One last run for ‘The Thundering Bull,’ Sidney Thornton

A BITTERSWEET REUNION:  Northwestern State football teammates of Sidney Thornton gathered last Friday night at Winnfield Funeral Home in Shreveport. (Photo courtesy of Jack Brittain Jr.)

By DOUG IRELAND, Journal Sports

It’s Valentine’s Day, which is all about love, which makes this a perfect day to remember Sidney “The Thundering Bull” Thornton.

He was buried Saturday afternoon at Forest Park Cemetery West in his second hometown, Shreveport. He came north from Baton Rouge to play college football at Northwestern State, and changed lives the way he did it, and the way he was.

From 1973-76 in Natchitoches, and then for seven years in pro ball, he made impressions. On defenders, and people who met him. Eyes sparkle as memories flow.

Teammates gathered Friday evening, and more came Saturday to send off Sidney and support his beloved family. It was a tough end to a terrific beginning. Thornton arrived at Northwestern unheralded but awesomely gifted with ability and an Adonis physique.

“He was 5-foot-11, 245 pounds, could run a 4.5 40 in a day when that was really fast, and looked unlike anyone else I ever saw,” said teammate Jack “Britt” Brittain Jr. “He was chiseled. He was so fluid, so athletic, so powerful. We had several high NFL Draft picks at NSU in those days. Nobody took your breath away like Sidney Thornton. He looked the part and lived up to what he looked like, and everybody loved him – his coaches, teammates, people in town.”

He broke Charlie Tolar’s 19-year-old career rushing yardage record with 2,662 yards in just two years as a starter. In the Blue-Gray All-Star Classic, then played every Christmas Day in Montgomery, Ala., drawing many stars from major powers, Thornton was the game’s Offensive MVP.

He was drafted 48th overall, in the second round, by the Pittsburgh Steelers, to fit into a backfield featuring Pro Football Hall of Fame halfback Franco Harris, 1,000-yard rusher Rocky Bleier, and led by Terry Bradshaw.

Although he was Pittsburgh’s third-leading scorer (60 points) in 1979, when the Steelers won their fourth Super Bowl (second for Thornton), his top salary was just $100,000.

He played in 74 NFL games, starting 21, scoring 24 times and totaling 2,121 yards. The Steelers were at their peak, winning back-to-back Super Bowls and going 58-29 in his career.

But Thornton’s legacy isn’t measured in stats. He is remembered as a joyful, gentle, fun-loving teammate, an awesome sight to behold on campus or on the field, a mentor to younger players and to many Demons after he reached the NFL. To his wife Beverly and his children, he is missed as a doting father and grandfather, who battled fiercely as long as he could after suffering a massive stroke in September 2005 that greatly restricted his movement and speech, but not his heart, until he passed late last month at 68.

The young Thornton, recalled by old Demons:

Willie B. Mosley, cornerback: “I played with Sidney for three years. Whenever he smiled, he had that gold tooth and he lit up the room. Any time you had to hit this guy, you never hit him in the chest. You went for his ankles. He was a courageous guy who always knew where he was going and what he wanted. He was a friend, and I’m going to miss him.”

Sonny Louis, cornerback: “I remember him coming back (from the NFL) to practice and helping us out – a lot. He was a great guy. He helped Joe Delaney with his success – how to carry the ball and run the ball, things like that. One of his favorite sayings was, ‘You can’t make the team in the tub.’ He was a great guy who left a great legacy.”

Robert Brown, defensive end: “My freshman year, Sidney always said, ‘Brown, you got a lot to learn.’ I was determined to get to the quarterback. He would not let me. He said, ‘Brown, I’m going to teach you how to play defensive end,’ and he really did. He taught me how to take on a running back and drop ’em. He was a great leader, with a great smile, a very encouraging person.”

John Dilworth, defensive back: “One of my vivid memories was (in practice) when they ran a quick pitch, and I was known as a hitter – I went up and hit Sidney. Most people I hit, they fell back 3-4 feet. Sidney put me on the ground that day. I got drafted by the Dolphins, and they had a fullback named Norm Bulaich. I hit him on the goalline and knocked him out. Before that, I had told Sidney, ‘You’re going to be good up there.’ Sure enough, he was one of the toughest backs to play in the NFL.”

He was. But as pro ball’s pounding took its toll, Thornton developed substance abuse issues that dogged him for two decades, although he was a high school football coach at six schools, notably from 1985-90 in charge of rebuilding a downtrodden Coushatta High program. His Super Bowl rings were lost as collateral in a loan gone awry. Once he finally cleaned up his lifestyle, he had only a few years before the stroke put him in third-and-very long.

He did not shrink from the challenge, recalled Demon teammate Ken Meeks, who helped Thornton through rehab and his waning years.

Said Meeks: “If Sidney worked as hard at football as he did trying to recoup his life, he would have had one of those Pro Football Hall of Fame gold jackets. He had such a great heart.”

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NFL REUNION:  Pittsburgh Steelers running back Sidney Thornton (38) posed with Kansas City’s Joe Delaney (37) , the Haughton native who broke Thornton’s career rushing record at Northwestern State.