Defensive Back, Quarterback, Running Back, Wide Receiver
Winnipeg Blue Bombers 1961-1966; Toronto Argonauts 1967-1972
-- Special to CFL.ca
The Canadian Football League has had its share of unique and fascinating characters, though none had the impact, both on and off the field more than "Tricky" Dick Thornton. In this modern day arena of pro specialists, Dick's brilliance on both sides of the ball may never be matched. He also had the uncanny ability to mix well with the media ultimately resulting in hundreds of columns, articles, features, pictures and magazine front covers throughout his career.
Dick Thornton graduated from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois just outside Chicago with a Bachelor of Science degree in Speech Communication and Journalism. He was an All-American standout on the Wildcat football team as a quarterback, free safety and special teams performer.
In 1961, he was a high draft choice of the Cleveland Browns of the NFL who then immediately traded his rights to the St. Louis Cardinals. He was also selected by the Dallas Texans of the AFL and made the negotiation list of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. That winter, Thornton dealt extensively with all three teams but finally decided that Canada, with its wider field and different rules, would be the best fit for his versatile abilities.
Dick's first season in the CFL was somewhat frustrating. He cracked the starting lineup a third of the way into the season but suffered a broken jaw against the BC Lions trying to score on a fake punt four games later...causing him to miss the rest of the season and the opportunity to play in the only Grey Cup game that went into overtime.
In that brief 1961 season, he had played defensive cornerback, running back, quarterback and held down some punting duties, showing Bomber fans they had truly added an extremely exciting and talented player to their team.
Dick's career really "took off" in 1962. At left cornerback, he intercepted 4 passes...returning one for a touchdown, recovered two fumbles, blocked a kick and even scored an offensive touchdown upon making several appearances as the back up pivot man to Kenny Ploen. Later that season, Thornton constantly smothered the talented Tiger-Cats receivers in their Grey Cup victory nicknamed the infamous 'Fog Bowl' that was played at CNE stadium over two days.
His career continued to blossom in 1963. On defense he was clearly establishing himself as one of the finest in the game, intercepting 6 passes and returning 3 of them for touchdowns. He also returned a fumble for a touchdown and continued to make frequent appearances on the offensive side of the ball.
Dick missed most of the 1964 season due to a broken right ankle suffered in a game against Ottawa, but bounced back well in 1965. In the second game of the best of three 1965 Western Conference Final played on a frigid Manitoba night, Dick Thornton forever etched his name in the annuls of CFL folklore.
The Bombers had been blown out that first game in Calgary and were huge overall underdogs in the series. Trailing 3-0 late in the second quarter, Kenny Ploen had to come out of the game with a mild concussion so Thornton received instructions from Coach Bud Grant to run out the clock. Disagreeing with that strategy, he replied, "We'll be leading 7-3 at halftime. Trust me, because you have no choice anyway. I'm your only backup."
With time running out, he quickly passed over the middle to tight end Farrell Funston for a 22-yard gain to midfield. He then called an inside reverse to Dave Raimey who shot through the middle for another 12-yards. Dick then called the identical play but this time, kept the ball...took off around the right side and scampered untouched, 38-yards into the end zone. Calgary never recovered and the Bombers won 15-11.
In the decider back in McMahon Stadium, early in the contest Thornton made a spectacular diving tackle at the Bomber goal line on Stampeders running back Lovell Coleman, knocking the ball loose, recovering the fumble in the process. Winnipeg went on to win that ballgame by a slim margin and ended up having to borrow the champagne from the Calgary dressing room for post game celebrations.
Thornton and the Bombers then took on Hamilton in the 1965 Grey Cup, now termed as the unreal "Wind Bowl".
Dick had another great game, making several outstanding tackles, recovering a fumble and even played both ways at cornerback and flanker the entire second half. However, the Bombers had conceded 3 safeties in the first quarter in that howling gale, when passing or punting against it was nearly impossible. Those early six points turned out to be the difference as the Tiger-Cats defeated Winnipeg 22-16.
By this time, Dick had not only established his notoriety as a superb athlete, he was also well known as an outspoken and controversial "free spirit." However, he always had time for people in the community, the corporate business world, youngsters, fans and of course, the media.
