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In light of the recent inauguration of our nation’s first African-American President and against the backdrop of perhaps the most meaningful National Black History Month ever, the Nebraska Athletic Department is proud to remember one of its greatest pioneers.
Bill “Thunder” Thornton, Nebraska’s first black football captain in 1962 and the first black member of Nebraska’s storied Innocents Society, died Dec. 18, 2008, in Columbia, Mo. The Innocents Society, now 106 years old, is the Chancellor’s prestigious senior honorary society that selects students on the basis of scholarship, leadership and service.
“It’s really unfortunate that more people didn’t know sooner about Bill’s death,” said former Nebraska quarterback and Academic All-America teammate Dennis Claridge. “Thunder was the best college football player I ever played with. What a talent! He outplayed Ernie Davis when Syracuse came to Lincoln in 1961.”
The first African-American to win the Heisman that ’61 season, Davis died of leukemia before ever getting to play in the NFL. In Nebraska's 28-6 loss to Syracuse, Thornton rushed for 132 yards on only 14 carries and scored the Huskers’ only touchdown. Davis rushed for 112 yards on 21 carries and scored two touchdowns on short runs.
“We didn’t get Thunder enough touches in that 1961 game,” Claridge said. “But he finished his career in style the next year. He was the star when we beat Michigan in Ann Arbor in 1962 – Bob Devaney’s first year as our head coach. Thunder was also the star of the first bowl game we ever won at Nebraska (a 36-34 thriller over Miami in the 1962 Gotham Bowl). There weren't many people in the stands on that cold December day at Yankee Stadium. George Mira passed us silly, but we won anyway. Thunder scored two touchdowns and ran for our final two-point conversion that proved to be the difference."
A Winsome Personality Earned Respect
His athletic accomplishments were historic, but the measure of Thunder Thornton, the man, “was the way he lived, laughed and loved,” Claridge said. “Everyone liked Thunder Thornton. He had such an awesome personality, and it helped him have a huge impact on this university and this program. There were a lot of reasons why Coach Devaney wanted Thunder to be one of his first two captains in his first year here, but the biggest was that his teammates absolutely respected him.”
Nebraska Athletic Director Tom Osborne and six more former Husker teammates – Bob Brown, Dwain Carlson, John Kirby, Tyrone Robertson, Lyle Sittler and Gene Young – share Claridge’s enthusiasm for Thornton’s leadership and popularity.
“Bill was very much liked and respected. He was kind of the ‘Big Man On Campus’ his senior year,” Osborne recalled, acknowledging that Innocents Society members were the catalysts for school spirit and the ones who created an appreciation among the student body for the values Nebraska has always been known for.
Leading Nebraska in rushing both as a sophomore and a junior was a measurable accomplishment for Thornton, but his membership in the Innocents Society was university-wide. It was an honor that reflected his character – something that was more difficult to quantify.
To be the first black in the Innocents Society spoke volumes about Thornton in a way that playing football couldn't. At that time, some people would have accepted a black athlete for his contributions to the football team, but that didn't mean they would accept him off the field. Bill Thornton, who seemed to be everyone’s favorite Husker in 1962, transcended that. He was accepted for both – just like the 40 black Nebraska football captains who have followed in his trailblazing footprints.
That's why the Innocents Society ultimately became a bigger deal than anything Thornton accomplished in football. It was his legacy of leadership that – nearly a half century later – still defines Nebraska's standards for its best overall leader.
Thunder Had a ‘Stabilizing Effect’
Think of the love and the respect that Nebraska players, coaches and fans have for Will Shields. Thunder Thornton commanded that same kind of love and respect. “Even 50 years ago, we didn’t just turn out muscle heads. Nebraska turned out fine young men who challenged themselves intellectually as well as athletically,” said Bob (Boomer) Brown, one of only three former Huskers in both the College Football Hall of Fame and the Pro Football Hall of Fame (Roy (Link) Lyman and Guy Chamberlin are the other two).
“I talked to Thunder a few months before he died,” Brown said. “I didn’t know he was sick at the time, but I’d told him more than once that when he was our captain, he had a stabilizing effect on the university, the football team and on me personally. He was from Toledo, and I was from Cleveland. He had an effect on all of us making the transition from Ohio to Nebraska. He was just as stabilizing for other players as well. He was a true leader – ferocious and hard-hitting on the field and nice, intelligent and kind off the field.”
"In 1960, there were very few African-Americans on campus and probably three-fourths of them were student-athletes,” Osborne said. “I was on Bob Devaney’s first staff the last year that Bill played here. After playing four years in the pros with the St. Louis Cardinals, Bill became a graduate assistant coach at Nebraska and then an assistant coach here, so I got to know him pretty well, and we became pretty good friends. The Cardinals offered him a job on their staff, and he debated back and forth. I tried to convince him to stay here, but they gave him the impression he was going to get more responsibility than he really got. I think that really wore on him.”
