There aren't that many David Thornton stories to tell in college football. They are pretty rare, and so is he.
The Goldsboro High graduate came to North Carolina on the very bottom of the college football totem pole. At the top level, there are the recruited players. Even in that category there can be distinctions. Was the recruited player rated highly by the recruiting experts? Whose Top 100 did he make? For the avid followers of the sport, and I am talking about the "sport" of football recruiting, it makes a difference – just take my word for it.
Then there are players--in the arcane jargon of college football recruiting--known as "invited walk-ons." Only after the merits of the scholarship players are completely digested and dissected are these players given any attention by the avid recruiting fan. They are the players who are asked by a college football staff to pay their own way through school, but who are regarded as having a good chance to make the team. Defensive tackle Will Chapman falls into this category, and is a great example of how this type of situation can work out for both the player and the university.
Then there is the bottom layer. That would be the "uninvited walk-on." They are players totally unnoticed by programs like UNC, enroll and pay their own way, and simply show up to try out for the team. And for all the attention he is receiving after his performance at Oklahoma, you would never guess that David Thornton falls into that last category.
From coming out of high school completely ignored by recruiting experts and college football staffs, to UNC's defensive MVP at Oklahoma is quite a journey. He was content being a drum major, but his high school football coach, Elvin James, really wanted Thornton to play football. So he did.
He was all-conference as a defensive back, but was overshadowed by a player who held the record for rushing yardage in North Carolina for a time, Montrel Coley. Thornton received attention from Elizabeth City State, and Fayetteville State, but no major football schools. Instead he chose to attend UNC and pay his own way.
It was a journey that was at times discouraging, but never discouraging enough to make Thornton quit.
Not even after being put through a grueling strength and conditioning audition with Maddog Madden as a true freshman walk-on. Not even after finally making the traveling squad, then being almost literally pulled off the bus by Dr. Blanchard and told he did not have enough academic hours to travel with the team. Not even after being in the program for four years without a scholarship.
Not only did he never quit, he never even thought about quitting.
Then in his senior year and final year of eligibility, on the road, against the defending national champions, David Thornton had the type of performance that virtually guaranteed he would become a media darling. How is he reacting to that attention?
Following his Oklahoma performance Thornton said, "I was just in the right place at the right time. I just wanted to play hard each snap. It was my first time starting, I just wanted to go out and give it all I had every snap because I knew I wasn't going to get any [snaps] back."
That is David Thornton. A kid almost too good to be true. A rarity.
An unspoiled, tireless worker in a game too often populated by those who have been so beset by media attention since their Pop Warner league days that anything less than a Sports Illustrated cover story seems ho-hum.
Thornton came to North Carolina a skinny 170 pounds – dripping wet – in a 6-2 frame. He had been a lifelong UNC fan, attracted by the prowess of the UNC basketball team (a trait he shares with his current head coach). He did not have drop-dead forty speed (and at 4.6, he still doesn't), he had no amazing weight room stats (that has changed), and he had no football reputation.
He was a safety initially, then moved to cornerback, and finally to linebacker. Now he is a 228-pound linebacker who has earned high marks from Strength and Conditioning Coach Jeff Connors.
When asked this