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THE TWISTS OF FAIT

Oct. 16, 1991
Oct. 16, 1991

Table of Contents
Oct. 16, 1991

Dateline: The Author Returns To Yesteryear To Report On A History-Making Football Game
Bob Cousy
Orlando Cepeda
33! Lakers
  • In November of 1971, the Los Angeles Lakers went on a roll. Twenty years later, their 33-game win streak is still the longest in pro sports history

Fait Elkins
Lenglen Vs. Wills
A Call To Arms
What If?

THE TWISTS OF FAIT

An athlete of rare talent, Fait Elkins seemed destined for immortality but landed in obscurity

One morning in 1910, federal census takers visited the Elkins family on its farm near Anadarko, Oklahoma. Stephen Elkins was a full-blooded Caddo Indian, and his wife, the former Fannie Mays, was white. Years before, Fannie had known a minister, the Reverend Fait; and when her first son was born, on Aug. 16, 1905, she named him after the reverend. But on this day in 1910, the four-year-old boy was entered on the census roles as "Fate."

This is an article from the Oct. 16, 1991 issue Original Layout

This was a clerical error, but it is tempting to think of ii as something more. Fait Elkins is now but a shadow figure in American sports history; however, for a brief shining lime he was among the greatest athletes ever seen in this country—a golden sportsman during sport's golden age. But the hand of chance played harshly with his life; and his intemperate spirit seemed to follow a destiny of its own, leaving the Elkins legend largely buried in the yellowed snippets of newspaper that once trumpeted his dazzling achievements.

According to family legend, when Fait was a youngster he found a plow tooth and tied it to the limb of a cottonwood tree with a length of rope; he would spend hour after hour throwing the metal prong, like a javelin or a football. In those days federal Indian agents often acted like talent scouts; when the discovered Indian youths who were exceptionally good at sports, they often sent them to one of two boarding schools operated by the Indian Education Department—Haskell in Lawrence, Kans., or Carlisle in Pennsylvania. In 1919, a year after his lather died, Fait Elkins, just 14 years old, was enrolled at Haskell.

Although Haskell was essentially a preparatory school, its upper-level athletic teams often competed against colleges. The Haskell Indians opened the 1923 football season against the University of Kansas City and won 98-0. Elkins, playing fullback, scored five touchdowns. Late in a game against the Gophers at Minnesota, the Indians trailed 13-6 when Elkins caught a pass on the Minnesota 10 and ran in for a score, carrying three Minnesota tacklers with him. But Haskell missed the extra point and lost 13-12. Elkins subsequently took over the kicking duties.

The outlook was bright for another big year in '24, with Elkins touted as a prospective All-America. But then, in the first of what would be many sudden and peculiar turns in his athletic career, Elkins did not return to Haskell. A terse statement in the school yearbook indicated only that he had "deserted" the Indians and transferred to Southeastern State Teachers College (STC) in Durant, Okla.

STC was known for its fine basketball teams, and upon arriving, Elkins—who was just under six feet tall—led the Savages to three victories, "thrilling the crowd," as the Durant Democrat noted, "with his speed and shooting." But Elkins's season was interrupted at this point when federal marshals boarded the team's train during a road trip and removed Elkins, charging that as an Indian minor he was a legal ward of the United States and that he had left Haskell without permission. Elkins was less a federal fugitive than he was the object of an intense recruiting war: The marshals took him directly back to Lawrence, where he was ordered to represent Haskell in an indoor track meet. Somehow he escaped, and in March 1924, back in Durant, Elkins claimed that Haskell "has no strings on me."

That spring, Elkins single-handedly won several track meets for the Savages, showing particular brilliance in the javelin and the long jump. In the fall he turned again to football. "He was not a big man, but it seemed like he was made of steel," remembers his teammate Virgil Currin. With Elkins running, passing, punting and playing defense, the Savages were the class of their league.

One evening that fall, Elkins, the campus hero, strutted into a party where he came under the admiring eye of an 18-year-old woman named Thelma Perkinson. Says Thelma now, "I just said to myself, I am going to have that pretty thing for myself. And I did."

