January/February 2009 Joshua Cooley True Grit David Thornton Tennessee Titans
Seven years later, Arnold Thornton still feels the tingle of amazement. He remembers that late August day in 2001, gawking with his brother at the flickering images on ESPN: "Is that really David — our David — putting a lickin' on the defending national champs?"
It was. The name on the back of his jersey was the giveaway. Otherwise, Arnold would have had his doubts. Sure, his son had been a gifted three-sport athlete at Goldsboro (N.C.) High, but Arnold had never seen David fly around the football field like this before.
David Thornton #50
|Team: Tennessee Titans|
Weight: 225 lbs.
College: University of North Carolina
Hometown: Goldsboro, N.C.
NFL Seasons: 7
• Referred to by the Titans as a “sideline-to-sideline defender who shoots through gaps with tremendous speed.”
• Is a member of the NFL Player Advisory Council, a select group chosen to communicate with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell on issues that affect the league’s players.
David's previous experience at the University of North Carolina certainly hadn't portended this. A redshirt walk-on, he played primarily special teams during his first three seasons and didn't earn a scholarship until he was a fifth-year senior.
But there he was, starting at outside linebacker — a 6-foot-2, 225-pound missile, homing in on ballcarriers like he was wired with a tracking device. He finished the game, a 41-27 loss to 2000 BCS National Champion Oklahoma, with 15 tackles.
Arnold, beaming with pride, called his son after the game.
"Son, you playin' ball out there!" Arnold gushed. "You're doing a great job!"
"Daddy, Daddy, Daddy," David interjected correctively. "To God be the glory for the great things He has done!"
Arnold smiled on the other end of the line. "I knew right then he was going to be all right," he said.
The outlook for David, who now stars at outside linebacker for the Tennessee Titans — a favorite in this month's AFC playoffs — didn't always look so rosy. Long before he was born, David's very existence was endangered by his father's choices.
Arnold, now 60, grew up in the Goldsboro projects. His father left the family when Arnold was 3 and died when Arnold was 11, leaving Arnold's mother to raise eight children on a housemaid's salary. Life was difficult. The children got one pair of shoes a year. Many of them worked penny-ante jobs to help pay the bills.
By age 18 Arnold was stealing cars. Eventually, he moved to Washington, D.C., and discovered heroin. Life was spinning out of control.
Then God intervened.
During Arnold's second incarceration on a petty larceny conviction in 1973, the Holy Spirit softened his heart.
"I didn't make a bargain in jail," he said. "I made a commitment to God: 'Lord, whether You get me out or not, it's time for me to give up all I'm doing and serve You.'"
The following year, after his defining spiritual moment, Arnold got married, and he and his wife, Janice, soon had three sons: Arnold Jr., Terrance and David.
All three boys were bright, athletic and well-behaved. The youngest, David, seemed to have it all going for him. Besides playing football, baseball and basketball all four years at Goldsboro, he was also president of the National Honor Society, student body president and a drum major in the marching band.
Then, early in David's senior year, the bombshell hit: He and his girlfriend, Nicole, were expecting a child. All of the plans David had for his future seemed to halt and change direction. Qieara was born during the following spring semester. She is almost 12 now and living with her mother in Raleigh, N.C.
"That's another challenge I had to go through," said David, who is still single but deeply loves his daughter. "I try to be to her what my father was to me: a protector, provider and a man of character."
There were plenty of other challenges that David faced once he was at college, namely the cold shoulder he kept getting from his first coach at North Carolina. At one point, he almost quit the team.
Redefining durable, David Thornton has missed only one game in his career, during his rookie year with the Colts in 2002.
But when Coach John Bunting took over in December 2000, David got a scholarship and entered the spotlight. On a defense that featured two future top-10 NFL draft picks — end Julius Peppers and tackle Ryan Sims — David earned the Tar Heels' 2001 defensive MVP award after recording 131 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, three sacks and one interception.
