INDIANAPOLIS – One goal the National Football League has for all its players is a well-rounded ability to compete in the sport and assimilate into society successfully.
The hope is that assimilation begins during a career and lasts for many years after it concludes.
David Thornton played nine NFL seasons with the Colts and Tennessee. His career approach was so solid that he rose to the rank of team captain in his third playing season and moved into the Colts’ front office two years after he stopped competing in 2010.
Thornton’s career path for success was no mistake, and the foundation was laid well before the NFL, or even his college days at North Carolina.
Thornton was a winner on all fronts at Goldsboro (N.C.) High School, a town of approximately 38,000 citizens and a school numbering about 850 students.
Thornton was as noteworthy a student as the school possessed. He was a four-year performer at quarterback and safety on the football team. He pitched on the baseball team throughout his prep days, as well as playing point guard for Goldsboro in a basketball-crazed state. Thornton was a drum major of the marching band, student body president, president of the National Honor Society, a North Carolina Scholar, an honors graduate and a two-time graduation marshal.
Thornton walked on with the Tar Heels, started as a senior linebacker and won team MVP honors ahead of two defensive teammates (Ryan Sims, Julius Peppers) who were among the first six picks in the 2002 NFL Draft. With the Colts, he broke into the starting lineup in his second year and won a landslide vote by teammates to become a team captain in his final two years, 2004 and 2005.
The Colts always have embraced the importance of developing their players to succeed on the field and in the community and when new General Manager Ryan Grigson and Head Coach Chuck Pagano came on board last January, the choice who would lead the Player Engagement program was an important one.
Thornton’s exemplary career stayed in the minds of those with the Colts prior to Grigson and Pagano. Pagano spent the 2007 season in Chapel Hill, and a long-time colleague helped make the connection that brought Thornton back to Indianapolis.
“Just spending the one year at North Carolina (2007) there was a ton of people I worked with who knew David,” said Pagano. “Jeff Conners was the strength coach there, and he and I go all the way back to when we coached at East Carolina (1989). Just knowing David’s story and what he was able to accomplish as a walk-on who earned a scholarship and went on to be the player he was at UNC (was impressive). Then you saw what all he was able to accomplish in his NFL career here and in Tennessee.
“You admire David’s competitive side, his character and his integrity. When you ask anyone about David Thornton, to a man every person said, ‘You want this guy on your team and part of your organization because he is going to help you.’ To the players, he wants to serve and to help the young guys.”
Grigson is noted by many who have worked with him as a person uniquely able to spot talent and winning characteristics in individuals. He is certain Thornton will be a building block for the program.
“David’s demeanor is outstanding. I didn’t have to sit long with him to realize he is going to be a great asset to us,” said Grigson. “David has instant credibility with the players because of the time he played the game. … David has a sense of calm about him. He has an ease in how he speaks with people. He speaks from the heart and is genuine in the things he is trying to do with the players. David’s already created a great rapport with the players. They respect him, they trust him and David has a great knack for knowing how to reach people.
“Player Development is so critical in our league because no matter of (the) walk someone is coming from, it’s going to be a change being in the NFL on so many different levels. I think where David is special is that he can connect with a lot of different types of people because he has that genuineness about him. His only agenda is to help the players and facilitate them getting grounded as people and human beings on and off the field.
The club’s 90-man roster currently has 51 players who have joined the team this year. It is an adjustment for the new faces in many regards, and Thornton can help the transition.
“David is a critical addition to us building the program and our regime because we have a lot of new players, a lot of new guys being brought in. David is going to play a huge part in their growth,” said Grigson. “We couldn’t be happier, and that includes Chuck Pagano and (Chief Operating Officer) Pete Ward and (Owner and CEO) Jim (Irsay).
“David is a class act. He has played the game and knows how to carry himself. David is great in standing up and talking to a crowd of young players and letting them know what they need to do to thrive in this league.”
Thornton was a fourth-round draft pick by the Colts in 2002, Tony Dungy’s first year as head coach in Indianapolis. Like Pagano, Dungy is known famously for his relationships with players that help ensure success on the field and beyond. Dungy believes Thornton is a perfect fit for the Player Engagement position.
“Player development and programs has become more critical every year,” said Dungy. “When I was there, we were really blessed to have an outstanding program. It helped our young guys really function as people as well as players. David Thornton is a great move to have in this position. He knows the Colts organization. He knows what it is like to be a young player and a veteran player. David knows the Indianapolis community, too. He is such a positive person. I can’t think of anybody better to help these players develop their potential – the personal side, academics, business, careers and their on-field careers. I think it’s going to be an outstanding marriage.”
Dungy saw how players reacted to Thornton when in 2004 the team held a vote for a new defensive captain. The vote was decisive.
“When Chad Bratzke left us as a captain and we had our first team vote (for a new defensive captain), David won in a landslide,” said Dungy. “Even though he hadn’t been a starter that long, people saw his leadership skills and his personality. He cared about other guys on the team, and it was evident. I think he’s going to be outstanding and tremendous in helping players grow.”
Thornton departed Indianapolis after the 2005 season when Tennessee made a contract offer that Indianapolis could not match. Dungy himself advised Thornton that the offer was too good to pass up, though the loss was extremely difficult for the organization.
In 2006, Indianapolis went on to win the AFC title and played Chicago in Miami in Super Bowl XLI. With the club preparing for a game that would produce the franchise’s first World Championship in 36 years, a friendly face was on hand to offer support.
“When we went to the Super Bowl (after the 2006 season), David came down to Miami even though he was playing for our arch-rivals,” said Dungy. “He was there rooting us on, and he was every bit a part of it. David never really was going to leave his Colts roots. I remember when he left (after the 2005 season), I pretty much told him, ‘You have to go, based on the money (Tennessee) was offering him.’ Even then, it was difficult.
“David is what you want. He’s what you hope every player will develop into, a guy who grows personally and professionally and blossoms. He’s definitely a Colts success story.”
Thornton is busy trying to make a difference with the current Colts players. He understands his position and how he can impact lives.
“I envision Player Engagement ultimately being transformational,” said Thornton. “A lot of our players have been consumed with football for many years. It is so much, ‘Football, football,’ that it heavily becomes their identity. I want to help them see that football is not who they are, it's just what they do. Their identity goes far beyond football.
“I personally believe that God is far too intelligent to give us just the one gift of football. There are multiple gifts He empowers us with. I am charged with helping them find that next gift. I want them to excel in their gift of football, but I also want them to awaken their other gifts. If they can do that now, it will help them make an easier transition to life when football is over.”
Pagano is entering his 29th year in coaching, his 11th in the NFL and his first as the field general. He will have many around him to help build the program and establish the desired culture. Thornton has a prominent role in the process.
“David is a great guy. He’s high-character, genuine and down-to-earth,” said Pagano. “He’s lived it and done it. He has been through the grind and understands the business and what it means to be a pro. He has so much experience to draw on.
“Any time you have an ex-player who has done what David has done, you have instant credibility among the players. Once they get around him, they see what he’s about and what he is made of. We hit a home run when we brought David back and made him a part of our program.”