Bruce Thornton is a big man.
During the Premiere League flag football game, put on by the NFL Players Association the Friday night before the Super Bowl, I spotted him (well, I could not have missed him) in the media bullpen, towering over the rest of us.
It is hard to believe, but I recognized him. He is 52 years old and I had not seen him on TV or anywhere else since 1981, when he was 22 and I was not yet 20. Still, I remembered the face.
As an ardent Cowboys follower, I remember being excited about the eighth round defensive end when he came to the team. I was not alone, either. There were plenty of high expectations for Bruce Thornton. Unfortunately, a leg injury he had suffered in college slowed him.
Then, he suffered another injury in the NFL.
Thornton’s NFL career lasted only four years: Three with the Cowboys and his final year with the St. Louis Cardinals. Like so many before him, the reality had not met his own expectation, nor the expectations of others. He found himself 24 years of age, having to make alternate plans, to find a new career.
Bruce talked about the current players and the expiring Collective Bargaining Agreement with the NFL
“It isn’t necessarily the superstars that need improvement, that need the longterm healthcare benefits. It’s the guys whose careers are cut short. It’s the guys that make it in the league, but never sign the big contract.
“I am one of the lucky ones. I can still get around. Plenty of guys I played with can’t. And they have had to absorb their own medical expenses for years.”
While we were on the subject of the looming lockout, I asked him about the proposed 18-game schedule.
“You can’t go to eighteen games without expanding the active roster, and I don’t mean by three or four players,” Thornton said.
I asked if that wasn’t just another way of saying that the two additional games will result in substantially more injuries to player.
“Absolutely! There is no doubt,” he answered.
I asked how much he would expect players’ careers to be shortened in terms of years played in the league. He didn’t know for sure, but had no doubt it would shorten careers.
Bruce Thornton talks about Jerry Jones
Kalen Thornton, a 6’3″ linebacker out of the University of Texas, and Bruce’s oldest son, also played for the Dallas Cowboys, joining the team as a rookie in 2004. His career was cut short, when in 2005, he suffered what would prove to be a career-ending knee injury.
“I love Jerry Jones,” says Bruce Thornton. “The way he took care of my son…he didn’t have to do all that he did. Oh sure, he had to reach an injury settlement with him, but he went way beyond that.”
“What did he do?” I asked.
“He saw that Kalen had the very best care, that he was seen by the best orthopedic surgeons. Then, when Kalen decided he wanted to go to Stanford to get his MBA, Jerry aided him in getting into the program.”
“Jerry gets a lot of bad press, but he cares about his players. You just don’t hear his former players criticize him.”
Bruce Thornton remembers Harvey Martin
I asked Bruce what it was like to play on the ’70s Cowboys, with those players that would become legends in Cowboys’ lore.
He immediately brought up Harvey Martin.
“Harvey was my mentor,” Thornton said. “He took me under his wing, showed me the ropes.”
I said, “They called him ‘Too Mean’ Martin, but I hear he was the nicest guy.”
“He was! Always had that big smile. I loved him. Man, I wept when I found out how sick he was. When he died, it wiped me out.”
The love Bruce Thornton had for his fallen teammate was still palpable after all these years. There was an emotional strain in his voice.
But, as this giant of a man talked patiently with me, a complete stranger that had invaded his private space, I could not help but think that a young man today could do much worse for a mentor than Bruce Thornton.
I also could not help think how much we miss as football fans when we define an athlete’s worth strictly by his on-field accomplishments. Some of these men on whom circumstance did not smile during their career embody a greatness the world-at-large will never know.
Those fortunate to know Bruce Thornton know what I mean.
God bless the lesser lights. God bless the forgotten men. God bless Bruce Thornton, my new friend.
I went to high school with Bruce...He was younger than me but he was a great guy with a serious talent.
Hey Gene... You ever want to chat I have many stories.. I was also at the Eagles .. My Facebook has my contact info . Email ; WTCemail@example.com. Jon
Bruce and I were rookies the same year with the Dallas Cowboys... both played in the BIG TEN.. Bruce was a great guy .... nice off the field .. tough as nails on the field.. He did well at Dallas...