Indianapolis drafted him in the fourth round in 2002, and he averaged 90.5 tackles over his first four seasons, helping the Colts to three AFC South Division titles. He also gained a reputation as a valuable leader who mentored younger players and set an example, regardless of the surroundings.
"I was watching him at training camp, and between every shift at practice, he sprinted from one station to the next," said FCA Central Indiana Area Director Brad Long, who worked with David during his time with the Colts. "That's something you see a junior high kid do. That impressed me more than anything I saw him do on the field. I thought, 'Man, there's a leader.'"
David signed with Tennessee in March 2006 and immediately became a durable cornerstone for one of this season's biggest surprises.
His middle name, Dontay, could easily be "Grit." In 2006, despite suffering a torn rotator cuff in week 5, he played in every game and topped the 100-tackle mark before undergoing surgery the following January and enduring an arduous offseason rehab process. Remarkably, he returned in 2007 to produce one of the finest seasons of his career: a team-leading 122 tackles, six passes defensed and two interceptions.
"That in itself tells you the type of mentality, dedication and athleticism we're dealing with," said Titans' linebackers coach Dave McGinnis. "I wouldn't trade David Thornton for anyone."
David's faith also took time to develop. He was raised in the Tabernacle of Prayer for All People in Goldsboro, where his father became an ordained Pentecostal elder in 1987 when David was 8. Some Sundays, Arnold would keep the family there from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and then return for an hour of prayer in the evening.
"That's what my boys were raised on," he said. "I believe that's what bonded us as a family."
It was all just religion, though, until David trusted in Christ. And it took quite a few startling circumstances to bring him to that realization. In roughly a year's time, he became a father, was placed on academic probation in college and suffered the loss of a childhood friend who was killed in a car accident.
The waters were rising quickly.
At his friend's funeral, during his freshman year at North Carolina, David turned his life over to the Lord. He quickly distanced himself from the party crowd in Chapel Hill and instead devoured sermons on cassette from his father and dove into the spiritual disciplines.
"I asked God to change my desires and give me new friends. He answered every one of my prayers, and things started changing."
"I repented of sins and tried to live it out in the college community, which isn't easy," he said. "I asked God to change my desires and give me new friends. He answered every one of my prayers, and things started changing."
Today, David walks in the footsteps of his selfless father, who devotes much of his time to sharing the gospel with prisoners. Every week, Arnold visits inmates at the Wayne Correctional Center in Goldsboro, the place where he did time 40 years ago. He also visits the Neuse Correctional Institution once a month and travels to various high schools to warn teenagers about drugs.
Each summer, David teams with North Carolina FCA's Johnny Evans to host a football camp for nearly 300 kids in Goldsboro, where all attendees receive sports Bibles. In Indianapolis, he reached out to cancer patients, worked with a domestic violence haven and organized a Christmas gift donation to children of incarcerated parents. In Nashville, he has supported the "Cold Feet, Warm Shoes" program, provided Thanksgiving meals to the needy, and worked with the Bridges Academy, a school for at-risk boys. And that's only the preface to his countless charitable endeavors.
"Who we are is an overflow of who our Master is," Long said. "David's Master is Christ."
David won the Colts' Walter Payton Man of the Year Award twice and was named a Titans Community All-Star in 2007. He has been nominated three times for the Byron "Whizzer" White Humanitarian Award, the NFL Players Association's highest honor.
For David, those titles are earthly crowns, not motivation. The impetus for his selfsacrifice is simple: It's the example of a father who was radically transformed. It's the love of a mother who overlooked her husband's previous mistakes. It's the mercy of a Savior whose blood covered a multitude of sins.
"I've seen God do so much in my life and my family's life," David said. "There are so many opportunities for people to have a different lifestyle, to live an abundant life. I simply love to serve."
--For more stories about faith and sport, visit www.sharingthevictory.com, the official magazine of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. To subscribe to STV, click here.
Photos courtesy of the Tennessee Titans.