He had this to say about his reputation:
"I was often misunderstood, but did nothing more than market and merchandise MYSELF." I ranted and raved about not playing quarterback, had my own fan club, gave all my girlfriends gold #14 pendants, even changed my jersey number from 14 to 28 for a couple of games...called a press conference to explain why...and the answer was I had to play twice as good during that stretch! But it was all smoke and mirrors."
He went on to say, "Remember, those were crazy times; the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Bay of Pigs invasion, John, Bobby and Martin get assassinated, there was a sexual revolution when the birth control pill got invented, we were fighting the Vietnam War, players became hippies with long hair and weird clothes, there were protests and massive demonstrations...it was all happening around us. I had to think 'outside the box' and keep doing things differently in order to keep my sanity."
Being a journalism graduate, Tricky was naturally intrigued by sportswriters and he used them to his advantage throughout his tenure in the CFL. Dick Beddoes of the Globe & Mail once said, "When a team goes on the road for an away game, most players call their girlfriends. Richard Quincy Thornton always called the local sportswriters and broadcasters."
In 1966, the glory days of the Blue Bombers abruptly came to an end. They struggled with a team that was getting old and beat up which missed the playoffs that season. Dick was still a steady performer but eager for a change in scenery. Bud Grant had left for the Vikings and he wasn't that impressed with the new Bomber coaching staff and management. That off-season, he jokingly made a statement on the radio one day; "The best thing about Winnipeg is the road leading out of town." That turned out to be the final straw that got him traded to the Toronto Argonauts.
The Argos prior to 1967 were not just a lousy team, they were the laughing stock of the CFL. There was a standing joke around the League termed the 'Argo Airlift', referring to their management's habit of panicking when they lost a few games; immediately releasing a few players and flying in others who had been cut by NFL and AFL teams to suit up for the next contest. The Argos had not made the playoffs since 1961 and new head coach Leo Cahill was determined to turn the entire program around. In his first meeting with the players, he promised that the best 33 players who survived training camp and the exhibition games would also finish the season and he was true to his word.
Cahill, a former Assistant Coach with the Montreal Alouettes, had always admired Thornton's ability. During his tenure in Quebec, he urged Montreal to make a trade for him on several occasions. Rumour had it that in 1965, the Als offered seven players for Thornton, but Grant rejected the deal. Now that Leo Cahill was in full command, he wasted no time in bringing Dick Thornton to Toronto to wear the double blue.
Leo was counting on Dick's defensive prowess and knew that Tricky could get the job done at several offensive positions and on special teams too. Unfortunately, Dick had suffered a severe shoulder separation knocking down a pass in the end zone the year before which permanently curtailed the throwing strength of his right arm, ending his days of playing behind center on a regular basis.
The Argos were still not a very good team that first year, though they responded well to Leo's positive coaching style and Dick's addition of veteran "savvy". They finished with a record of 5-8-1 and made the playoffs for the first time in six years. One highlight was the annihilation of the Bombers in mid-season in which Thornton was again the star of the show.
Dick described that game to the author in the following way; "Knew I made the right choice in getting traded because when Winnipeg came into CNE Stadium the following season we blew them away, 53-0. I blocked a punt for a TD, intercepted two passes, and just for laughs, Leo put me in at QB and I threw for a touchdown and ran 50 yards on a sweep to the left for another score. Was going for 60 points on the last play of the game and tossed a perfect strike to Mel Profit in the end-zone, but he dropped it. In the locker room afterwards, Mel said he was so shocked that it was a perfect spiral, he took his eye off the ball. We had a good laugh over that one. The Winnipeg press had called me 'over the hill' after the trade but I proved in that one single performance that I was going to be around the League for many more years."
The Argonauts met the powerful Ottawa Rough Riders led by superstar Russ Jackson in the sudden death Eastern Final but the young Argos were no match for such a strong opposition, losing 38-22. Dick blocked an Ottawa punt to set up a Mel Profit TD and observers were impressed at how hard the Argos played until the very end. They had broken the unlucky jinx and were clearly no longer the patsies of the League.
