Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the Feb. 25, 2011 issue of Golfweek.
LONGWOOD, Fla. – Fellow inmates in federal prison called Jim Thorpe “Old School” or “Ice Man,” the latter because his job was to get on a golf cart and fill the eight water coolers two or three times daily. Initial anxiety turned to comfort as Thorpe made many new friends whom he calls “helluva nice guys” during his 10 months in the Montgomery, Ala., penitentiary. His top bunkmate, in for drug offenses, went by Slim. Others carried the nicknames Doughnut, Goldie and Unc.
Not knowing what to expect, Thorpe slept only a couple of hours a night those first five days last April. He said he was more nervous than when facing a 4-foot putt to win a tournament. He had seen movies about life in the joint and his “imagination was running wild.” Soon, however, all the sizing up between him and the other white-collar offenders in green uniforms brought relaxation. Then bonding took hold, through shooting pool, playing cards for little cans of fish, hanging out in a TV room with six screens and hours of storytelling.
Before long, the congenial Champions Tour player with 13 victories and $13.42 million in earnings had mixed so well that at least one inmate told him, “If we didn’t know any better, we’d have sworn you spent years in jail. You fit right in. We were looking for this guy to walk in thinking he was better than anyone else. We read about all the money you made. But you’re just one of the boys.”
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While serving those 10 months of a one-year sentence for tax evasion, Thorpe played some basketball on the two courts, pitched a couple of softball games and ran the track – until he started feeling like a sexagenerian and realized he preferred walking with the fellas. He went to church twice a week, studied the Bible and watched biblical movies and “Transformers” in the theater. He had a sense of community and plenty of facilities that also included a fishing pond, fitness center, two swimming pools and two off-limits golf courses.
“If that’s prison, man, there are a lot of people I know that would come off the streets and go there to live,” Thorpe said during a candid, exclusive 75-minute interview at the Legacy Club at Alaqua Lakes, where he has taught golf since Feb. 8, following his early release Jan. 26. “It’s probably a bad thing to say, but that would be the (prison) experience I’d recommend. I never met any bad people. We laughed, we talked. You get three meals a day, and the food was excellent.”
Apparently. Thorpe gained 28 pounds after initially losing eight while swinging a golf club, made for him by a new pal, about 100 times a day. Granted access to the kitchen, Thorpe ate his way out of prison those last six months. “I was doing early chow, then regular chow, then go back and fill the coolers and do the pound cake and ice cream,” he said.
On one hand, Thorpe says the experience “wasn’t bad at all, nothing like I thought, nothing like I saw on TV.” On the other, he says he doesn’t wish lock-up on anyone. He was without the thing he cherishes most: freedom.
“You’ve just got to have it, man,” he said. “To be able to move around and do as you please without someone jumping on you or saying you can’t do this.
That’s what I missed the most, other than my girls” – wife Carol and their daughters Sheronne, 33, and Charae, 22.
Little wonder, Thorpe says, he “counted the hours” during the final month until release. He didn’t sleep that last night. Carol had offered to pick him up, but he wanted to head back alone. So a few days before his 62nd birthday, he left Federal Prison Camp at Maxwell Air Force Base and hopped a 5:05 a.m. Greyhound bus en route to Orlando, where he had to report to a halfway house. He was scheduled to stay there until Feb. 23, then return to his Heathrow residence just north of Orlando for house arrest through March.
“As I got out of (prison), it was like, ‘Thank the Lord. I’ve been delivered from this place,’ ” Thorpe said. “Let me tell you why I feel good – because it’s behind me. I can go forward. I can pay these people (Internal Revenue Service). I can get back to playing golf and corporate (outings) and get it squared away.”
He plans to play a full Champions Tour schedule starting with the Outback Steakhouse Pro-Am on April 15-17 near Tampa. He says he’s working out an IRS payment plan but is unsure what he still owes. What’s certain is that Thorpe pleaded guilty in September 2009 to two misdemeanor counts of failing to pay income taxes. According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Thorpe owed about $1.6 million from 2002 to ’04. He agreed to repay more than $2 million, with penalties and interest, and give 200 hours of community service. On top of that, Thorpe says he has paid about $800,000 in attorney fees and suspects he was overcharged.
“One of the things I learned about income taxes is you can file and not pay; it only becomes criminal when you don’t file,” he said. Hence he offers this advice as the annual deadline approaches: “File your taxes.”
He says his failure to file was unintentional, but he takes full responsibility for not doing so, for not paying closer attention and taking care of business. “It was something I never caught up with,” he said. “It was something I never thought I’d go to prison for. But I accepted it.”
Still, he wonders. On one hand, he says he likes to think the prosecutor was “just doing his job.” On the other, he asserts something with which Carol agrees: “I think if I had been another color (than black), I never would have gone to prison.”
The IRS prosecutes about 3,000 criminal cases per year. Thorpe faced two years in prison, according to sentencing guidelines.
Being back in Orlando has enabled him to see his family periodically. But Thorpe was surprised that halfway-house conditions were tougher than the camp. Some of that sentiment relates to the tiny bed Thorpe, a burly 6-footer who tosses and turns, said he fell out of nightly.
