01/13/06 — Back together again - Colts' Thornton, Steelers' Warren meet Sunday

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Back together again - Colts' Thornton, Steelers' Warren meet Sunday

By Gabe Whisnant
Published in Sports on January 13, 2006 2:07 PM

They grew up here in Wayne County, played football down the road at the University of North Carolina, and have met as opponents on a National Football League field.

On Sunday, their paths will cross again -- this time, in the AFC divisional playoffs.

David Thornton has been here before. The Goldsboro High grad, now a starting linebacker in his fourth year with the Indianapolis Colts, is no stranger to the postseason. Indianapolis has been a playoff regular, only to be riddled by heartbreaking losses -- mostly to the New England Patriots.

For Steelers rookie Greg Warren, a Southern Wayne grad and a longsnapper by trade, his playoff history begins and ends with last week's come-from-behind win against the Cincinnati Bengals.

A pair of former college walk-ons, Thornton and Warren have seen more success than most would ever dream they'd see ... but they're looking for more.

The Colts flirted with immortality this season, winning their first 13 games before finishing the regular season 14-2. They've secured home-field advantage throughout the playoffs and are looking to win it all.

"I think the guys were excited to make history," Thornton said in a recent phone interview. "It wasn't one of our goals as team, though. We wanted to win the division, make the playoffs and have a shot at winning the whole thing. We stayed focused on our opponents, and one win after another, more attention came our way. Each opponent was important ... any given Sunday you have to be ready."

Meanwhile, the Steelers are playing the best football they've played all season and can certainly make an argument as being the hottest team going into the second round. The Steelers have won five straight, three of those coming on the road, including last week's impressive 31-17 victory at Cincinnati in the first round.

Warren saw first-hand last Sunday how a special teams' blunder can turn the tide of a playoff contest. Still leading 17-14 early in the third quarter, Cincinnati's long snapper sent a snap well over the head of the holder on a field goal try, seemingly changing the momentum of the game. Pittsburgh went on to outscore the Bengals 17-0 the rest of the game.

"I think everybody that's in my position where one play can change it or have a significant impact, knows how he feels," Warren said in a phone interview this week. "It just shows none of us are perfect. You have to keep going and moving on. You just have to hope your team can overcome it."

This week, Pittsburgh will have to play similar, or even better, than its second-half performance at Cincy as they take on a well-rested and focused Colts squad. Indianapolis is coming off a first-round bye and has used the time to get rejuvenated and prepared for what they hope to be a lengthy playoff run.

One thing is for certain, one of the two local natives will advance to the AFC Championship game next weekend. Whoever gets to that point will be playing for the chance to be the first athlete from this county to ever play in a Super Bowl.

"Having home field and getting a bye doesn't happen very often. We're excited to get a chance to play every game at home during the playoffs," Thornton said. "We're hoping it can pay big dividends. We understand the magnitude. The road to the Super Bowl goes through Indy."

Indeed. But, for both Warren and Thornton, that road began on the fields in Wayne County.

Tar Heel connection

When they meet again Sunday, Warren and Thornton will make some time to chat.

"When I saw him (Thornton) in the regular season, I made it a point to speak to him. It's always nice to see someone from the Goldsboro area making it as he has," Warren said. "It's nice to see a familiar face too ... to be able to relate to somebody like that."

Thornton, however, won't be the only familiar face Warren will see. This weekend's Colts/Steelers matchup will be a Tar Heel reunion of sorts.

Thornton and Warren are just two of six former University of North Carolina players who will be on the field on Sunday. Colts center Jeff Saturday and defensive back Dexter Reid, along with Pittsburgh kicker Jeff Reed and running back Willie Parker, also suited up for UNC.

Warren, who was a red-shirt freshman during Thornton's senior year at UNC, is obviously proud to be in a contest where their is plenty of Tar Heel pride on display.

"Six former Tar Heels ... it's really exciting and good for the program to show off former players doing well. It helps recruiting and prestige," he said. "I love it. I always look to see if there are Carolina players on any of the teams we play and try to introduce myself and let them know I'm part of the same tradition."

But Tar Heel loyalty aside, Warren and the Steelers would love nothing better than to pay back the Colts for a bitter loss back on Nov. 28.

In that first meeting, the Colts, in the middle of a historic run, turned in one of their most impressive performances in a 26-7 win at home over Pittsburgh. Thornton, who registered 96 tackles this year, good for fifth on the team, finished with eight total tackles during the game against the Steelers.

The win proved to be Indianapolis' 11th in a row to start the season. The Colts would eventually become only the third post-merger NFL team to start a season at 13-0, before dropping two straight to San Diego and Seattle, then winning their finale at Arizona.

Overcoming tragedy

Merely days after their first of only two setbacks this season on the field, the Colts suffered a much more tragic loss off the field.

Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy's oldest son, James Dungy, was found dead in his Tampa, Fla. apartment after committing suicide -- sending sadness and shock across the Colts organization and the NFL.

Dungy missed his team's next game at Seattle, before returning to the sideline for the season finale at home against Arizona. Through it all, Dungy maintained his faith in God and was thankful for the thoughts and prayers he received during a time of intense grief.

"We loved our son very much. He loved us. And we miss him terribly. But, we also understand that we have some tremendous promises from God. God promises to be with us. He's with us in the great times. He's with us in the tough times. Our family will stand strong. The strength that we have in the Lord will allow us to get through this just as we get through times of victory," Dungy said on Dec. 27 when addressing the media for the first time after his son's death.

Thornton already had immense respect for his coach before this unfortunate incident, but how he persevered through it only made his admiration for Dungy grow.

"To see him go through a tough situation ... through it all his faith and trust in God pulled him through," Thornton said. "To see him exemplify that to the world was amazing. He's a role model for us as professionals and as fathers, and he's a friend to the guys on the team. We have a jewel in Tony Dungy.

"He's still healing, but to see him respond with strength, he encouraged tons of people. We presented him with the game ball after the Arizona game. The fans, the team, the city, the nation is supporting him."

Life as a rookie

In a way, Warren and Thornton's paths to starting in the NFL have been similar.

Neither were highly-touted coming out of high school, nor were they scholarship players at Carolina. But both possessed a tremendous amount of work ethic and discipline, along with talent at their positions, that made them appealing to NFL scouts after their senior seasons.

Warren has a lot of respect for Thornton's ability to go from being a fourth-round selection to becoming a starter on a contending team.

"He's the epitome of work ethic. From Carolina, he wasn't a scholarship guy like myself, but he worked his tail off to get bigger, stronger and faster," Warren said of Thornton. "Finally, his senior season he took full advantage of the playing time, and he's never looked back after got drafted. He's continued to work hard, and it's very evident. He's one of their leaders. You could tell during pregame when I saw them this season ... he's a great role model and somebody the Colts base their work ethic off of."

Warren, a 2000 graduate of Southern Wayne, believes he's met his expectations as an NFL rookie. At the end of the regular season, he was in the top 10 in tackles among snappers and is a part of a unit that was 24-of-29 on field goals and a perfect 37-of-37 on extra points.

"It's been an experience. I feel like I've done fairly well," Warren said. "I finished tied for eighth or ninth among snappers in tackles. I was never a big tackle guy in college, so that was one of my goals. I think I ended up with four or five. I feel like my snapping has been good, and I've done fairly well."