Dick was "Mr. Everything" for Toronto the next two years and the Argos continued to improve. In 1968, with Dick making the defensive backfield a "black-hole" for any opposing quarterback to throw into, as well as playing running back, wide receiver and returning punts, the Argos had their best record in 7 years finishing 9-5. They defeated Hamilton 33-21 in a wild battle at CNE Stadium in the Semi-Final and their next encounter would be with their nemesis, the Ottawa Rough Riders in the two game total point Eastern Final.
The Toronto defense with Dick in the lead smothered the high-powered Ottawa air attack in the first game leading Toronto to a 13-11 victory. The second game was won by Ottawa 36-14 however, showing that Toronto still had a ways to go before they were ready to take on the Leagues' elite.
1969 was one of Dick's finest seasons. He was outstanding at the cornerback position, intercepting 7 passes, returning two of them for touchdowns. He replaced the injured Dave Mann at punter for part of the year and when star runner Dave Raimey went down with a season ending injury, Trix did double duty on offense and defense. He carried the ball 14 times for 106-yards with 1 TD and the Argonauts finished the year in second place with a record of 10-4 behind their old nemesis Ottawa.
In a savage, hard-hitting Eastern Semi-Final, Toronto defeated their main rival, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats 15-9. The Argos then had to battle Ottawa once again in the Final. Toronto defeated Ottawa in the first game 22-14.
Russ Jackson did not complete a pass in the second half of the game and left the field battered and bruised. The Argos were now supremely confident that they would protect their 8 point lead going into the second game in Ottawa.
In the week between the first and second games Leo Cahill boasted "It will take an Act of God to beat us on Sunday," and that's what actually took place. A day or so after Leo's comments, the temperature in Ottawa plummeted and the field at Lansdowne Park froze over into an icy tundra. Ottawa entered the game wearing broomball shoes, which had little suction cups on the soles. The Argos came out wearing ordinary gym shoes. It was no contest. The Argonauts were slipping and sliding all over the field, and Thornton along with his defensive teammates were helpless. With no traction, they couldn't tackle nor cover Ottawa's great receivers. Russ Jackson went wild and Toronto was crushed 32-3. Many of the players blamed team management after this fiasco, for failing to provide them with the proper footwear.
1970 was a disappointing season for the Argonauts. With Russ Jackson retired, the media and the fans felt the Argos were the team to beat. Instead they stumbled to a record of 8-6 and finished in 2nd place behind Hamilton. Dick became one of the first athletes to ever undergo arthroscopic knee surgery when he suffered ligament damage in a game against Winnipeg. He recovered quickly enough to only miss four games.
The Argos were upset by Montreal in the Eastern Semi-Final 16-7, ending a rather bizarre and injury plagued season.
Leo Cahill went to work rebuilding the team for 1971, signing such high profile rookies as Joe Theismann, Jim Stillwagon, Leon McQuay, and Gene Mack plus adding a QB from the Detroit Lion named Greg Barton.
To keep things really interesting, Thornton was again embroiled in controversy over a book he was commissioned to write by a local publishing company. Titled, "Get It While Your Hot, Cause Baby, You're Going To Be Cold For A Long Long Time," it portrayed the real world of professional football from a player's point of view during the turbulent times of the 60's. However, since it was somewhat anti-establishment, Argo management put enormous pressure on the publisher, till the project finally got cancelled.
But the damage had been done to Thornton's image and he entered training camp hanging onto his roster position by the slimmest of threads. It was a foregone conclusion he wouldn't even make the team. However, never short of an exciting challenge and just to prove what a great athlete he was, he not only made the squad but flat out earned the starting job at a brand new position, wide receiver. It turned out to be his finest season in professional football, yet he got little recognition for it. Dick played the first 7 games of the regular season at flanker. When Jim Tomlin got traded to British Columbia, Leo asked Tricky to move back to defense. No problem; in the following 7 games, he intercepted 7 passes, returning two of for touchdowns, which tied him briefly for the lead in all of professional football within that statistical category. The Argos finished in first place with a record of 10-4, won the total point series against the Tiger-Cats 40-25 and were finally on their way to the Grey Cup!
