MSU Football Legend Charles Thornhill Passes Away At Age 62
Mad Dog was a defensive standout on the Spartans' back-to-back National Championship teams in 1965-66.
Dec. 22, 2006
EAST LANSING, Mich. - Former Michigan State linebacker Charles "Mad Dog" Thornhill died of heart failure on Thursday, Dec. 21 at Ingham Regional Medical Center. He was 62.
Born April 1, 1944, in Roanoke, Va., Thornhill earned three letters at Michigan State from 1964-66, while playing for legendary head coach Duffy Daugherty. The 5-foot-10, 204-pounder began his collegiate career as a fullback. Thornhill didn't see his first varsity action until the closing minutes of the fifth game of the 1964 season against Northwestern. In practice the next week, he made the transition from fullback to linebacker and earned his first of 25 consecutive starts against Wisconsin. A week later, Thornhill leaped over three Purdue players to block a punt that Harold Lucas returned for a touchdown in the second quarter.
In his final two seasons, Thornhill helped the Spartans to a combined record of 19-1-1, including back-to-back Big Ten and National Championships in 1965 and '66. As a junior, he established himself as one of the top playmakers on a defensive unit that led the NCAA in rushing defense (45.6 yards per game) and scoring defense (6.2 points per game). Legend has it that during the 1965 season, No. 71 was unofficially credited with 55 tackles in one game. He finished the '65 season with two interceptions (37 yards).
As a senior, Thornhill earned first-team All-Big Ten honors after leading the team in tackles with 102 (35 solos, 67 assists). He helped anchor a Spartan defensive unit that ranked third in the nation in rushing defense, allowing only 51.4 yards per game. Thornhill was selected United Press International Lineman of the Week after recording 13 tackles (8 solos, 5 assists), including three for losses (22 yards), in MSU's 26-10 victory at Illinois.
"Mad Dog is one of the hardest hitting guys I've ever come across," Spartan halfback Dwight Lee said following a scrimmage in the spring of 1966. "I hate to scrimmage against him; he hits hard every time, and he's in on every tackle."
"Charlie gives everything he's got all the time," Coach Daugherty said in an interview during the 1966 season. "He has tremendous speed and quickness and is a wonderful competitor."
Thornhill, who played the game with reckless abandon, often said, "hitting is the best part of the game. It's fun, and I think football is a fun game. It's not all fun, but without it (hitting), football is a boring game."
An intimidating player, he often pointed his finger at opposing ball carriers and said, "don't run this way again."
Thornhill was selected by the Boston Patriots in the ninth round of the 1967 National Football League Draft, but a series of injuries cut his professional playing career short. He spent several years playing in the Midwest Football League, with the Lansing All-Stars and Flint Sabres, and attempted a comeback in the Canadian Football League with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
Following his playing days, Thornhill spent 21 years with General Motors in Lansing, including time as a patrolman. In 1992, he became a sergeant-at-arms in the Michigan Senate.
Thornhill is survived by his wife Laureen and two sons, Josh and Kaleb. Josh earned four letters as a linebacker at Michigan State from 1998-2001 and became a two-time first-team All-Big Ten selection. Kaleb recently completed his junior season as a Spartan linebacker, finishing third on the team in tackles with 68 in 2006.
Public visitation is scheduled for Wednesday, Dec. 27 from 9 a.m.-9 p.m. at Riley Funeral Home (426 W. St. Joseph St./517-372-6009) in Lansing. The Thornhill family will receive friends at the funeral home Wednesday from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. and 5-7 p.m. The memorial service will be conducted Thursday, Dec. 28 at 12 p.m. in the LaSalle Bank Club (Level 4) at Spartan Stadium.
Remembering Charles "Mad Dog" Thornhill . . .
Michigan State head football coach Mark Dantonio:
"The passing of Charlie Thornhill is a tremendous loss for all Spartans, especially the former and current football players. Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife Laureen and his sons, Josh and Kaleb, in this time of grief.
"I really got to know Charlie as a person during my stint here as an assistant coach. The first day I met Charlie, I could tell that he was passionate about football and passionate about life. He was a great man, a great player and a great father. Charlie was asked to address the football team on several occasions because he really embodied the Spartan tradition. He was very proud of his association with this University and its football program."
Former teammate Clinton Jones (running back, 1964-66):
"Charles `Mad Dog' Thornhill is one of the most extraordinary people that I have met in my entire life. In many ways, his playing career has been overlooked because of headliners like George Webster, Bubba Smith, Gene Washington and myself. Believe me, `Mad Dog' was the unsung hero because he helped provide the backbone and foundation of those championship teams. He was only 5-10, but he played like he was 6-10. Despite being undersized, `Mad Dog' was one of the strongest guys on the team. He was an awesome player, who played with great energy and passion, and we naturally fed off of him. `Mad Dog' played a remarkable game against Notre Dame in the 1966 10-10 tie, finishing with 16 tackles.
"He will be sorely missed by his teammates, but he will always be in our hearts."