It did indeed. “St. Louis wanted Bill more as a symbol than a coach . . . he was never really treated well there,” said Tyrone Robertson, who has been married to Thornton's niece for 45 years and played on the same Libbey High School team in Toledo with Thornton before becoming an All-Big Eight tackle himself at Nebraska.
Thornton and Robertson were both recruited by Woody Hayes and Ohio State, but they opted to come to Nebraska under Bill Jennings and helped pave the way for the likes of Bob Brown, Gene Young and other Cleveland products, including Frank Solich, who became a Husker captain, assistant coach and head coach.
“We had great experiences at Nebraska,” Brown said. “There weren’t many black guys going to Nebraska in those days, but all the people in Nebraska treated us like we were Nebraskans – the same way they treat all the other out-of-state players who decide to come to Lincoln.”
Thornton lettered three times at Nebraska (1960-61-62). According to Nebraska football historian Mike Babcock, Thunder Thornton, fellow Toledo native Tyrone Robertson and Bennie Dillard became the 9th, 10th and 11th African-Americans to letter in football for the Huskers, joining George Flippin (“first letter” 1892), William Johnson (1900), Robert Taylor (1905), Clint Ross (1913), Charlie Bryant (1953), Jon McWilliams (1953), Sylvester Harris (1955) and Clay White (1958), still another Toledo native who preceded Thornton and Robertson.
Devaney’s Influence, Thornton’s Play Beat Michigan
“When Devaney came in from Wyoming, he turned the whole program and the whole state around with a new way of thinking,” Brown said. “Of course, I knew Coach Osborne before he ever became a great coach. He may have been the youngest coach on that staff, but he was the common thread that ran through it. Those coaches were open and nice and always left you with a warm feeling.”
The new coaching staff was a perfect fit for a group of players who were tired of losing. “We had a lot of talent,” said Dwain Carlson, an All-Big Eight guard and co-captain with Thornton in 1962. “All we needed was some coaching and direction, and that’s what we got with Devaney and his new staff. Our practices that were 3-to-4 hours were cut to an hour-and-a-half, and we got more done. We all got along, worked hard and pulled together. That’s why we put it all together. In later years, Coach Devaney told me many times that he couldn’t believe how much talent Nebraska had when he got here. His arrival at Nebraska just proves that winning is infectious, just like losing is.”
Devaney may have lit the match to start a new fire inside the same players, but Thornton was Exhibit A of that fire. “Bill was just a fine man and a fine football player,” Carlson said. “He went 100 percent every day, whether it was practice time or game time. He played hurt, and he never complained. He led by example. He was a great guy, a great player and a great leader.”
Thornton and his inspired teammates prospered in the new environment. A standout linebacker-halfback on losing teams in 1960 and 1961, Thunder still made his mark. As a sophomore, he scored a touchdown in Nebraska’s 17-14 upset win at Oklahoma. As a junior, he was a first-team All-Big Eight running back on a team that won only three games.
As a senior, he moved to fullback full-time, but unfortunately, played hurt most of the season. “He had a separated shoulder and had to beg Coach Devaney to play him at Michigan,” Claridge recalled. “He came off the bench in the second quarter, and we won by two touchdowns. Thunder was the decoy for two of our touchdowns that day, and he scored the other two, including a nice (16-yard) run that put the game out of reach.”
The 25-13 win at Michigan put Nebraska on the national map and gave Devaney an instant national reputation. It also wove “Thunder” into the fabric of the nation’s fastest growing fan base.
“I still remember coming onto the field in Ann Arbor,” Brown said. “We didn’t take a very big travel squad, and Michigan must have dressed 150 people that day. We were doing our jumping jacks when they came out of the tunnel, and the crowd roared. It sounded like thunder, but we were the ones who had the real Thunder that day. It’s a fact, and it’s a belief that we all share – winning at Michigan that day marked the start of Bob Devaney and Nebraska football really taking off.”
Four more consecutive wins gave the Huskers a 6-0 record before Missouri handed Devaney his first loss on Nov. 1. Ironically, that day marked the first Memorial Stadium sellout crowd in what is now an NCAA record streak of 297 consecutive sellouts. Milestone No. 300 will be Sept. 26 against Louisiana-Lafayette.
Nebraska will find a way this fall to honor that 9-2 team that set the stage for our success on the field and at the turnstiles. “That team turned this program around and got it headed in the right direction,” Osborne said. “They’re very deserving of recognition.”
Before 1962, Nebraska had experienced seven consecutive non-winning seasons, and Thornton had been part of three of them.
A hard-nosed linebacker and a bull-dozing fullback, Thunder liked to hit people on both sides of the ball. He was the quintessential example of Nebraska’s revered style of smash-mouth football. “If it came down to a choice between a break-away run or a collision with a would-be tackler, Thunder would choose running over the tackler every time,” Robertson said. “It was his nature.”
