It turns out William “Nay” Thornhill knew the identity of the sportswriter that placed a phone call to Michigan State’s football office in 1962.
The previously forgotten caller had encouraged the Spartans to recruit Charlie “Mad Dog” Thornhill, an historic athletic figure in then-segregated Roanoke, Va.
“Bob McLelland,” said Nay, Charlie’s younger brother, referring to the late sportswriter at the Roanoke Times and World News.
Charlie, an All-Big Ten linebacker on Michigan State’s 1965 and 1966 Big Ten and national championship teams, was the first black athlete named “Back of the Year” in the 1962 high school season by the Roanoke Touchdown Club. He was presented the unprecedented award during a banquet at the famed Hotel Roanoke that featured Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant as the keynote speaker.
McLelland, who was white, had long asserted black athletes should be considered for the area’s top football honors.
“This man stuck his neck out pushing for black causes,” Nay said. “”Bob could have lost his job in those days. He said it wasn’t right that black kids weren’t being considered.”
In “Raye of Light,” the recently released book I wrote with Michigan State’s pioneer black quarterback and trailblazing college and NFL coach Jimmy Raye, there is chapter on Charlie Thornhill, who died in 2006, as a member of Michigan State coach Duffy Daugherty’s Underground Railroad. Daugherty recruited athletes from the segregated South in a story far more profound than history has accorded him.
Chapter 10 is titled, “Mad Dog, the Sportswriter and the Myth.”
This is the sportswriter part of Chapter 10
Retired Michigan State assistant coach Vince Carillot described taking a phone call from a Roanoke sportswriter. I write in the book football coaches usually don’t have patience for sportswriters with recruiting tips, but this ink-stained scribe said something that caught Carillot’s attention.
Carillot recalled the conversation: “I listened and he said, ‘Charlie was picked as Back of the Year. Remember, he’s black. He’s the first black player ever picked for this award.’ ”
Essentially, McLelland’s tip was an extension of Daugherty’s Underground Railroad network. Daugherty befriended black high school coaches in the South by staging clinics. Only Daugherty had such a network because only Daugherty put on clinics for black coaches who were otherwise denied access to clinics hosted by southern college coaches. Jim Crow didn’t recognize the coaching fraternity the way Daugherty did.
The black high school coaches also knew the Spartans’ reputation for a fully integrated roster – not just two or three as was the case at other Big Ten and integrated schools -- from watching games on TV. Ditto for McLelland.
However, more than a half-century later Carillot didn’t recall the sportswriter’s name or his newspaper. That’s understandable.
I spoke with writers and editors at the Roanoke Times; they didn’t know the answer. They suggested contacting the area’s black newspaper, the Roanoke Tribune; no one knew the story.
I was steered to and spoke with one of Charlie’s old teammates and an old assistant coach. I contacted Charlie’s sons, Josh and Kaleb, both former Michigan State linebackers like their father, and his wife, who had remarried. No luck.
Charlie’s older brother, Waverly, has passed away, but no one told me about his younger brother Nay (I’ll leave it to Nay to discuss this with Josh and Kaleb at Thanksgiving dinner). There’s always one more phone call to make when chasing a story, and my mea culpa is I didn’t find Nay by the time the book went to print.
Apparently, McLelland never sought credit or praise for his good deeds. He did it because it was the right thing to do. Otherwise his story would be newsroom lore at the Roanoke Times and in the Roanoke sports community.
McLelland, who worked for the Times and defunct World News from 1949 to 1980, finally won over Roanoke Touchdown Club voters once Charlie “Big Dog” Thornhill – his nickname transformed to “Mad Dog” at Michigan State – came along with his exploits at all-black Addison High.
In those days, Roanoke’s white high schools played at Victory Stadium on Friday nights and the black high schools on Saturday nights. But as the legend of “Big Dog” grew, white fans began to attend Addison games. White fans sat on the west side and the black fans on the east side.
Thornhill, a thickly muscled player whom Michigan State recruited as a fullback before switching him to linebacker, rushed for 1,000 yards three straight years along with three league titles and a 25-game winning streak. During his junior and senior years he was the area’s leading rusher and scorer.
Nay, five years younger than Charlie, remembers one game in particular.
“I wish they had film back then of him as a running back,” Nay said. “He used to break up the middle and then head for the sideline. One game two guys hit him at the 15-yard line, but he kept running. He was still carrying those two guys when he got hit at the 5-yard line by another guy. He carried all three of them into the end zone.”
As goes the old joke about a bruising fullback, Charlie could have called out to the tacklers going for a ride, “Tickets, please.”
Nay’s memory is clear. I read about that play when the Roanoke Times, ever helpful in my research, provided me with archived newspaper stories.
The play astounded fans more than Nay, who is now 64 and works for the House of Representatives at Michigan’s State Capitol. He had seen something like it before. Nay remembers when he was 9 and Charlie 14 and they helped their big brother Waverly move a refrigerator down a narrow stairway.
“Three people couldn’t fit in the stairway,” Nay said. “Charlie said, ‘Just put it on my back and I’ll carry down.’ I saw him do that and I said, ‘Wow! That is a man I don’t ever want to mess with.’ ”
To paraphrase McLelland, “Remember, he was 14 years old!” What is carrying three tacklers on your back compared to a refrigerator?
As Thornhill’s Addison career unfolded, his legend transcended race.
