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Jim Thorpe, a young boy born on the Sac and Fox Indian reservation in Oklahoma, rejects his father's repeated attempts to place him in school because he is unaccustomed to the confines of a classroom. No sooner does his father drop him off at a new school than Jim rushes home, running the entire twelve-mile distance and arriving before his father. Although running is Jim's passion, his father tries to instill the value of a good education in Jim so that he can find a better life off the reservation. In time, Jim fulfills the promise he made to his father and attends the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. There he captures the attention of Glenn S. "Pop" Warner, the Director of Athletics, who sees Jim run and realizes that he can be an asset to the school track team. Pop's assessment of Jim's skills proves true when he leads the Carlisle team to many victories. While Jim makes fast friends with students Ed Guyac and Little Boy, he also stirs the interest of Margaret Miller, a fellow student who takes pleasure in sewing Jim's college letter onto his sweater. Realizing that he must vie with the captain of the football team to win Margaret's affection, Jim decides to go out for football and show off his prowess. Pop attempts to dissuade Jim from playing football because he fears that Jim's precious running legs might be injured, but Jim insists on joining. Game after game, Jim finds himself relegated to the bench, until the day of the game against Harvard, when Pop sends him onto the field. With the game tied, Jim manages to score a seemingly impossible touchdown, winning the game for Carlisle. From then on, Jim leads the team to one victory after another. As the football season comes to a close, Jim decides that his life ambition is to be a football coach, and that he wants to marry Margaret. However, Margaret does not return the following term because she is not an Indian, and is ashamed that she let Jim assume that she was. When Pop sees how despondent Jim is over losing Margaret, he gets her a job in the school infirmary, and the couple reunite, declaring that their love is more important than their different backgrounds. Jim continues his athletic success at Carlisle but is unable to get the coaching job he so desperately wants. To further prove his prowess, Jim enters the 1912 Olympic games in Stockholm, where he wins two gold medals. Soon after returning to the United States and marrying Margaret, Jim is accused by the Olympic Committee of breaking the rules and accepting money for playing on a minor league baseball team during one summer. Although he was unaware of the rule, Jim is stripped of his gold medals and, because of the resultant bad publicity, his career as an amateur is ruined. Jim then turns professional and enjoys careers in both baseball and football. He is devoted to his young son, and the boy's unexpected death sends Jim into a deep depression. Unable to endure Jim's drinking and aimless wandering from team to team, Margaret finally leaves him. Years pass, and in 1932, Pop gives Jim a ticket to the Los Angeles Olympics. Attending the event reminds Jim of his earlier ambitions and gives his life new meaning. On his way home, Jim accidentally drives over a football, and when he goes to return it to the neighborhood boys, he suddenly finds himself doing what he loves most, coaching. Many years later, Jim is honored by the American press as the greatest athlete in the first half of the century.