The 1971 Championship Final at Empire Stadium in Vancouver unfortunately was marred by terrible weather. Rain poured down the entire week, changing the game plan for both teams. Calgary took an early 14-3 lead into the half as Toronto's high-powered offense struggled badly. Early in the third quarter, the Argo special teams scored a touchdown and later on, Leo sent Dick into the game at flanker where he made a sensational diving catch to keep an Argo drive alive. Near the end of the contest came perhaps the most 'talked about' series of events in modern day title games. Thornton describes it this way. "Late in the 4th quarter with the score 14-11, I knew I had to make something happen, so jumped right up on, Jon Henderson, the wide receiver and baited Jerry Keeling, the Stampeder QB, into calling a 'fly pattern' audible in an attempt to put the contest away." Most of the second half was a defensive struggle. Calgary had only one first down and were desperately trying to keep Argos from getting into field goal range to possibly tie the score. Thornton continued, "As soon as the ball was snapped, I sprinted back full speed for 25 yards then coasted near the receiver, turned and looked for the ball. Sure enough, here came this floater right to me and I just gathered it in and took off running for the end-zone.
Dick intercepted that pass at the Toronto 42-yard line and headed up field, his blockers doing a tremendous job of clearing a path towards the goal line. He himself made a couple of brilliant moves to avoid would be tacklers and returned it 54-yards before being tripped up from behind at the Calgary 11.
Thornton went on to say, "I have replayed that situation a thousand times in my mind. I had one guy to beat, Jerry Keeling, a former great defensive back himself. Jim Stillwagon was trying to chop Keeling down, but Jerry did a good job of kept his footing, thus forcing me to slow down. I would have much preferred facing Jerry 'one on one' in the open field going full speed. I decided to cut inside left because the sideline was fairly close to the right and didn't want to get knocked out of bounds. But because of my lost acceleration...just as I cut, someone from behind dove, caught my heel and I began to stumble. Keeling then spun around and brought me down at the 11 yard line."
The scenario was now the Argos score and they are Grey Cup champions. A chip shot field goal ties the game and Toronto, with the momentum, most likely wins in overtime. Dick Thornton had played a solid, all round game and was sure to be selected the MVP with the victory. But it was not to be!
Thornton recalled the nightmare, "I went to Leo on the sidelines and told him to put me back in at wide receiver. Calgary would be playing the run and I could easily beat the corner on an out and up. All Joe had to do was float it into my hands, but he just looked at me and never said a word."
Leo had decided to keep the ball on the ground. Leon McQuay carried the ball to the Calgary 7 but on the next play, he fumbled, the Stampeders recovered and it was game over.
There were high hopes for the Argos going into the 1972 season but they lost 6 starters with major injuries including Joe Theismann with a broken leg and fell to a record of 3-11, missing the play-offs for the first time under Coach Cahill. Dick turned in another very solid season intercepting 3 passes, recovering two fumbles and catching a couple of passes on offense. Despite the fact the team was devastated by injuries and lost 5 games by a total of just 11 points, Coach Leo Cahill was fired less than a week after the season ended.
New head coach, John Rauch, made it clear he was going to do things his way and quickly cut all the seasoned veterans, mavericks and renegades including Dick Thornton. Rauch was going to win in the CFL with rookies.
After just one exhibition game in 1973, Dick came into the stadium the next day and found his locker empty and his brilliant CFL career was over. It was odd that no other CFL team picked him up considering he was only 33, which led to people in football circles to believe that his outspoken views and controversial nature overshadowed his exciting, gambling style of play, leadership qualities and potential ability to sell season tickets in the eyes of CFL coaches and management. He got calls from four NFL teams. Yet, their was a little known rule at that time, that if a player had attended just ONE PRACTICE with another league (AFL or CFL), he was ineligible to play in the NFL that entire season, eliminating that option.
Thornton went back to the drawing board to what he always did second best, writing. He quickly became a columnist for the new city tabloid newspaper, The Toronto Sun.
Thornton thinks back. "Sports editor George Gross immediately hired me and naturally, my initial assignment was to cover the Argos. My first interview...John Rauch, the head coach who had just fired me the previous week. Remember, telling him that I knew, that he knew, that I knew he made some very dumb moves based on politics and egos, not on pure talent and that it was now my obligation to inform my million plus readers of the Sun, regarding any future mistakes he is bound to make."
Well, the Argos were "hot and cold" during the 73 season and Thornton in his daily columns and on TV, dissected all the major and minor reasons why this was happening.