“I told him, ‘The next time you fall out of bed, call the rescue squad,’ ” Carol Thorpe said. “His body is our living. If he hurts something, we’re cooked.”
The Montgomery facility brought no such issues, no worries once he got acclimated. But the first several days prompted questions from the man who has missed airplane flights on purpose because of anxiety.
“I’d ask, ‘Hey, does anybody here want to take advantage of you? What’s it like to take a shower?’ (One inmate) said, ‘You stay behind the curtain.’ But there was (no foul play) going on.”
Thorpe estimates his section’s open sleeping quarters housed 15 bunk beds. He had feared he’d be in a cell and would need medication for anxiety or claustrophobia. As it was, he had a bed by a window and became enamored of a bird of prey that he’d watch hunt sparrows every afternoon. “This hawk would fly onto the light pole and I’d say, ‘What a beautiful bird.’ Then he’d take off with unbelievable speed and turn back toward the window. I said, ‘This is pretty cool. Unfortunately something is going to be eaten up.’ ”
He spent considerable time observing. He noticed most inmates didn’t watch golf until he arrived, but then “we had a TV that stayed on the Golf Channel quite a bit.” He noticed his colleagues were workout junkies with “(abdominal) six-packs.” He noticed guards didn’t carry guns and perhaps no handcuffs. And he came to learn two inmates played pro-ams with him years ago.
Thorpe says no one tried to escape but reckons someone could have by walking across a pond with waist-high water about 200 yards long. “But I said, you gotta be crazy to walk away from that. On the other hand, you could have walked out of there and they couldn’t have done anything about it. The sheriff would have come to try to find you.”
His was nothing if not a bonding experience. You get the impression others gravitated toward the former Morgan State running back who claimed three victories and $1.94 million on the PGA Tour.
“Every night, we had bedtime stories, man,” Thorpe says. “The guys would come in and pull up chairs and you’d tell golf stories. We could sit there and talk all night. One of the things that kept me going was the guys I met.”
One night early on, Goldie noticed Thorpe pacing and stayed up with him in the TV room until 4 a.m. Another day, Thorpe stunned a grateful Slim, short on funds, by spending $17 on turkey sausage and toiletries for him at the commissary. “He couldn’t believe it,” Thorpe said. “Seventeen dollars. He thought I was King Tut.”
That wasn’t the only relationship building. Thorpe had visitors five times – three visits by agent Mike Lewis and his son, and one each by a policeman friend and Champions Tour chaplain Tom Randall. Thorpe’s wife and daughters wanted to come, but he didn’t want them to see him in a green jumpsuit. “I hate green with a passion,” he said. “That’s probably the only thing I didn’t like.” He went on to joke that had he won the Masters, he’d have worn a yellow jacket.
During a three-hour chat in a visitors room of about 100 people, Randall said he sensed Thorpe was happy but lonely. He saw that other inmates looked up to Thorpe. He watched him sign a few autographs for other visitors. “I think he was a bit of a role model in prison, as odd as that sounds,” said Randall, who will caddie for Thorpe for free in the golfer’s first two tournaments back.
Fellow pros Tom Watson, Andy Bean, Jerry Pate, Mike Reid, Peter Jacobsen, Gene Jones and Fulton Allem were among the many who touched him by writing letters and saying he was missed. Thorpe said he’d be “lost” without such friends.
“He didn’t deserve what he got,” said Allem, a South African. “He does more for charity and society than 99 percent of people. You will not find a person with a bigger heart.”
Thorpe said he left Alabama having learned he had a stronger will and more patience than he had thought, and that “powdered milk tastes absolutely terrible.” Besides quitting cigars and growing the paunch, he said he has changed by becoming more of a Christian and getting closer to his wife in part because of Thursday night dates by telephone. And he came away thinking the roughly 900 white-collar criminals (in for offenses such as conspiracy, money laundering, drugs and tax evasion) and multimillions spent on prisons could be put to better use, such as for community service.
It was Carol who went to the Legacy Club at Alaqua Lakes seeking a work-release job for her husband. Longtime general manager Ron Parris says he figured teaching would be “perfect,” and that Thorpe has proved him right. “He’s done great,” Parris said. “Jim has always been a class act, a people person to the ‘nth’ degree. He’s very cordial to our members.”
Thorpe, who has an unconventional, self-taught swing, gave seven lessons during his first week. He stuck to swing plane and other basics because “with my swing, man, it would be almost impossible to teach someone something.”
The job has enabled him to practice and play some, sorely needed since he hit only three or four balls in prison. His tender hands taped, Thorpe birdied three of the first four holes in a recent round with Allem. It follows that he assesses his game as shockingly good and says there’s potential, even at his age, to earn a half-million or more a year during the next couple of seasons.
“It won’t take me long to get back for two reasons,” Thorpe said. “No. 1, I want to do it; No. 2, I’ve got to pay off the Internal Revenue. So I’ve got to put my nose to the grinder stone and not take no for an answer.”