Bill "Thunder" Thornton
Bill "Thunder" Thornton was a fullback and a linebacker for the Cornhuskers in 1960, '61, and '62. He was co-captain with Dwain Carlson his senior year. He went on to play six years for the St. Louis Cardinals and returned to Lincoln as a graduate assistant in 1969. He now lives in Columbia, Missouri. More information on his career at Nebraska can be found here. This interview with Bill was done by David Max on June 22nd, 2004.
DM Where are you from originally?
BT Toledo, Ohio. I went to Libbey High School.
DM Who recruited you to Nebraska?
BT Well, it was Bill Jennings’s regime that recruited me. They recruited quite a few athletes from that area. At that particular time the the Athletic Director (Tippy Dye) was also from Toledo and that was the connection.
DM How were you contacted initially?
BT Actually, the Athletic Director at Nebraska had a brother who was a professor at Toledo University. He made contact with me. The interesting thing is he was a paraplegic.
DM Did you make a recruiting trip to Nebraska?
BT Yes, I did. A player, Clay White, from Toledo was already there and playing at Nebraska.
DM Were you impressed with Nebraska before you were recruited or was it because of the Toledo connection.?
BT It was primarily because of the Toledo connection. I didn't know that much about Nebraska. I was traveling around quite a bit after the season ended my senior year in high school. The Nebraska scene was altogether different than all the others that I had visited school wise and it was appealing.
DM What made it stick out from other schools?
BT The lack of pressure and feeling like you were in a crowd and not being recognized and the atmosphere there that was homey type.
DM What were some of the other schools that you visited?
BT Ohio State, Michigan, Purdue, all the Big 10. Colorado was another place that I was interested in. There were quite a few including Mid American Conference schools.
DM So you were making trips about every weekend?
BT Just about. There were three of us off that team in Toledo High School team and we all thought we could go to Ohio State and one of us was turned down. Woody's ideas about football didn't exactly fit with our ideas of college football.
DM Where did the other two guys to school?
BT Elwood Rafert ended up going to Ohio State. Tyrone Robertson and I went to Nebraska.
DM What was Bill Jennings like as a coach?
BT He was a good coach. He was a little laid back. He wasn't very demonstrative. He was a quiet man. It was a little hard to identify him as the head coach. There were other personalities that had that command of presence over him but he was a good man. That was the bottom line. That's what inspired me to play for him.
DM Who was your position coach under Jennings and what was he like?
BT You know what. I can't remember his name. (Laughs) So that tells you something.
DM Who was your position coach under Devaney?
BT Mike Corgan. At that time we were playing both ways. I was playing defense and offense. I spent very little time on the sidelines.
DM What was your reaction when Coach Jennings was fired?
BT I was really disappointed. He had established a rapport with my family. With my mother back in Ohio and all that thrown together it was kind of a let down.
DM What was your reaction when Bob Devaney was hired?
BT Wait and see. I didn’t know who he was. Very few guys knew who he was.
DM How long was it between Jennings being fired and Devaney being hired?
BT I was about a month or two as I recall.
DM Was there any talk on the team about players transferring or were they waiting to see what happened?
BT There was some mumblings amongst the players that wanted Jennings to stay and he didn’t get a fair deal and all that. When Devaney came in we were ready to accept it. I played three years under Jennings so I just took the wait and see approach.
DM Do you have a particular regular season game that sticks out in your memory?
BT The one that sticks out pretty good was the one in Michigan. After Bob Devaney got to know the players and was on the field for a while you could tell right away you could identify with him and see what he was trying to get done. He was a very likable person and he was from that area back in Michigan. He was saying how important that this football game back in Michigan was to him. During the summer I had an injury and dislocated my shoulder and I didn’t know if I would be able to play. George Sullivan and the training staff got me back on my feet so to say and gave me some apparatus to stick under my arm so that my shoulder wouldn’t pop out of place if I would play. It was a question right up until game time. I started and we won the game and had a great day and made his debut in fine fashion.
DM Do you have have a particular teammate that you remember?