“There was a store down the street from where we lived in the projects,” Nay said. “The store owner, a white guy, used to give Charlie ice cream – one scoop for every touchdown he scored. He also bought Charlie his class ring.”
By Thornhill’s senior year, other voters agreed with McLelland that “Big Dog” deserved to be the “Back of the Year.”
“I really believe that Charlie might not have gotten that award if Bob McLelland hadn’t been pushing for kids in earlier years and Charlie in his junior year,” Nay said. “He said you cannot keep denying these young men these awards.”
This is the Myth part of the story
A myth has existed for decades that Bryant attended the Roanoke Touchdown Club banquet and that he then steered Thornhill to Daugherty. The myth’s other half was Bryant did this in return for Daugherty having sent him famed quarterback Joe Namath to Alabama two years earlier.
In “Raye of Light,” I debunk the myth from my research. The only true part of the story was Bryant attended the banquet and met Thornhill – after Charlie had already committed to Michigan State through Carillot’s recruiting efforts.
Thornhill and his high coach, the late Bernard Brown, arrived at the banquet and announced “Big Dog” had committed to the Spartans. Thornhill took his recruiting trip to East Lansing in December 1962; he didn’t meet Bryant until the Jan. 15, 1963 banquet.
Roanoke Times sportswriter Bill Brill reported the story in the next day’s paper – right alongside the longer feature about Bryant’s football talk with diagrams on a blackboard. There was no mention of special attention Bryant paid to Thornhill.
Brill quoted Thornhill:
“ …. I am thrilled and humbled to be the first player of my race to be honored by the Touchdown Club.”
The myth purports Daugherty simply answered the phone and granted a scholarship to a prospect sight-unseen, but Carilott’s version conflicts such a simple process.
Carillot said Daugherty was concerned about Thornhill’s 5-foot-9 height. Thornhill, though, was built like an Olympic weightlifter without ever lifting weights. Carillot convinced him that Thornhill was a specimen and a talent.
The myth also has been debunked by Bryant and Namath themselves.
Bryant wrote in his 1974 book, “Bear” with John Underwood, that Maryland head coach Tom Nugent tipped him Namath had been denied admission at the ACC school and was thus available. Namath, in a 2012 HBO documentary, also said Nugent was the one who informed Bryant he was without a school.
Neither Bryant nor Namath mention Michigan State in their accounts, although it is true Michigan State’s admission office informed Daugherty that Namath would not be admitted. But Daugherty learned the decision much earlier than Maryland’s late summer ruling. Namath was long gone to Maryland, hoping to pass board exams in the late summer. Alabama’s players were already practicing under Bryant’s eye from his imperial tower when Namath arrived in Tuscaloosa.
It’s important to debunk this myth because to accept it is to diminish the leading role Daugherty played in the integration of college football. It paints a picture of him simply picking up the phone to find black recruits in the segregated South, when in reality Daugherty was the only coach to befriend southern black high school coaches through the fraternity of clinics.
I pieced together more evidence that Bryant had nothing to do with Thornhill landing at Michigan State. Bryant was proven to have little to no knowledge of black athletes at Alabama high schools. He was sued by the Alabama Afro-American Student Association in 1969 for failing to recruit black athletes at a desegregated university that had admitted its first black students in 1963. In other words, the football team remained segregated; the university was not.
U.W Clemon, a Birmingham Civil Rights attorney when he took the case, has said on video and in printed reports that he determined through discovery black high school coaches did not believe Bryant was serious about recruiting black players (the case was dropped when Bryant signed Wilbur Jackson in his 1970 recruiting class).
Another item to note: Of the 44 players Daugherty recruited from the South between 1959 and 1972, none were from Alabama. How can one believe a story about Bryant knowing the talent of a Virginia black athlete when he was unaware of black talent in his back yard?
I asked Nay about the Bryant and the myth, and he confirmed Bryant’s role was limited to offering Charlie encouragement.
“Charlie had been interested in Notre Dame, but he had already committed to Michigan State by the time he met Bryant,” Nay said. “Bryant told Charlie Duffy was a good man and he made a good decision.”
Nay was in attendance that landmark day at the Hotel Roanoke, a city treasure built in 1882 and listed in 1996 on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1963, the Hotel Roanoke was still segregated, but an exception was made so Thornhill and his family could attend. Charlie was the only black athlete honored along with four white college players.
“I’ll never forget seeing Bear in his red hat,” Nay said. “I was standing right there when he talked to my brother. I was thinking, ‘This is Mr. Football.’ It was amazing that day Charlie got that award.”
McLelland’s career ultimately was recognized when he was enshrined in 1998 as a media member in the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame, although the story about Thornhill that was one of his proudest moments wasn’t listed in his accomplished career.
“I remember when our mother passed,” Nay said. “I was with Charlie at the funeral when we saw Bob McLelland’s wife enter and sign the book. Bob had passed by then, but his wife came to our mom’s funeral. We saw her and gave her hugs.”
One final historic note: In 1989, Roanoke’s Victory Stadium was renamed for McLelland.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @shanny4055
Tom Shanahan is the author of “Raye of Light,” Jimmy Raye, Duffy Daugherty the integration of college football and the 1965-66 Michigan State Spartans.
Excerpts for this story were taken from "Raye of Light," which is available at Barnes and Noble, Amazon.com and from the publisher at www.rayeoflightbook.com. The MSU Bookstore has signed copies available: 517-355-3450.