There's a pretty good reason St. Edward junior softball standout Kali Kossakowski leads the area in stolen bases.
Speed is in her genes.
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Heck, more than speed is in the genes of the Kossakowski family, who live in Elgin's west side. Let's just say being athletic is something the Kossakowskis had as a birthright, considering the Kossakowskis are related to the man who was once dubbed "The World's Greatest Athlete".
And since I've found in the past week that a lot of people don't really know who Jim Thorpe was, we'll offer a little history lesson on Kali Kossakowski's great-great grandfather.
Jim Thorpe was born in a one-room cabin in Prauge, Okla., in 1887. Thorpe's mother was a Pottawatomie Indian and a descendant of the last great Sauk and Fox chief Black Hawk.
In 1912, at the age of 24, Thorpe won Olympic medals in the Penathalon and the Decathlon and set records that would hold for decades. The 1912 Olympics were in Stockholm, Sweden and when King Gustav V presented Thorpe with his gold medals, the king told Thorpe, "you are the greatest athlete in the world."
Thorpe, though, was stripped of his medals and his name removed from the record books in 1913 when it came out that he had played two seasons of semipro baseball. After his family appealed to the U.S. Olympic Committee and the International Olympic Committee for decades, Thorpe's medals and his name in the record books was finally restored in 1982. In addition to being an Olympic champion, Thorpe was also an accomplished pro baseball player with the New York Giants, the Cincinnati Reds and the Boston Braves, as well as an NFL great for six different teams, including the Chicago Cardinals, whom he played for in 1929. Thorpe died of a heart attack in 1953.
In 1913, Thorpe married the first of his three wives, Iva. Their daughter, Gail, is Kali's great grandmother. Through her, mostly, several pieces of memorabiliahave made their way into the hands of Jim Kossakowski, Kali's dad, who is a 1988 Larkin graduate. Jim and his older brother Anton, a 1986 Larkin grad, both wrestled on scholarship at NIU. Anton was Larkin's first state wrestling champion, winning the 167-pound title in 1986.
The family has a replica gold medal. When Thorpe's awards were reinstated in 1982, they believe his trophies ended up in Stockhom but the medals were never tracked. At the Los Angeles Games in 1984, a ceremony was held in Thorpe's honor and the IOC presented one duplicate medal to Thorpe's living children. Jim and wife Shelly made the trip to LA for the ceremony. In 1996, 1-year old Kali joined mom and dad at the Atlanta Games for a Jim Thorpe photo unveiling. All 14-year old J.T., already an accomplished hockey player, and 2-year old Madison, Kali's siblings, can do is bask in the stories of that experience from before they were born.
There is a wide array of Thorpe items in the Kossakowski's possession, including a signed proclamation from President Richard Nixon from 1973.
"In the early 90s we'd go visit grandma in Oklahoma and she'd always send us home with little item," said Jim, whose given name is Jim Thorpe Kossakowski. "She just had everything in a closet, including stack of hand-drawn portraits of the New York Giants."
About a month ago, Jim was given possession of a diary written in 1913 by Iva Thorpe when she accompanied Jim Thorpe on the famous World Baseball Tour, the brainstorm of legendary New York Giants manager John McGraw and Chicago White Sox owner Charles Comiskey. After a 27-city tour in the U.S., McGraw and Comiskey took their teams on a world tour that would cover 30,000 miles and 13 countries. In published accounts of the tour, Thorpe is recalled as the most popular and recognizable figure on the tour. Thorpe, who also went on to be enshrined in the NFL Hall of Fame and who was the first president of what would become the NFL, was treated as a celebrity at almost every port of call.
While a program from the tour is listed on eBay for $900, the diary Iva Thorpe wrote is, in the Kossakowski family anyway, priceless. It tells clear and concise stories of the travels by ship from country to country, travels that included surviving a typhoon. The back of the diary has signatures galore, enough to make any collector drool, of some of the most famous men in baseball history.
"The stories are just so incredible," Jim said. "It's such great history. It's really interesting reading, especially when you consider it was 100 years ago and she was just jotting down little notes and here we are talking about it 100 years later."
The only item the Kossakowskis have that bears an original Thorpe signature is an admittance pass to the casino in Monte Carlo. Iva Thorpe's written recollection of the gambling trip says Thorpe lost $7 in the casino that night.
The family tree isn't lost for a moment on Kali, the fleet-footed Green Wave shortstop who always knew who her great-great grandfather was but never really appreciated the magnitude of being related to Jim Thorpe until a few years ago.
"As an athlete, having people know who he was is a good feeling," said Kali, who will lead the Green Wave into the postseason on Wednesday when they play Regina Dominican in the Class 2A Genoa-Kingston regional.
"Growing up I knew he was my great-great grandfather but I didn't know how important that was until I did some reports on him in seventh grade. I was like 'Wow.' "
So the next time you see Kali flying around the bases for the Green Wave remember that in addition to her own hard work to become a great athlete, having a little Thorpe blood running through her veins doesn't hurt.