Today she is Thelma Akin, an 85-year-old widow living in Durant. But in the fall of 1924, Thelma was a spirited young blonde enraptured by a handsome football star. She was a member of a prominent Durant family, and her father, claiming that Elkins was "a tramp, a freeloader and an Indian," forbade her to see him. "I guess that just made me want fait more," she says. "He told me he came from a rich family in Green Bay. About four years later I went to Anadarko and met Fait's mother; she and the children were dirt poor, living in a two-room shack. When I got back, Fait just laughed and said, 'Well, you know the truth about that at least.'

"He never minded much when he was caught out in his make-believes. To hear Fait tell it, Jim Thorpe was a close friend. I think that was another of his made-up stories. But he certainly knew all about Thorpe. Fait said Thorpe had been the greatest athlete ever, better than any white man. He also said he would break Thorpe's records and be more famous. Mostly his stories didn't hurt anybody. He told people what they wanted to hear and made them feel good. There may never have been a more charming man than Fait Elkins."

The itinerant Elkins, by now known by his nickname, Chief, had won the heart of the belle of Durant, but he did not stay around long to enjoy the romance. Elkins moved on to yet another school, this time Dallas University, a new and athletically ambitious institution. Soon the Dallas Hilltoppers—with Elkins regularly entered in six or seven events—became a force at major track meets. In the fall of 1925, Elkins starred on the gridiron, and the Dallas News advised its readers, "In Chief Elkins, the Hilltoppers have one of the greatest running backs in the Southwest."

But in another curious turnabout, Elkins showed up in the fall of 1926 at the University of Nebraska—as a freshman. He immediately became a star on the Cornhuskers track team, which was coached by Frank (Indian) Schulte. Greatly impressed with the versatility of Elkins, Schulte arranged for the 1927 national decathlon championships to be held in Lincoln.

The competition was staged in early July in 100° heat. The held included Harold Osborn, who had won the 1924 Olympic gold medal and set a world record. Halfway through the Lincoln meet, Osborn quit because of heat exhaustion. Elkins won easily with 7,574.42 points, the most ever scored in the United States. Osborn's world record, set in Paris, was 136.35 points higher; but it was scored when the decathlon was (as it is again now) a two-day event. In 1927, though, the AAU decreed that all 10 events should be contested on the same day; thus Elkins's score was, remarkably, accumulated in one brutally hot day.

Soon after his astounding performance, Elkins wired Thelma in Durant, asking her to meet his train the very next day and marry him; two days later, on July 15, 1927, they wed. Upon returning to Lincoln, Thelma found that her husband was a very big man on campus, the best all-around athlete in the country and the player who would lead Nebraska to football glory. As an early September tune-up, the Cornhusker varsity played the freshmen. Elkins exceeded expectations, breaking several long runs and consistently punting over 50 yards. This performance caught the attention of other members of the Missouri Valley Conference, who launched an investigation of the Cornhuskers' phenom. On the grounds that his previous five years of college football—including his Haskell years—would render a sixth excessive, the eligibility committee ruled that Elkins could play no more for Nebraska.

Still, Elkins remained the national decathlon champion, seemingly a sure bet to make the 1928 Olympic team and, as Thelma recalls, a campus celebrity. "He had sponsors who saw that he bad nice clothes, money and the use of cars. He was real good at bridge and golf, so maybe he won money, but I don't know that for a fact. We went to a lot of parties. Fait always had a good time, especially if there were girls. But he had a terrific temper. When he was drinking liquor, he'd get in fights. He was never mean to me that way, but when he got wild, I'd leave by myself."

Nevertheless, Thelma was still magnetized by Fait's sweeter qualities. "He would sit for hours reading hooks he liked. Fait was as good with words as he was at games. He worked as a reporter for the Lincoln Star. Some of our best times were when the two of us would go to the track while he practiced. He was beautiful to watch. He only trained once or twice a week. He said he didn't need to do any more, but the truth is he didn't feel like training a lot of days because of the night before."

