Hundreds of youngsters awed by NFL players
By Gabe Whisnant
Published in Sports on July 9, 2006 2:01 AM
In just over one month, linebacker David Thornton will run out of the tunnel for the first time with the Tennessee Titans in an exhibition game against New Orleans -- officially beginning a new stage of his career after spending the last four years with Indianapolis.
On Saturday afternoon at his alma mater, Goldsboro High, he showed that he hasn't forgotten where it all began when he hosted his first football camp at the Cougars' field.
The camp, free to youth ages 8-18, had an impressive turnout as nearly 250 young athletes paricipated in the morning session. The afternoon session, geared toward high school players, had almost 150 pre-registered. Both sessions were made possible with the help of the Boys and Girls Club of Wayne County.
"I'm just excited for the amount of kids that came out. I don't want to just help build winners on the football field, but winners in life," Thornton said. "The kids beat me out here today. There were kids already here at 6:45 a.m., registered and ready to go. It goes to show you that kids were excited and were looking forward to something positive in the community.
"This is just a small seed that I wanted to plant today. Hopefully, someone will come behind me and water that seed and it will lead to something productive and positive."
Thornton was assisted by six current NFL players -- including Southern Wayne graduates Greg Warren (Pittsburgh Steelers) and Tommy Davis (New Orleans Saints). The Titans' Michael "Rabbit" Waddell and Tremaine Hall, and the Colts' Gary Brackett and Cedric Holt also helped with the camp.
Nearly 20 more former and current players and coaches -- from both the high school and college ranks -- also offered their instruction.
"The biggest thing for me is that it was David asking me to do it. He's one of the nicest, most thoughtful guys, and I can't say enough about him," said Warren, a member of the 2005 Super Bowl champion Steelers. "There was no way I would tell him no. He would do the same for me."
For Davis, who signed as a rookie free agent with the Saints, being able to come home to assist the day-long event was an honor.
"It was great that he is coming back to his home town to give back. It's something I would like to do in the future myself, maybe do a two-or-three day camp," Davis said. "For the kids, it's good for them to see someone make it coming from the same background that they do. It lets them see that they can make it, too."
The camp focused on the fundamentals of football. After warming up, the young players moved from group to group and got instruction on different skills -- passing and catching, defensive technique, footwork and agility -- and all points in between.
On top of learning how to play the game correctly, the youngsters got to interact one-on-one with the instructors.
"You're going to be even better with the Titans!" one young camper told Thornton.
"We'll see," a smiling Thornton responded.
At the end of the camp, Thornton huddled everyone at midfield and introduced all of those who helped, one-by-one, and gave a brief speech on his background and career. He spoke of how he went from being a walk-on at North Carolina and not playing until he was a fifth-year senior, then making the most of his opportunity and becoming an NFL draft pick.
Thornton stressed the importance of his faith in God and urged the young, attentive campers to stay away from tobacco, drugs and alcohol.
"I was nobody's MVP. It was never really my plan to play in the NFL, but it was God's plan," he said.
After the talk, all of the campers received a poster with all five of the NFL player's autographs. They were also treated to a free meal and ice cream.
Goldsboro coach Maurice Jackson, who had about 43 junior varsity and varsity players in attendance for the afternoon camp, was pleased Thornton returned to his old stomping grounds to host his camp.
"This does wonders for Goldsboro High School. It's a good thing for the kids and community," Jackson said. "We're just glad he wanted to do it here at home. It gives our kids a chance to be influenced by some great players and coaches."
Marcus Uzzell, a rising senior lineman at Goldsboro, has been to his fair share of football camps before. But it's not every day a high school athlete can be instructed on his home field by NFL and college players.
"It's great to get their insights. They are experts at this, and I'm just trying to learn my craft," Uzzell said. "It's such a blessing that it's free and close to home."
Giving back to the community is nothing new for Thornton. Whether it's here in Goldsboro, in Indianapolis, or in Tennessee, he has consistently devoted his time and energy to camps, charities and outreach projects. In 2005, Thornton was awarded the Colts' Byron "Whizzer" White Award for his service to the community.
As part of the Player-High School Matching Grant program offered by the NFL Youth Football Fund, his contribution enabled Goldsboro High School to receive $10,000 for its football program to purchase new uniforms and equipment. He was honored at halftime of last year's Senior Night as a thank you for his donation.
Whether the camp returns in a similar form next year remains to be seen. What is constant is Thornton's dedication to his roots.
"I take my platform that God has blessed me with very seriously," he said. "I feel like I've been in a position to reach a lot of kids, and I want to help influence them the right way. If I reached one kid today, then it was well worth it."
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