Though Jim Thorpe's bones may lie in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, some residents of Canton, Ohio are saying that is where his heart rests.
Canton is where Jim Thorpe made his first serious venture into professional football, when beginning in 1915, the former Olympian both played and coached football for the Canton Bulldogs. Two years earlier, he began playing professional sports for the Indiana Pine Village Pros football team, and the New York Giants baseball team.
In Canton in 1920, 11 teams including the Bulldogs gathered at Ralph Hay's Hupmobile auto showroom (now the vacant Frank T. Bow Federal Building) to form the precursor to the National Football League, the American Professional Football Conference. Jim Thorpe was chosen as its first president and he played football and coached Canton during the year he served as the league's top official.
In 1952, Jim Thorpe, then 64, physically strong but sickly, returned to Canton to greet more than 700 well-wishers at the Onesto Hotel.
Jim Thorpe passed away in 1954. Following his death, it was widely circulated that if the boroughs of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk would merge into the Borough of Jim Thorpe, that Jim Thorpe's widow, Patricia Thorpe with the support of NFL commissioner Burt Bell, would locate a heart and cancer center, and the NFL Hall of Fame in the merged towns that would carry the name of Jim Thorpe.
Canton began lobbying to have the NFL Hall of Fame built in their city. Burt Bell died in 1959 before he could make good on his plan to bring the hospital and the Hall of Fame to Jim Thorpe. Instead, the NFL Hall of Fame opened in Canton in 1963.
Did the NFL Hall of Fame bring a football revitalization to Canton? A number of residents are saying, "No." They complain that the Hall, three miles from the downtown area, brings neither football spirit nor tourists to the business area, even though several local businesses sport football-related names, such as Hall of Fame Bail Bonds, Hall of Fame Courts, Hall of Fame Central Labor and Thorpe's Market Avenue Grill & Pub inside the McKinley Grand Hotel.
Canton resident James Parker is leading a move to bring football to Canton's city center, specifically asking the Canton City Council to form a special committee to erect an enormous statue of Jim Thorpe at the Central Plaza. He suggested that the statue be the largest of its kind, larger than Green Bay's 22-foot Packer receiver statue. Parker wrote in a letter to the council that the statue would serve as "the keystone which distinguishes downtown Canton's incredible football heritage forever."
Parker noted that the only remembrances of Jim Thorpe are a brass plaque and a hotel bar.
"These are not enough," he said.
He went on to ask to replace seasonal flags and banners with football-related ones, and to create a Football Heritage Trail between Canton and Massillon.
"There are a lot of things that they don't play up at the Hall of Fame – Thorpe, the vintage teams and the cradle teams – that we could play on," Parker said.
According to CantonRep.com similar suggestions trace back to at least the early 1980s. In 1983, the mayor proposed an "edu-sport" complex. In 1984, the city touted itself, The Sports Center of America. In 1996, an amusement park in Stadium Park was proposed, then yanked when neighbors resisted. In 2003, politicians proposed a Walk of Fame, similar to Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, with handprints cemented into a sidewalk decorated with helmets.
In 2009, Robb Hankins, president and CEO of ArtsinStark, proposed the Amazing Football Collection – 15 jaw-dropping, bigger-than-life public artworks intended to attract tourists and remind passers-by that pro football's premier league in America started in Canton.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame will be 50 years old in 2013. It is constructing a bigger and better facility. The changes to the Hall of Fame is expected to have little impact on the business district.
Some residents feel it is time for Canton to finally capitalize on its national identity as the cradle of professional football, and to make Jim Thorpe its favorite son.