There is little record of how Elkins spent his summers in these years, but anecdotal accounts suggest that he picked up cash by traveling the Midwest playing baseball for town teams. Word of Elkins's talent as a baseball player apparently reached important ears. As Thelma recalls, it was in January 1928 that Branch Rickey, the vice-president of the St. Louis Cardinals, came to Lincoln and treated Fait and Thelma to a grand dinner at the Cornhusker Hotel. "He was very complimentary to Fait," Thelma says of Rickey, "and asked him to play baseball for St. Louis after be finished the Olympics, fait said he would, but I don't believe they signed any papers."

A week or so later, says Thelma, the New York Athletic Club—then the country's most influential private sporting group—made Elkins an offer: If he would come East to represent them, the clubmen would pay all his expenses through the Olympics, to be held in Amsterdam in August.

In February, Fait and Thelma hit New York. This was the age of Dempsey, Jones, Hagen, Tilden, Ruth and Grange, and in the spring of 1928, the star of Fait Elkins, the colorful Chief, rose rapidly in the athletic firmament. Moreover, Fait and Thelma became the darlings of the fashionable New York sporting set. "I remember one night there was a big affair at the Waldorf," says Thelma. "And if I do say so, we looked pretty. Fait was so dark, and I was so blonde. When we walked in, those New York people just gawked. At the table Fait nudged me and said, 'Honey, I bet we're the only ones here who ever ate just butter beans for supper.' I about choked trying not to giggle."

But for Thelma, life in the social swirl proved taxing. She was pregnant, and in April she returned alone to Durant. "Fait was supposed to be training, but there were always invitations to this and that. I don't blame Fait—it was his big moment. But the way he was living was too rich for a country girl from Oklahoma."

In June, during an NYAC-sponsored decathlon practice meet on Travers Island, Elkins scored a dazzling 7,802.17 points. American track pundits were convinced that the Chief was a lock to win the gold in Amsterdam.

The final trials to select the four-man U.S. decathlon team were held in Philadelphia, July 2-3, under the supervision of the Olympic team's head track coach, Lawson Robertson, a stiff-necked Easterner who was unenthusiastic about the undisciplined habits and rakish personality of this Indian phenom. In the first of the 10 events, the 100-meter dash, Elkins was leading when he suddenly pulled a tendon and hobbled across the finish line. Robertson insisted Elkins withdraw lest he "ruin" himself. Elkins, Robertson said, would not be a member of the U.S. team.

The NYAC protested, and arranged a practice session less than two weeks later at which Elkins demonstrated that he was competitively sound. But by this time Robertson had sailed for Europe with the official U.S. squad. Angry members of the NYAC, intent on forcing the Olympic committee to hold a final trial before the Games began, put Elkins on another ship bound for Amsterdam.

But Robertson was unswayed, and on Aug. 3 and 4 in Amsterdam, Elkins watched the Olympic decathlon as a spectator in the stands. Paavo Yrjola of Finland won the gold, setting a world record of 8,053 points.

Before they had parted, Elkins had promised Thelma that as soon as the Games ended, he would return to Oklahoma to await their baby's birth. But from Amsterdam he wired that he had missed the boat home because a Dutch laundry had been tardy about returning some of his best shirts.

It was several weeks later, in October, that he returned to the U.S., and Elkins went not to Oklahoma but to Philadelphia, where he agreed to play professionally for the Frankford Yellowjackets, a pioneer NFL team. He made his debut against the Chicago Cardinals; under a Full-page headline—FAIT ELKINS SHOWS CARDINAL PALEFACES HOW TO PLAY—the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the Chief returned a kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown, passed "with uncanny precision," and otherwise "did everything" in a 19-0 victory. With Elkins, the Yellowjackets finished at 11-3-2.

Just before Christmas, Elkins finally returned to Durant to see Thelma and his three-month-old daughter, Cecile. The reunion was tender and emotional, but Fait stayed only a few weeks. In January 1929 he left for Florida, saying that he had talked again to Branch Rickey and was going to join the St. Louis Cardinals at their spring training camp. Thelma did not hear from her husband until midsummer, when he wrote to explain that before he got to camp he had been laid low by a mysterious sickness, which resulted in some amnesia. Fortunately, he said, a kind Florida woman had nursed him back to health. Since it was by then too late for baseball, he was returning to Philadelphia to rejoin the Yellowjackets. He asked Thelma to bring the baby and join him there for Christmas. She did.

