While the 8-0 Cincinnati Bengals are becoming the talk of pro football, that’s nothing compared to the fascination much of American once had with another NFL team from Ohio.
And, no, we’re not talking about the 1964 NFL champion Cleveland Browns and their star running back Jim Brown.
The most colorful franchise the NFL has ever known is the Oorang Indians, a club that was based in the tiny Marion County town of La Rue for the 1922 and 1923 seasons.
Back then, the NFL had 18 teams, including the Chicago Bears, the Green Bay Blues and five teams from Ohio, including our own Dayton Triangles.
The NFL didn’t have the celebrity or clout in those days that it does now, which is why a lot of college stars changed their names when they came to the pros so their reputations wouldn’t be sullied.
In turn the fledgling league needed something that would draw prestige — or at least publicity — and it found the latter in the Oorang Indians.
How’s this for colorful?
Wrinklemeat, Long Time Sleep, Laughing Gas, Xavier Downwind, Dick Deerslayer, Baptist Thunder, Joe Little Twig and Bear Behind the Woodchuck — those are the names of some of the players. The team was made up solely of athletes with Native Americans roots, many of them full-blooded.
The centerpiece of the team was Jim Thorpe, who, in his prime, was J.J. Watt, Usain Bolt and LeBron James all rolled into one. The star of the 1912 Olympics, he was voted by the Associated Press in 1950 to be the greatest male athlete of the first half of the century.
When it came to off-field antics, Johnny Manziel wouldn’t even make the JV squad with this bunch.
Their late-night forays became the stuff of legend.
According to a 1995 story in the Lakota Times, before the team played the Chicago Bears, it celebrated at a Chicago tavern called Everyman’s Saloon. When the bartender issued last call at 2 a.m. the Oorang players stuffed him in a telephone booth, turned it upside down and kept the party going until a few hours before kickoff.
Then there’s the owner, Walter Lingo, the P.T. Barnum of the Bark.
He ran the Oorang Kennels, then the largest Airedale terrier business — complete with mail-order shipments and health care products — in the world. He came up with the idea of an NFL team to promote his company, bought the rights to his pro franchise for $100 — half the price of one of his trained Airedales — and during his team’s debut season he sold over 15,000 dogs.
Field & Stream called them “the greatest utility dog in the history of the world.” President Warren G. Harding of nearby Marion owned an Airedale. So did movie star Gary Cooper, baseball greats Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker and heavyweight champ Jack Dempsey, who, like many celebs, came to La Rue to pick out his dog.
The day he did it, he walked around town giving kids silver dollars and signed dollar bills.
Not enough color yet? How about this?
Lingo invented halftime entertainment. During intermission he had his players change into Indian garb and put on a show with the Airedales. Along with chasing bears and treeing coons, the players threw tomahawks and shot rifles, did Indian dances and re-enacted World War I battle scenes that included Native American scouts and code talkers.
The highlight of halftime would be Thorpe’s demonstration of his kicking skills — everything from drop kicks that split the goalpost uprights from 50 yards to punts that traveled 65 yards.
The Oorang Indians debuted a portion of this show at their first NFL game, an Oct. 1, 1922 contest with the Dayton Triangles at Triangle Park. According to newspaper reports, tickets were $1.75 and over 5,000 spectators showed up.
The La Rue team got considerable press here. The Dayton Journal ran a story about Lingo’s stay in the downtown Miami hotel and a bet over a wrestling match he lost to silent film superstar, Harry Carey, who had wagered one of the bucking broncs from his California ranch against one of Lingo’s trumpeted Oorang Airedales.
Some of this history will be touched on Tuesday and Wednesday (9:30-11 p.m.) when the Time Warner Cable Sports channel airs a six-part series it has produced called “Before The League.”
Other than that, the Oorang Indians story is mostly forgotten these days unless you go to Marion County.
And even then you have to know where to look.
The Marion County Historical Society — thanks to a donation of newspaper articles, original photos and notes from Bob Whitman, who was raised in La Rue, was a school administrator in Clermont County and wrote an engaging book “Jim Thorpe and the Oorang Indians” — has a collection in storage.
Some 14 miles to the west is La Rue, population 729.
If you come into town on State Route 37, you see a sign collage that includes references to the Baptist and Methodist churches, the Lions and Kiwanis clubs, the masonic temple and a small, gray-backed reference that reads:
“La Rue … Former Home of Jim Thorpe … 1922 NFL 1923.”
And then, there’s that hidden oasis of the past.
Jim Anderson, who lives on Market Street with his wife Beverly, has turned their place into a shrine to the Oorang Indians.
First training camp
Anderson was born and raised in La Rue, but in a way, he had to go to the other side of the world to realize what he had right at home.
He joined the Army in 1965 and soon found himself in the Vietnam War as part of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment.
