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Sydney Thornton, Steelers Running Back, 1977-1982

October 16, 2012
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Sydney Thornton:

First, how is your health – you had suffered a stroke around five years ago correct?

I suffered a massive stroke about five years ago yes. Since then I have been on a steady course of rehabilitation and am keeping the faith. I’m trying to stay up and positive.

Has the NFL helped at all in terms of financial assistance?

The NFL? No…But one former teammate was at my side and helped me to learn how to go about things when I had no idea. Rocky {Bleier} stood by me and relieved me of the problems I had worrying about money and making sure bills got paid. He was down here at the time for a speaking engagement. He fulfilled that obligation then, without asking me, came to the hospital and was there for me like a knight in shining armor.

Post retirement in ’82, what was your next step professionally before the stoke and how did you prepare for that?

I taught school for a number of years then worked for the Shreveport government’s sports system. Someone told me that with my Bachelor’s degree could get  job in this capacity and I applied for it.

You were drafted in the second round in 1977 when Rocky Bleier, Franco Harris, Reggie Harrison, Jack Deloplaine were all on the roster. Were you wondering why they drafted you and how you would fit in with all of that running back talent there?

I have yet to find out why they drafted me (laughing). Under Chuck Noll’s philosophy, if you are a good football player, there’s a job for you. He didn’t discriminate when it came to football players. he only had hangups about attitudes and the way you carried yourself. But if you were a football player you were Chuck’s man.

They put me behind Franco my rookie year and I had my ups and downs learning the system. The next season they put me behind Rocky and I had my ups and downs again.

By the third year, we went to the Super Bowl again, and I was able to stay on the field because when they called Rocky, I would go on with him, and when they called Franco, I could play next to Franco too. I was on the field with Franco when he broke a number of his records.

Who helped you adjust to the NFL and Steelers – both on and off the field – and how?

The older guys – they’d pull you by your collar and tell you what you had to do. It was the well-known players. You had no chance but to listen to Joe Green, L.C. and Ernie Holmes! When they talked, you listened. In my eyes, they were definitely worth listening to.

Did the other running backs help you?

It was a competition type of thing with the other running backs. I’m not going to say that all the things they said to me were done to gain me a favorable position on the team at times. I had to know things for myself. if I had to ask another player where to go, he just might get you in trouble….. We were all trying to keep our jobs.

In camp, if you wanted Noll to be high on you, you had to know what to do and where to go.  The terminology difference between the college and pros was a big difference for me.You had to be clear in the terminology and it was all new to me.

Your first few of seasons in the NFL, you experienced the playoffs then two Super Bowl wins. Were you able to keep that in perspective as a young player and understand how rare and special that was?

I didn’t understand how fortunate I was to be a part of a situation and organization like the one in Pittsburgh. People play so many years without ever getting to a Super Bowl and I got to two.

I wish I had been more wise to understand the professional side of sports though. I came from a small college – football was big but not like the NFL. When you get to the NFL you had to adjust to that lifestyle – you have to handle it like a business. I didn’t have the right guidance and an agent I could trust.

How did that hurt you?

Oh it hurt me a lot. I didn’t have the right person to negotiate for me and didn’t have the power I needed off the field to help me, In my third season it was my renegotiation year and it was a Super Bowl year too. But I had no idea what I was worth. Imagine that.

How did you and the rest of the team handle the decline in play in the early 80’s and how difficult was it for the team as some of the greats started retiring?

Chuck had his job to do and expected you to do yours – and that was that.  What he thought was the last word so you didn’t worry about anything else.

After six years in the NFL, you retired after the ’82 season. What prompted that decision and how difficult was that for you?

The NFL is a business. When they decide you don’t fit into their plans, then you go. That’s how it was. There’s no sense trying to talk to the coach about it. it’s done.

I felt I had one or two more years left in me and went to the USFL. I played with Doug Williams there – took handoffs and caught passes from him. I was successful in that league but the league didn’t last.

Who were the biggest characters on those teams and what made them so – any examples?

People like Steve Courson – he was a character. Terry, Mel…..Ernie Holmes….

Any examples of the hijinks?

Oh – I’m going to leave that one alone (laughing)! I have nothing but good thoughts on my fellow players. I didn’t always agree with everything they did but kept on…

Do you follow the NFL  and Steelers today? What are your thoughts on the new NFL rules?

I will always be  a Steeler – its in my blood now. Once I was drafted by Pittsburgh I was a Steeler and still am today.

I wonder how teams survived back then (laughing). The changes are good for the times. Players played hard then. They play hard now, but they played harder then. back then, players played with career-threatening injuries. If they were hurt they wanted back on the field.

What’s changed?

Money! I don’t see how players can spend that much money today. I’m at a mature age now, I just don’t understand how they can spend all of that.

Any last thoughts for readers?

I want them to know that as Steelers fans, Rocky showed his true colors to me. I love him for that – for all he did for me. He doesn’t know how much that meant to me. I wasn’t expecting help from him  – I was bedridden and all I could do was look up at him.

I’m fortunate also to have two kids – one of which I know, one I don’t know anything about. If they want to know me I want to know them too. If they want to let it be, I understand that too…

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