Northwest News

Obscure Native American grave in Pasco is linked to NFL’s most unusual franchise

Pasco commemorates Native American NFL player Leroy Gray Horse

Pasco commemorates Leroy Gray Horse, an NFL player who was buried at Cityview Cemetery in 1956.
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Pasco commemorates Leroy Gray Horse, an NFL player who was buried at Cityview Cemetery in 1956.

Leroy Gray Horse was 56 when he died in Pasco on March 19, 1956.

Not much more is known about the man resting in an obscure plot in Block 7 at Pasco’s City View Cemetery.

A temporary marker giving his name and date of death was installed around the time he was buried and was still there until this week.

The temporary marker didn’t mention Gray Horse’s Chippewa heritage, his family or his brief professional football career.

Wednesday, more than 60 years after his death, Gray Horse received a proper grave marker and a sendoff befitting his Native American heritage, courtesy the city of Pasco, Indian Eyes LLC and representatives from the Wanapum, Nez Perce and Lakota tribes.

Rex Buck Jr., chief of the Priest Rapids Band of the Wanapum, led the ceremony, which included chanting, incense and bell ringing. Buck said he’s happy to draw attention to a man that history was poised to forget.

“It’s a way to recognize to future generations that this elder is here,” he said.

Gray Horse.jpg
Leroy Gray Horse

What little is known about Gray Horse is fascinating and it’s sparking interest in exploring Pasco’s connection to the National Football League.

In 1923, he played for the Oorang Indians, a gimmicky franchise helmed by Jim Thorpe, the legendary NFL Hall of Famer and 1912 Olympic gold medalist.

Gray Horse belonged to the Chippewa, also called the Ojibwa or Anishnaabe people of the Midwest.

Burial records identify his father as Blue Bird Littlebear and confirm that Gray Horse died in Pasco.

His mother’s name is not known. The burial record gives no hint of where he lived, what he did or where or when he was born.

Tri-City Herald editions from March 1956 don’t appear to mention Gray Horse’s death either.

His story might have disappeared except for a chance conversation and his overlooked grave marker.

Dan Dotta, Pasco’s facilities manager, said he learned about Gray Horse several years ago while chatting with a local historian during a Memorial Day program at the city-owned cemetery.

“The historian said, ‘We have some interesting people in our cemetery,’” Dotta recalled. That’s hardly surprising. More than 10,000 people are buried in the 13 blocks that comprise City View’s historic north end.

Pasco is attempting to solve the mystery of Leroy Gray Horse, an NFL player who was buried in obscurity at City View Cemetery in 1956. Noelle Haro-Gomez Tri-City Herald

The historian singled out Gray Horse and Lt. Jesse Barrick, a U.S. Army soldier who received a belated Medal of Honor for bravery in the Civil War.

Barrick’s remains had been exhumed and reinterred at the Tahoma National Cemetery in 2000.

But Gray Horse’s remains lay undisturbed more than a half century after his death.

Dotta investigated and was troubled by the deterioration of his “temporary” grave marker.

After decades of wind, rain, sun and snow, the concrete marker was cracked and the lettering was wearing away. It wasn’t meant to last and in five more years, it would have been unreadable, Dotta said.

“We want to make sure we didn’t lose his history,” he said.

Dotta turned to Roxie Schescke, president of Indian Eyes LLC, for help installing a proper marker and ensuring the city remained sensitive to Native American traditions.

Schescke, who is Lakota, said she was eager to help. Her company sponsored the new marker. And Schescke made it her mission to uncover Gray Horse’s story.

“We’re going to do our best to find his family,” she said. She hopes to bring family members and Chippewa representatives to Pasco to visit the grave.

It’s unclear why Gray Horse was in Pasco in 1956. But his connection to the Oorang Indians and Jim Thorpe places him in a unique period of NFL history.

The temporary grave marker installed in 1956 for Leroy Gray Horse at Pasco’s City View Cemetery. Noelle Haro-Gomez Tri-City Herald

Walter Lingo, a dog kennel owner in LaRue, Ohio, formed the team in 1922, the year the American Professional Football Association became the NFL.

He paid the bargain franchise fee of $100 (about $1,500 in current dollars) and set out to use the team to market his business and sell Airedale dogs, a breed of terrier.

An Airedale served as team mascot. The colors were burgundy, gold and white. The team logo was an “I” superimposed over an “O.”

The team roster included players from the Cherokee, Chippewa, Winnebago, Mohawk and Mohican peoples.

“Oorang” was the name of Lingo’s business.

The 1923 Oorang Indians, an NFL franchise in Ohio, featured legendary player-coach Jim Thorpe, third from left in the back row, and Leroy Gray Horse, third from right in the middle row. Gray Horse is buried in Pasco. Courtesy Beryl Lingo

Lingo recruited Jim Thorpe to lead the team. One historical account notes Thorpe was pushing 40 and down on his luck when he signed up.

The Oorang Indians were not a good team. They won just three games in the two years they spent touring the U.S.

It was more successful as a marketing gimmick, at least at first. Pregame and halftime shows featured native dances and tomahawk and knife-throwing demonstrations, along with appearances by the dogs.

When the novelty wore off a year later, Lingo abandoned the idea. The franchise folded in 1923.

In the team’s 1923 portrait, Gray Horse is in the middle row, wearing his uniform and the barest hint of a smile.

In a separate individual portrait, his expression is unreadable but he’s wearing a leather helmet, the latest innovation in player safety.

Born in 1900, he would have been 23 at the time.

Though the team folded, 1923 was a notable year for the NFL. It was the first year all its affiliates actually fielded teams.

Today, LaRue, Ohio retains the distinction of being the smallest town to ever field a NFL team.

Wendy Culverwell: 509-582-1514