"Sometimes there was a big banner outside the football field saying Fait was playing that day," Thelma remembers. "But the banner didn't fly every game because sometimes Fait just flat didn't show up. He was wild as ever and drinking more than before. He liked the speakeasies and the people who were in them. I told Fait he had better pay more attention to his training or he'd get a yellow slip. But he laughed and said the team needed him."

He was wrong. Late in the season, Elkins was cut. He and Thelma had a series of confrontations about money and prospects. In March 1930, Thelma returned to Oklahoma with Cecile. Obtaining a divorce, she remarried two years later. She never saw Fait Elkins again. "There is no reason now to think about the rights and wrongs," she says. "Fait was always an intelligent and exciting man, and often a very loving one. I do not regret having know Fait or marrying him."

The dwindling newspaper clips confirm that the athletic career of Fait Elkins, once so bright with promise, was reduced to little more than an occasional flicker of type. The last printed mention of Elkins as an athlete is a half line of agate, which indicates that as a member of the 1933 Cincinnati Reds, a short-lived NFL expansion team, he punted one time for 34 yards.

Elkins returned to Philadelphia, married a woman named Helen and eventually took a job in a shipyard. In 1942, three months after Pearl Harbor, he wrote a letter to his mother, his roguish spirit still at play. He had thought about joining the Army, he wrote, "but getting in is another thing. I'm purty fat. Of course I could send Helen instead. I'd be of more value here at home, taking care of all the lonesome widows and wives. Helen sends her love and I love my mommy too."

Elkins remained at the shipyard until physical ailments made heavy work impossible. In 1962 he suffered a temporary paralysis of his legs and thereafter was a semi-invalid. He died in Philadelphia on Aug. 9, 1966.

In the summer of 1945, 17-year-old Cecile Elkins visited New York with a school friend. Before leaving home, she had written to her father in Philadelphia, telling him where she would be and that she very much wanted to see him. He did not answer directly.

One afternoon, in her room at the Barbizon Hotel, Cecile was informed that a man was waiting for her in the lobby. "I knew it must be my father," she remembers. "I was so nervous. I only knew him from the photographs and the stories. When I stepped off the elevator, a man who seemed too old was waiting. He was heavy, had a big round Indian face and wore thick glasses. But his face lit up with a wonderful smile, and he said, as if he was telling a story to somebody else, 'I saw this beautiful girl get out of the elevator and I started falling in love with her before I realized she was my daughter, Cecile.' "

Fait Elkins took his daughter to dinner and a show; afterward they went to a small bar. "He drank very little," says Cecile, "and I didn't at all. We talked and laughed between ourselves. He made me feel like the most beautiful, sophisticated and loved daughter in the world."

At the end of the evening Elkins returned to Philadelphia; Cecile never saw him again. "In a way," she says, "I'm glad we only met that once. From what I have heard and read, my father disappointed people because he did not or could not go on being the extraordinary man he was when they first saw or knew him. I only have one real memory of him, of the one night when he was a great father."

Fait Elkins was often great, but only for short spans of time. Perhaps those brief moments at the summit of achievement grew quickly boring to him, or perhaps they frightened him. From each high place, he invariably came down, never pausing to enjoy the view. Onlookers, meanwhile, were briefly astonished by his meteoric brilliance, but afterward they could only be left wondering why he was not a steady fixed star.

PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONFRED OTNESPHOTO ILLUSTRATIONFRED OTNESThelma fell in love with the charming football hero, and together she and Fait made a most handsome couple; but the revelrous vagabond in Elkins finally proved wearisome for a country girl from Oklahoma.PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONFRED OTNES; UPI/BETTMANNOsborn was the decathlon champion when he was beaten by Elkins and summer heat.PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONFRED OTNES; UPI/BETTMANNA superb decathlete, Elkins saw his golden hopes for the 1928 Olympics sabotaged by a pulled tendon and a powerful coach.TWO PHOTOS