Midwest Book Review

Diane Donovan, Senior Reviewer


Gridiron Gypsies

Tom Benjey

Tuxedo Press

978-1-936161-06-5              $21.99



Gridiron Gypsies: How the Carlisle Indians Shaped Modern Football is a study of Carlisle's team that begins in the late 1800s and delves into tradition and development in the team to 1918, when it ended.

Much research into archival history, politics and social issues, and football went into Gridiron Gypsies to create a much fuller-faceted flavor than what readers might anticipate from the subject of football.

Indeed, it would be a shame to relegate Gridiron Gypsies to sports collections alone, or limit its audience to sports history enthusiasts, because its accompanying insights into a small town Pennsylvania school whose football team become known nationwide against all odds offers rare glimpses into the politics of the sport.

It's especially notable because the only other study of Carlisle's extraordinary achievements was made in the 1950s, prior to the advent of modern research tools.

School founder Richard Henry Pratt well knew the popular 1890s admonition “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.”  One would think that his background as a cavalry officer in the Indian wars would have led him to support this idea, but Pratt was convinced that Indians could be educated, established a school (Carlisle) for them, and fostered a liberal and far-sighted attitude towards their place in white society that helped belay some of the prejudice against them: "In great demand, the school’s popular band marched in several inaugural parades and played at world fairs and other major events to show the general populace what Indians could do if given the chances whites had. So, even though he abhorred the violence in the game, it was totally in character for him to demand that, if Carlisle boys were to play football, they must soon play and beat the best college elevens."

As Gridiron Gypsies evolves, readers learn about the making of the school and its famous team, and will find the history of both to be fascinating and thought-provoking.

Lively descriptions of team developments, major players and leaders, changing times and challenges, and the politics governing the Indian School and its competitive abilities reveal stories that ideally will see the light of classroom discussions.

If there was ever a book that should be a mainstay in collections strong in Native American history, culture, and issues, or early civil rights efforts, it should be Gridiron Gypsies. The story is about far more than sports, tackling the subject of integration and Native American rights in an era when most would rather have killed than educate them.