INDIANAPOLIS – David Thornton joined the Colts as a fourth-round draft pick in 2002.
Thornton was a classic success story at North Carolina. He fashioned a career that saw him go from a freshman walk-on to a senior starting linebacker.
Thornton's final year was so noteworthy that he was voted team MVP on a squad that featured players who were the second and sixth overall choices in the NFL Draft, defensive linemen Julius Peppers and Ryan Sims.
Thornton joined a franchise that had made the playoffs in two of its past three seasons and was stocked to a degree with players that would create one of the winningest runs in league history.
Thornton could not crack the starting lineup as a rookie but over his remaining three seasons in Indianapolis, he missed just one starting assignment – that coming when the team opened one game in a five-DB alignment.
Thornton duplicated the impact of his collegiate career by emerging quickly as a team leader with the Colts.
Defensive captain Chad Bratzke's five-year tenure with the club ended after the 2003 season and Head Coach Tony Dungy opened up voting for an on-field leader to succeed Bratzke. The vote was not even close.
"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."
Thornton served as captain for two seasons (2004-05) before his career took him to Tennessee, where he played five more years.
As Indianapolis started a new era this year with General Manager Ryan Grigson and Head Coach Chuck Pagano, the new leaders saw Thornton as a natural addition in the role of Player Engagement, an area that assists players on and off the field.
"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'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."
Thornton is assimilated fully again in his original NFL location, and he is working to help all Colts players succeed like he did a decade ago.
"I definitely understand the importance of Player Engagement. The Colts have always done an outstanding job of making sure this area has been addressed and given attention," said Thornton. "As a player, I took advantage of many different player engagement programs. And now, I am in a position to help players explore these opportunities and to use the resources available to help them transition into the NFL successfully and prepare to exit the NFL successfully."
Colts Owner and CEO Jim Irsay has provided an outstanding example of stewardship for years, and he has stressed along the way how he wants his organization to have a premier leadership role in the city and state.
Using all of an organization's resources to be a leader is critical, and some of the greatest assets and ambassadors for the franchise are its players.
Having players well rounded is an essential aspect of the team's mission. When the league started placing an increased emphasis on player development years ago, the Colts were cited as the most improved franchise in the early stages of the organized efforts. Three times in the period of 2001-05, the Colts were identified with the league's top player development program. Last year, the organization was lauded for its unmatched performance in financial education efforts for its players.
Thornton returned to Indianapolis help forward the direction the team has set for its players.
"When Ryan Grigson and Coach P (Chuck Pagano) brought me in and shared their vision of the atmosphere they wanted to create here, the pedigree of the people they were bringing into the organization, I knew I could mesh well with their vision and family philosophy," said Thornton. "Everyone understands what it means to be loyal, and to trust and respect each other. Of course, my experience under Coach (Tony) Dungy's leadership was phenomenal. The environment he created for the players and coaches, that type of trust is important if you want to be successful.
"I see the same type of environment now with Grigson and Pagano. These two leaders truly embrace the players and want them to be successful on the field, in their personal lives and in their careers after they're finished playing."
Indianapolis currently has 90 players on its roster. Fifty-one of the players have joined the team since the January arrivals of Grigson and Pagano. Setting a tone, establishing a playing and non-playing culture and earning trusts of players are key in building a program. Thornton is busy doing his part.
"You do see a little resistance (with players sometimes)," said Thornton. "Oftentimes, guys don't like to share too much of their personal life, whether it's dealing with their finances, a family issue, or a relationship crisis. Sometimes you can recognize those challenging situations players may be facing. Yet, some players can be a bit sheltered and reluctant to reach out for support that's readily available.
"My role is to try to break down those barriers and to let them know I care about them and I'm here to serve them. Player Engagement gives me an opportunity to listen, to share and to find guidance if it's needed outside of our building. It's a role I cherish and love. It's something that Coach Pagano believes is vital to the success of our program."