BT Bob Brown. I remember how he dominated the offense out there on the football field. You could always count on him to open up a hole some place. He went on to do great things as a pro player as well. He was quite a player. As a matter of fact he was asking me to redshirt because of my injury prior to the Michigan game my senior year. He was saying “If you redshirt I guarantee you that you will be an All-American and we’ll win the National Championship. I said “Oh, Bob, because Tyrone and I and another guy came to Nebraska from Ohio at the same time and we figured we would all leave at the same time. Was that a mistake not to redshirt because they had the old AFL and the NFL and they just broke apart and the bidding was high and that was quite a vision that Bob Brown had.
DM Do you have a favorite Bob Devaney story?
BT It wasn’t funny but I recall his disappointment about not having enough funds to travel to New York to play in the Gotham Bowl. There was a big question about it and he came to the team and told us we’re going if we have to drive our own cars. That was the first bowl game that we had been invited to and he had used that as a motivational tool during the season. He was bound and determined to do and then he walks in and tells the team in his fashion and manner that he had worked it out and we were going and everybody loved him.
DM What do you remember about the Gotham Bowl game?
BT The Gotham Bowl game was cold and it was not very well attended. If I remember correctly the taxi drivers were on strike. You could shoot a shot gun in the stands and wouldn’t hit a soul. It was an empty stadium and it was a terrible, terrible day. It was sleet and snow and everything else and we went out and just wanted to play. At that time we had a kid by the name of Willie Ross and he made his mark in that game. It was a miserable day but it all warmed up because we did win. It was an all around good trip and was the beginning of things to come.
DM What were the Miami players like?
BT They were very confident. I don’t want to say cocky but they were very confident. They got a lot of publicity prior to the game and we read about them and the great things that they were going to do and how George Mira was going to wreak havoc on this Nebraska team from Podunk city. Things changed when we got on the battle field and it was a hell of a game.
DM You came back to Nebraska as a graduate assistant. What was that like?
BT That was a good experience. When I got back to Lincoln Bob was still at the helm and things were moving rapidly. I was just amazed at the changes that were taking place with guys like Warren Powers and Monte Kiffin. Those guys I had played with and known so they took me in and showed me what was going on. It was a great experience. A wonderful experience and opportunity.
I remember going on a recruiting trip with Tom Osborne when we recruited David Humm. We went to David’s house in Nevada and visited his parents. I think his father was running a casino. That was my first encounter with David. When he came to the University eyes started popping because he could throw that ball. I mean he could throw a rope. He was a very likable person. His family was great. His dad was great. Really, really nice people. I have a lot of respect for that kid. He had a lot of guts. He could take a hit.
DM What were the coaches meetings like.
BT They were good. The thing about Devaney’s philosophy was get yourself organized, put it out there and do it as short as possible and get out of there. He didn’t like long drawn out meetings. That made guys, particularly coordinators, very sensitive as to how they wanted to do things. He was interested in details and how we were going to teach it. He would put himself in that players position and he would sit down with you and spend time with you it was amazing how much better you felt going out and teaching techniques or a system. He was involved a lot and he was popular and the time he spent with the staff had to be divided up with his public obligations. Then Tom came in and he extended some things, especially offensively.
DM What was it like going from Lincoln to playing in the pros for St. Louis?
BT The transition was like coming from high school to college. Coming from Ohio to Nebraska the atmosphere was different. Toledo was a big urban area and Lincoln was more of a small town and it was an adjustment. Then going from Lincoln to St. Louis – WOW – that was quite another experience and an adjustment. It was awesome because the caliber of athletes was challenging and it was hard to see where you could fit in so you just went out and did your best and let whatever happens happen. It happened pretty well for me in terms of being able to play.
DM Do you remember what your first year salary was?
BT (Laughs) I don’t remember and that’s understandable because it didn’t exceed the amount I could have made taking a regular job. At that particular time there was a bonus. I was drafted in the fourth round and I think I got $2,000 or something like that. (Laughs again) I think it was something like 12 or 13 thousand dollars a year. Big bucks you know.
DM Who were some of your teammates at St. Louis that people might remember?
BT John David Crow. Prentice Gautt. He was a fullback at Oklahoma that went on to be the Commissioner for the Big 8. He was a professor at the University of Missouri prior to that.
DM Do you still stay in touch with Nebraska teammates that you played with?