Thornton looked back on those days. "It was strange at first, sitting up in the press box alongside sportswriters who had been writing stories about ME just nine months earlier. But I had one distinct advantage over them...I had been there...a professional athlete, on the field of battle for 12 long years, knew the in's and the out's of the game and most important, had the ability to put all these different weekly scenarios into words that people could understand. I used to get loads of mail every week from sports fans saying basically it was finally good to read about...what really happened in a game...from a former player's point of view. On the day Rauch got fired...wrote him a note and basically said...we're even."
His whole life changed forever that winter of 1974, when he got a phone call from John Bassett Jr. while sitting at the Toronto Sun sports desk. Bassett was one of the founders of the brand new, World Football League and also the owner of the Toronto Northmen, one of the new franchises. Thornton remembers the conversation well.
"John mentioned he needed a couple of old guys on the roster (I was then 34) to provide leadership to a young team, because I still had a strong visible name and presence in Toronto and most important, he'd rather see me in uniform than up in the press box. I had to chuckle over that statement."
Dick immediately signed a contract, quit his newspaper job and went to Hawaii for three months to get back in shape.
Leo Cahill became the GM and everything was full speed ahead including local ticket sales, till the Canadian government stepped in. A resolution in parliament was about to be enacted preventing the WFL from playing in Canada. Fortunately, Memphis, Tennessee had just been denied an NFL franchise, so it didn't take long for the Toronto Northmen to become the Memphis Southmen. Dick was elected defensive captain and had an outstanding season, intercepting 5 passes, returning one for a touchdown and made 127 unassisted tackles leading the Southmen to a divisional title in 1974, getting even for a second time.
He retired after that season and spent 1975 working in the front office of the WFL's Hawaii franchise, until the league collapsed mid-season due to financial difficulties.
Returning to the southern United States, he applied for and was hired as the Athletic Director and Head Football Coach of a small, academic Division III college called, Southwestern at Memphis. In three seasons, Coach Thornton's teams went 21-9-1 and in 1977, SAM became nationally ranked with a 9-1-1 season. It still stands today as the finest winning record in the school's history. During his tenure there, his teams shattered 64 NCAA, Conference and individual school records. But Dick didn't feel there was any solid future in coaching. Much more emphasis was being placed on image, money and winning, rather than building character and confidence levels in young athletes to better prepare them for the future.
In 1979 he accepted a merchandising position with the Delta KMA of the Kroger Food Company but nine months later, The Coca-Cola Company quickly lured him away to coach and train their sales people. Over the next 15 years, he worked with the most recognized brand name in the world in 53 countries on an international basis. With Coke, Dick developed the reputation as one of the finest international merchandising and marketing minds in the beverage industry, developing some of the most creative and innovative marketplace techniques and plans that are still being used today.
Tired of corporate politics and the shift in the company direction, Thornton took another gamble. This time, on early retirement in 1994 to start his own consulting business and today, he is one of the most sought after specialists in a variety of Fast Moving Consumer Goods categories.
Dick Thornton now lives permanently in SE Asia, commuting between Manila, The Philippines and Bangkok, Thailand, where he is a weekly sports columnist for the Bangkok Post, the region's most popular newspaper. Details can also be found on his Website: www.coachingpoints.com
If you want to contact Coach Dick Thornton his E-Mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Grey Cup Champion: 1961, 1962
Grey Cup Finalist: 1965, 1971
Inducted into the Winnipeg Blue Bomber Hall of Fame, 1988
On "short list" for Toronto Argonaut Wall of Fame
Voted to the All-Time All-Star Team as one of the top 28 players in the CFL by the fans in 1993.
All Canadian All-Star 1963, 1965, 1971
Most interceptions returned for touchdown - 8
Second most interceptions returned for touchdowns in one year - 3
Second most interceptions returned for touchdowns in one game - 2
Third longest interception return - 54 yards
Numerous interviews with Dick Thornton
Canadian Football League. 2000 Facts Figures and Records
"Goodbye Argos", Cahill Leo, McClelland and Stewart, Toronto, 1973
Born: November 1, 1939
Last Amateur Club: Northwestern University
Blocked Kicks - 1 with Winnipeg in 1962, 1 with Toronto in 1967, 1 with Toronto in 1968.
CFL Total Blocked Kicks - 3.
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