The first time he was injured, he said he suffered mostly superficial wounds either from sniper fire or friendly fire — there were conflicting stories — and was hospitalized
Some five days after returning to duty, he said he was on a search-and-clear mission when disaster struck:
“We drove a small track into the middle of an ambush. We lost one man — an engineer’s sergeant got hit and he fell on top of me. Some 24, 27, maybe 25, were injured.
“I had just fired a 50 and was putting another belt of ammo on when I got hit. A round went off beside me. I don’t know if it was an RPG or a hand grenade, but it took my left eye and affected my right (eye) and got my left arm, too.”
Flown to Japan for treatment, before being sent back to Walter Reed Army Hospital, he remembers talking to the other wounded Americans.
They each talked about their hometowns. But he didn’t have a lot to say about La Rue, and that, in part, is why he sought to learn more about his roots once her got home.
“My brother got me interested in history,” he said. “He told me, ‘You don’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been.’ ”
Although he had heard a little about the Oorang Indians over the years, he said it mostly was “just kind of a story that didn’t get told.”
While Walter Lingo would die in 1966, his wife Beryl continued to live quietly in the town for more than 30 years and the things Anderson got out of her began to pique his interest even more.
As it turned out, the unlikely pairing of Lingo and Thorpe was born, in part, after a court case.
Lingo was sued by some local farmers who groused he was raising dogs that were “a nation of sheep killers.”
Thorpe supposedly testified that he knew of a 6-year old girl whose life had been saved by an alert Airedale. That claim and Thorpe’s fame swayed a jury and cemented a friendship for life.
Even though there wasn’t even a football field in La Rue, Lingo hired Thorpe for $500 a week to coach his football team and run his kennels.
The two men then scoured the country for Thorpe’s former teammates at Carlisle (Pa.) Institute, as well as other Indians with college and pro experience. They managed to recruit 17 players — including Joe Guyon and Pete Calac, both of whom had once starred with him on the powerful Canton Bulldogs pro team.
Guyon, like Thorpe, would later be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The players lived in a bunk house on the edge of town, while Thorpe and his family resided in the Coon Paw Inn and toured around La Rue in a new Pierce Arrow automobile.
As it turned out, the Oorang Indians were the first NFL team to hold a training camp, though this one was unlike any that has ever followed. While sharpening their football skills, the players also trained Lingo’s Airedales and tended to the other animals.
The scene was captured by Columbus Citizen writer Lewis W. Byrer, who visited an Oorang practice a few days before the opener in Dayton and wrote:
“War whoops, college yells, football signals, hound dog howls, Airedale yips, coyote yowls and bear growls are resounding through the woods outside of La Rue. … No wild west show is in quarters there — either. It’s merely Walter Lingo’s Oorang football team getting ready for the fall season.”
Only memories left
A traveling team, the Indians played one home game in Marion in two years.
In their first season — after being thrashed 36-0 by the Triangles in the opener where the injured Thorpe did not play – the Indians would go on to beat the Columbus Panhandles twice and upset the Buffalo All-Americans to finish with a 3-6 record. They also won two mid-season exhibitions.
The following year — after several top players were replaced by lesser talent — they won just two of 12 games. After the year, the franchise — to the dismay of the league — was disbanded. Nearly all the players moved out of La Rue, although Thorpe and Calac married local girls.
Although injured much of his time in La Rue, Thorpe would play pro ball for five more seasons. Calac became a Canton cop, Leon Boutwell, the editor and publisher of The Mechanicsburg Daily Telegram, and Nick “Long Time Sleep” Lassa lived for several years in La Rue doing odd jobs.
Lingo’s kennel business was nearly wiped out in the Depression, although it later was revived it in a scaled-down fashion and kept going until his death.
Today, most of the kennel buildings are gone. The site of Coon Paw Inn, which burned to the ground, is an empty lot.
Anderson said many souvenirs of the football team and the kennel business were either burned or thrown out and ended up in a Marion landfill.
Even the Oorang Bang, the annual revival parade that was led through La Rue by a pair of Airedales and followed by two-day festival, has been discontinued
Now the town’s fading football history is left in the hands of the 69-year-old Anderson, who has spent decades saving what he can. His collection is heart-warming. As he shows you around, you can tell it’s a labor of love.
Along with photos and clippings, he has a football, leather helmet and shoulder pads from that era and there is a framed letter from NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue saluting La Rue on the 75th anniversary of the Oorang Indians’ debut.
In Marion, the Historical Society is planning a railroad exhibit next summer that will incorporate the collection Bob Whitman donated.
And Anderson hopes he can get the town fathers to spring for a better sign trumpeting the wondrous team that called La Rue home.
As he thought about the hazy memories, Anderson suddenly smiled and revealed one small tradition that has not wilted. It involves the grave of Jim Thorpe’s wife, Freeda, at a small country cemetery six miles west of town.
“Bev, bless her heart, puts a little flower arrangement on Freeda’s grave every Memorial Day,” he said softly. “She doesn’t want her forgotten.”
He said they’re always geraniums.
Maybe deep red or bright pink.
Colorful … just like the team