BT I was out for the reunion to offer a little support for Frank Solich and saw a lot of old teammates there. My first impression was where the hell did all these old folks come from. Then I looked in the mirror and said “Oops, I’m one of them.” I did have a good time. Tyrone Robertson who went to Nebraska with me married my niece so that kept us close. I stay in touch with him and Gene Young who is also from Ohio. Willie Ross is a guy I kept up with for a while. He’s into politics in Chicago. Clay White was instrumental in getting me to come to Nebraska and he and I were roommates the first year at Nebraska. He went on to do good things his senior year and certainly helped me out as a big brother.
DM You and Dwain Carlson were co-captains on the team that started the consecutive sellout streak in Memorial Stadium that currently stands at 262 games. What’s it like to be the captain of the team that started the consecutive sellout streak?
BT It really feels good to be a part of it but it goes without saying that we didn’t know that it was going to happen. Just the idea of committing yourself and believing what the coaches were telling you and seeing his (Devaney’s) desire to do a great job and instilling the confidence in each of us that we could do it.
Then offering a challenge to go beyond that. That’s one of Devaney’s legacy is the ability to talk to individual players and a group to get players to play above and beyond their ability. He was great at that. Those are the things that stand out and doing so served to set a standard for the incoming players and once that’s set the players understand it and they commit to it then success is bound to happen.
DM How did you get the nickname “Thunder”.
BT That goes back to high school and college. I picked up the name my senior year in high school. It was thrown around a little bit. When I got to Nebraska with the Jennings regime we were playing both ways and I was playing linebacker and fullback. Everybody wanted me to play defense because I tackled fairly well. One practice one of the freshman coaches made the comment that I hit like thunder and it stuck.
DM Is there anything else about your playing days about Nebraska that you would like to comment about?
BT Early on there weren’t a lot of big expectations for the football team. It seems as though we performed better when we went out and played football just for playing football. Not a lot of emphasis on one thing or another. Just go out and do your best. Under Jennings we did much better than ever was expected. The fan support was great. It never faltered. That was one thing. Win, lose, or draw the fans were there to support us. They just wanted to see football teams and they filled the stadium even when didn’t play very well and that was the most impressive thing and the most endearing thing. You felt like you were really a part of something. That’s a warm feeling about it. Things have changed somewhat over the past about the winning. Once you get used to it it’s hard to get used to not winning and very little tolerance to not being able to win. I mean win BIG. When I was playing it seemed that people were enjoying what you were doing on the football field.
There were a lot of kids from Ohio that were out there. Roland McDole (Tackle 1958-59-60) was a defensive lineman and I know you remember Cletus Fischer and Pat Fischer. Pat was a senior when I was a sophomore and Roland McDole and Pat Fischer were one of the first ones to come out of Nebraska and play in pro ball. Pat Fischer played for years and years and years and nobody gave him a ghost of a chance of making a pro football team. (St. Louis Cardinals, 1961-62-63-64-65-66-67 Washington Redskins, 1968-69-70-71-72-73-74-75-76-77) Roland McDole was one of those guys that you never read about and he went on to play pro ball for several years. (St. Louis Cardinals, 1961, Houston Oilers, 1962, Buffalo Bills, 1963-64-65-66-67-68-69-70, Washington Redskins, 1971-72-73-74-75-76-77-78) Roland has never received a lot of recognition from Nebraska. It was like he was never there. He was a big lineman and they played him at every position and he went on and played for decades. Its amazing how little publicity has been given to this guy. I thought the world of him. He was low key like linemen used to be. He was very quiet and accepted anything that came along. He was just in the trenches.
DM What are you doing now?
BT I’m retired. I worked for the state (of Missouri) for 16 years. Now I’m trying to readjust. I lost my wife 4 years ago and every since then I’ve been learning a new profession of housekeeping and organization. (Laughs) I’m not doing a very good job of it. I’m going to get back out and get busy again. Its difficult making the adjustment having been married for 40 something years and then being alone. I may get back into doing some scouting. I can’t see myself sitting on the fishing bank although I like that a lot. I see myself getting back into doing something that I like to do and would be of benefit to others as well as myself.
DM Bill, thanks for sharing your Husker memories with us and I look forward to meeting you in person.
Update: Bill passed away on December 18, 2008 in Columbia, MO. Links to more articles and tributes to Thunder are located here.