Devaney: ‘That’s the Way Football Should Be Played’
And Bob Devaney loved it. “Bill was the epitome of the character that Coach Devaney wanted and demanded in his players,” said Lyle Sittler, a then sophomore center who became a captain two years after Thornton left. “Even on defense, when he made tackles, they had greater sounds – a thunder-like sound – than anyone else’s. The way he played made Coach Devaney grin that sly, funny grin of his. Whether Thunder was making a great play offensively or defensively, Coach Devaney would always say, under his breath, ‘that’s the way football should be played.’”
Sittler cannot say enough nice things about his former teammate. “Thunder was admired by players, coaches and thousands and thousands of people,” he said. “He was a great person, a great sportsman, a great athlete, a dedicated student and a true friend to everyone on the team. He may have been raised in Ohio, but he was a Husker transplant who played a huge part in the development of Nebraska football in the 1960s.”
Thornton later joined Warren Powers’ coaching staff at Missouri. When that staff was fired, Thunder left the college game. The father of three sons became a mentor to high school players and a probation counselor. “The spirit he had and the life he exemplified had a lasting impact on those who knew him on and off the field,” Sittler said. “God bless that spirit because it will shine forever in the hearts of Huskers who remember how it all started.”
John Kirby, who joined Claridge as Nebraska’s 1963 captain the year after Thornton and Carlson captained Devaney’s first team, calls Thunder a true gentleman in every sense of the word. “He always had a kind word for everyone, including those of us who were among the junior rank-and-file,” Kirby said. “Thunder didn’t say much, but his scholastic effort and his personal demeanor spoke volumes.”
Kirby played five years with the Minnesota Vikings and three years with the New York Giants. “I remember being the linebacker that had to take the brunt of Thunder’s fullback hits in practice,” he recalled. “Devaney loved the isolation play, so guess who had to take on Thunder for three years? I can tell you this – his hits rank right up there with the best hitters I ever played against -- in college and the pros. He was one of the talents and the pleasures that made my Husker journey so fun and worthwhile.”
Gene Young, Bob Brown’s best friend from Cleveland, backed up Thornton in 1962 at fullback and then lettered again on the 1963 team.
“I am a Cornhusker at heart and a disciple of the hard-work philosophy of Bob Devaney,” said Young, who became head football coach at Cleveland’s John Adams High School for 25 years after his graduation from Nebraska.
‘The Most Competitive Player Ever’ Had a Second Motor
“Thunder Thornton was the most competitive football player I ever met or ever saw,” said Young, who presented Brown at his NFL Hall of Fame induction ceremony.
“Thunder was so tenacious, there wasn’t anything he couldn’t do,” Young said. “When everyone else was getting tired, he was just getting started. He had a second gear and another motor waiting to knock you down or run you over. He gave everything he had all the time. That’s why he got his nickname before he even went to college. He would put his life down for you. He became, I think, the kind of competitor that really started the physical reputation that Nebraska developed, game after game and year after year.”
Osborne doesn’t refute Thornton’s legendary status as a ferocious hitter, but he can’t help but laugh about Thunder’s passion, and how it didn’t always serve him well.
“Bill loved to fish,” Osborne said, “and I remember him joining me one time at Lake McConaughy. We fished all night long for white bass and ended up sleeping in the car. Another time, when we were at Johnson Lake, he told his wife he was going to the store to get some groceries. He ran into me, and we ended up fishing together most of that day.”
Thornton also ended up, Osborne said with a healthy chuckle, “getting into a lot of hot water because he didn’t come home when he was supposed to.”
Thunder Thornton died at age 69 from complications with diabetes, but he’s “home” now.
A transplant – who lived, laughed and loved everything Nebraska – Thunder Thornton is a tried-and-true Husker . . . forever.
The Voices of Husker Nation
"Thunder Thornton was my first Husker hero in that season of 1962. My Christmas wish at nine years of age was a Nebraska letter sweater so I could be like Thunder. I wore that sweater out over the next year. My sister was a grad student in English at UNL that fall and still remembers Bill's laugh, wit and grace. She was never a sports fan, so knew him better as a friend than as a football player. His was the one name that came up in conversation years later. How fortunate we all were to watch the melding of Nebraska's football talent with Coach Devaney's teaching and Thunder's leadership both on and off the field. He will always be the quintessential Husker great for my generation." - Dan Murphy
"I was a freshman at the University of Nebraska in 1962. I remember listening to the radio to all of the Husker games before I went there. I did see the Syracuse game when Thunder and the Huskers upset Ernie Davis and the Orangemen when I was in high school. My freshman year was a magical year in that Nebraska football - as we know it - started then. I was a freshman in high school when Dwaine Carlson was a senior at Fullerton, Neb. He was my hero so I followed his career with keen interest. All of the players you mentioned in your article and a few more brought back so many memories about that 1962 team and what it represents to the state of Nebraska. Thunder Thornton's passing made me realize what a debt of gratitude we owe him and that team. Although I have not lived in Nebraska in almost 40 years, I follow them like the rabid Nebraska fan I am." - Rob Johnson, Olympia, Wash.