book. For one thing, I learned the real meaning of the phrase "love of country."

Is Kornheiser gonna be better without Theismann around? You have to have an opinion on this.

Oh yeah, the show's already better. Theismann, you got the feeling he never understood anything Tony said. It wasn't that he was awful; he just kept dropping the baton, there was never a neat handoff, and that slowed everything down. Kornheiser is the most fun ever, by the way. He's adored by his colleagues in the Washington Post sports section, starting with me. You know how easy it would be for everyone to be jealous of him and hate him? But everybody is happy for him, which tells you right there what a good guy he is. So anyone who doesn't get along with him, or find him funny, that's their problem, not his. The show will be better because Jaworski gets it and is irreverent, and because Tony loves smart funny people who enjoy amiably disagreeing. By the way, you know who slows the show down more than Theismann ever did, is Tirico. Guy talks forever and never tells me anything I need to know. He just rattles off stats, like he's applying for membership in Mensa, or something.

We hear rumors that you're considering starting a blog. Will this make Lupica's head explode?


Yes, because the blog I want to start would be a collaboration with my father, Dan Jenkins, who has successfully made the transition to reading on the web, despite the fact that he still doesn't believe that ATMs will really dispense money. If my Dad gets this blog rolling, no one will be safe from his rapier-like laptop, not even old friends like Lupica. He's still the best sportswriter in America, and it has come to his attention that in a blog, you don't have to be PC, and in fact don't even have to watch your language. Uh-Oh.

Share This Story

Get our newsletter