Richard Quincy (Tricky Dick) Thornton
Born: November 1, 1939 (Chicago, Illinois)
Died: December 19, 2014 (Manila, the Philippines)
Flamboyant and charismatic, Tricky Dick Thornton had a spectacular and memorable 12-year career in the CFL. He was a capable quarterback, a superb defensive back, a competent receiver, a punter and a fill-in kick returner.
He had 44 career interceptions, running eight back for touchdowns.
With Toronto trailing Calgary Stampeders 14-11 late in the 1971 Grey Cup, Thornton intercepted a pass at midfield before racing towards the Calgary end zone. He eluded several tacklers and needed only to get by Jerry Keeling, Calgary’s quarterback, to score, but Keeling, a former defensive back, managed to bring Thornton down on the 11-yard line.
The Argos seemed likely to score to win the game when Leon McQuay slipped on the soggy Empire Stadium turf in Vancouver, fumbling the ball and with it the Argos’ chance to win the Grey Cup.
Richard Quincy Thornton was taught to throw a football as a toddler by his father, also named Dick Thornton, who had been a star collegian at Missouri Mines before playing professional football with the Philadelphia Eagles in 1933. “When Dick was only 3 years old, I started teaching him to pass with a toy-sized football,” his father said in 1958. “He showed a knack for passing right from the start. He used four different sized footballs as he grew up.”
Thornton was a national honour student at Taft High School in Chicago, where he made the school football team at the pint-sized weight of 135 pounds as a passer and kicker. His coach had him work on his running and the boy quickly developed into a prep star. He made all-state honours and 43 colleges sought him for their football programs, including eight schools in the Big 10.
He was a quarterback under the guidance of coach Ara Parseghian at Northwestern University at Evanston, Ill. The coach described Thornton as a brainy quarterback unflappable in every circumstance. “Thornton has natural ability, poise and leadership,” Parseghian said. “As a passer he has a fine, soft touch and is excellent in anticipating the action of his receivers. And he doesn’t get rattled.”
The Cleveland Browns drafted Thornton, an All-American, in 1961, soon after trading his rights to the St. Louis Cardinals. Thornton chose to play for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, where he was a backup at quarterback to Kenny Ploen. He won the Grey Cup in his first two seasons in the league, including an overtime win over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in 1961 and the two-day Fog Bowl over the same team in 1962. Thornton and the Bombers returned to the Grey Cup in 1965, losing in the Wind Bowl to the same Ticats.
Thornton was traded to the Argos in 1967, where coach Leo Cahill mostly used him as a cornerback, from where he poached inadvertent passes. With the Argos, he was the last of the great two-way players, appearing in 80 regular season and 10 playoff games for the Boatmen. His 54-yard interception in the 1971 Grey Cup was his signature play while wearing Double Blue.
A free thinker, Thornton was quick to accept the loosening mores of the 1960s. In an era where most of his teammates still wore brush cuts, Thornton let his hair grow long, and it could be seen curling from beneath his helmet. In the Toronto dressing room, he sat in a director’s chair marked “Trick.” He was brash and colourful, eager to speak to the press. “Most players, when they hit a strange town, start phoning some girl,” Winnipeg coach Bud Grant once said. “Thornton does it differently. When he hits a new place, he starts phoning sports writers.”
He painted, selling his works and donating the money to charity. He also wrote poetry. While a book entitled “Get It While You’re Hot, ’Cause You’re Going to be Cold a Long, Long Time” went unpublished, but he got into print a volume of free-verse poetry called “Pigskin Poet.” One poem dealt with his experience in the World Football League: “As a high-stakes roll against the establishment,” he wrote, “we crapped out.”
He worked briefly as a college coach before taking a sales job with Coca-Cola. He travelled the world, eventually settling in the Philippines, where he maintained a blog called Coach T. He died in Manila of lung cancer, the treatment of which was the focus of his blog until his final month.