Mad Dog Faced Tough Road to Success
Feb. 17, 2009
Charles Thornhill faced a tough path to success in the 1960s. Fighting segregation and helping open doors for future African-American athletes, Thornhill found his way from Virginia to Michigan, the place he would call home for nearly 50 years.
Thornhill was born April 1, 1944 in Roanoke, Va., as one of six children. His mother Ella raised him and his siblings after his father passed away at a young age.
Thornhill began his football career in high school as a 5-10, 204-lb fullback at Lucy Addison High School in Roanoke, Va. Bob McLelland of the Roanoke World News called him “the greatest running fullback ever developed at Addison High.” The standout player gained over 1,000 yards for four consecutive seasons and led his high school to three straight league titles, earning him the nickname “Big Dog” from many of his teammates.
In the 1960s, football teams were often segregated along racial lines. White teams would play at Victory Stadium in Roanoke on Fridays, while black teams were only allowed to play on Saturday. Thornhill’s success on the field transcended the color barrier, gaining support from both black and white fans.
Upon completion of his outstanding high school career, he became the first African-American to be named the “outstanding back” by the Roanoke Touchdown Club for all teams in the Roanoke, Va., area. Upon receiving the award, Thornhill was introduced to Alabama head coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, a guest speaker at the banquet that evening. Bryant steered the high school standout toward close friend and Michigan State University head coach Duffy Daugherty since Alabama did not admit African-American students at the time.
Thornhill made the decision to go to East Lansing, where he was the fourth-string fullback in 1964. When Daugherty was having difficulty finding a healthy body to play linebacker against Wisconsin that season, he moved Thornhill to defense for the first time in his career. The rest, as they say, was history. His “Big Dog” nickname morphed into “Mad Dog” as he started 25 consecutive games over three seasons as one of Michigan State’s best linebackers of all-time.
The physical education major was part of back-to-back Big Ten and national championships in 1965 and 1966. The Spartans went a combined 19-1-1 in the two-year span, including the historic 10-10 tie against Notre Dame in 1966.
“[He was] extremely quick and powerful, always seeming to know where to go at the right time,” said his line coach Henry Bullough.
“‘Mad Dog’ was the unsung hero because he helped provide the backbone and foundation of those championship teams,” said running back and former teammate Clinton Jones. “He was only 5-10, but he played like he was 6-10.”
Thornhill was selected in the ninth round of the 1967 National Football League Draft by the Boston Patriots. He eventually played professionally in the Midwest Football League before spending 21 years working for General Motors in Lansing, Mich. Thornhill later became a sergeant-at-arms in the Michigan Senate in 1992, and was a popular figure throughout the mid-Michigan area.
“Mad Dogs” proudest moments came when both his sons, Josh and Kaleb, followed in their father’s footsteps and played for Michigan State. Oldest son Josh earned four letters as a linebacker and was twice named first-team All-Big Ten. His youngest son, Kaleb, followed, becoming the third Thornhill to play a key role on the Spartans’ defense. Kaleb was a four-time Academic All-Big Ten selection. Michigan State football and the Thornhill family have been together for nearly a half century.
“I really got to know Charlie as a person during my stint here as an assistant coach,” current Michigan State head football coach Mark Dantonio said. “The first day I met Charlie, I could tell that he was passionate about football and passionate about life.”
On Dec. 21, 2006, Charles Thornhill died suddenly of heart failure.
As a tribute to his late father Charles’ son Kaleb changed his number to 41 during his senior season in 2007. Charles wore the same number during his senior season 41 years earlier.
It was a fitting tribute for the first family of Michigan State football.