By David Williams
Published in Sports on April 18, 2004 2:00 AM
David Thornton really has not changed since he was a high school football player at Goldsboro High School.
Back then, he was known as an athletic kid with a great work ethic. And even back then, he was showing the qualities that would make him the fast-rising NFL standout he is today.
Back in 1997, Thornton was to be the starting quarterback for the Cougars -- the glamour position for prep players. But his coach asked him to consider playing tight end to help out a weak position on the offensive line, helping standout running back Montrell Coley, who was the star of the team.
Thornton never thought twice.
"The line needed help," Thornton said. "I was more than willing to do whatever it takes. It helped Montrell and it helped us."
That kind of unselfishness and dedication to team goals has guided Thornton's remarkable story that took him from the Cougar Den to the starting linebacker's job for the Indianapolis Colts.
The story has been well-known around these parts -- Thornton went to a small college, then walked on at the University of North Carolina. He impressed coach John Bunting on the coach's arrival at UNC, and he gave Thornton a scholarship and a chance to start.
Thornton came of age on national television, starring on defense against Oklahoma. He was drafted by the Colts and has just completed the second year of a three-year deal to play for coach Tony Dungy.
Thornton went from special teams player to backup linebacker, and then to starter this season. He led the Colts with 150 stops, and his stock is still rising.
Thornton has done it all with a quiet confidence that permeates everything he does. That confidence comes from a deep-seeded faith in God that comes from his family and his church-based beliefs.
"God has blessed and protected me," Thornton said. "Faith in the Lord give me confidence. He's guiding my steps. I know where I need to be. He's with me."
Thornton is just a few months removed from the end of his season -- a very successful season in which the Colts won the AFC South Division title and came within one game of the Super Bowl, falling to New England in the AFC Championship game on a frigid Sunday in Foxboro, Massachusetts.
A lot of criticism was heaped on Colts quarterback Peyton Manning for the defeat -- he threw four interceptions -- but none of it came from Thornton.
"I don't care if he threw six interceptions. There is no better quarterback than Peyton," he said. "He's the co-MVP, he's a phenomenal performer. He's human. And after all that, we still had a chance to win. We'll bounce back."
Thornton is not a Ray Lewis-type defender at 6-feet-2 and 230 pounds. He has good speed, strength, and the ability to close on running backs out of the backfield or tight ends coming off the line on a pass route.
"I fit well as the type of linebacker in Coach Dungy's system," Thornton said.
Thornton credits Dungy's system for his success on the field.
"It's like summer school," Thornton said. "You've got to know his schemes and read them fast. Getting the knowledge makes you play better,"
Thornton also credits Dungy with a series of rules to follow that guarantees his players do not encounter the kind of problems other players do.
"Stay away from women you don''t know," Thornton said. "Don't be hanging out past 1 a.m. Stay away from guns and weapons, drugs and alcohol. Don't be speeding in your car. A lot of it is your choice."
Thornton said speed was the biggest change in the playing of the game when he began his NFL career. That's why he really can't see the day high school players or players with only a little college experience will be drafted, as they are in the NBA.
"It's a huge, huge jump," Thornton said. "Not just the level of play, but the time for preparation and the knowledge of the game. College helps you grow as a player and mature as a person."
In the off-season,. Thornton will continue and NFL internship he started last year, helping out an Indianapolis high school team. While home, Thornton splits his time doing public service and talking with youth groups in Goldsboro and working out in Chapel Hill with his friends Quincy Monk and Julius Peppers, the Carolina Panthers' star defensive lineman. Both were contemporaries of Thornton's at North Carolina.
Thornton came within one win of meeting Peppers in the Super Bowl.
Thornton does not look too far into the future or wonder what the rest of his NFL career may hold. He is content trusting the one that has that plan.
"I never have any doubt," he said. "I'm playing well now, but there is a lot more I can do to get better. The best is yet to come for D.T."
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