Persevering in Doing Right with David Thornton
Former Outside Linebacker for the Indianapolis Colts and Tennessee Titans, David Thornton, joins us for a compelling interview about his career and how he has aligned himself with Jesus through it all.
After retiring from the NFL, David has returned to the Indianapolis Colts as the Director of Player Engagement, and shares how God has guided him every step of the way.
Full Transcript of Podcast Below
Adam: As we roll on, on location, it’s Bottom Line Faith, brought to you by Truth At Work. I’m Adam Ritz, along with Ray Hilbert. Hi Ray.
Ray: Good afternoon Adam. How are you?
Adam: Did you bring your shoulder pads with you?
Ray: I’m ready to hit them hard.
Adam: We are out of the studio and on location, coming to you from the headquarters of the Indianapolis Colts training facility, and our guest today is David Thornton. Hi, David, thank you so much for joining us.
David: Good morning. Thanks for having me on, guys.
Adam: It’s a pleasure to have David Thornton with us. He’s a 10-year veteran of the NFL, played All-Conference at the University of North Carolina, drafted under Tony Dungy with the Colts as linebacker, played five years or so with the Tennessee Titans, and now you are a front office executive/coach with the Indianapolis Colts. Your title is Director of Player Engagement. Quickly for our listeners, what does that mean?
David: Well, Adam, first of all, you made me sound real good. You know, essentially my position with the Colts now is just to really help players, you know, and it’s a joy for me to come in each and every day. My daily agenda is really just “who can I help and how can I help them?” Every day, when I go home at night, I ask myself those same two questions: who did I help today, and how did I help them? Just helping guys prepare to transition in and transition out of the game successfully, and helping them deal with on and off the field situations.
Adam: Ray, I’ve had David on my public affairs show several times. He’s got a fantastic story of resilience and perseverance. That’s the word I’m looking for – persevering through college to get to the pros. You were not really likely your freshman year of college. No one said, “This guy’s gonna play 10 years in the NFL.” And you did it, and now you work with these young rookies and veterans to help them transition into the NFL and out of the NFL, with their continuing education. And I’m going to guess, too, with your faith, from knowing you and working with you and the Player Engagement office, you are a strong man of faith. How do you share that with your guys?
David: You know, for me is, it’s nothing that I go and kind of bark down their throats necessarily, but I just try to live it out. You know, the example that was set before me. Beginning first and foremost with my family, my dad, he is a great man of faith, you know, he has a tremendous testimony. And I won’t dive too heavily into that, but he basically turned his mess into his message, you know, from being a drug addict to now being a preacher and sharing the faith. And so I’m just seeing my father and his journey. And then I’m going to college and getting here in Indianapolis as a rookie. I was fortunate enough to sit under the leadership of Tony Dungy, and I’m just seeing him being a guy who actually just lived out his faith, you know. His actions and his words were congruent. So I’m fortunate, you know. I’m definitely blessed to be able to say, “Hey, I’ve had great examples of what it should look like before me.” And those are the same practices that I try to take under my belt each and every day.
Adam: Well, we’re excited – I know Ray is too – to get to some questions that we like to ask our guests on Bottom Line Faith. CEOs, business leaders, leaders in the marketplace, and now from the sports world, coaches and executives with professional sports. I’d like to say that sports imitates real life and any average citizen sitting on their couch can apply some of the sports clichés to their own life, to inspire them to get up off their couch and help out with their communities. I think it’s gonna be the same thing with David Thornton. Some of his messages from a leadership position with the Colts, we can apply to our own businesses.
Ray: Well, exactly, and what I’m really excited about in this particular episode of Bottom Line Faith is that, you know, our audience is definitely business owners – business leaders wanting to live out their Christian faith in business and in the marketplace. But every company has culture; it’s either healthy or unhealthy. And culture is built around the principles and the disciplines that are instilled in the people that are part of that organization. So Adam and David, what I’m really excited about this episode of Bottom Line Faith is you’re going to be talking about those things that you’re trying to instill in the players in this organization, that determines the culture – in this case of the Indianapolis Colts. And so there is a great segue here, Adam, and that’s why I’m excited about this edition of Bottom Line Faith.
Adam: Let’s get to it.
Ray: Fantastic. Well, David, we’ve learned a little bit about your background, and so I bet if we had a two-hour program, we could really dive into that. But you’ve given us a good framework of a little bit about your home life. What I’d like to hear is – take us through – it’s a game, but it’s also a business, right? So at some point, perhaps your initial contract came to an end, and then you had to go through a decision-making process. You left the Colts; you went to the Tennessee Titans. Take us back; what was that decision like? That was a business decision, right?
David: It really was. A lot of times, in the industry, you learn that sometimes it’s not personally what you want, but you have to do what’s best for your family or others – consider Heaven to be others. And so for me, to have four years under Dungy, to have to leave was really tough. but like I said earlier, I’m thankful I had a leader in Tony Dungy, who sat down with me and kind of talked through the business side, and gave me a better understanding of what type of decision I needed to make. And I’m thankful I did. Going to Tennessee was a tremendous experience, to sit under the leadership of Jeff Fisher, and I learned a lot about their culture as well.
Ray: Adam, what I find particularly fascinating about that part of David’s story is Coach Dungy sitting down, you know, and so if you’re a business owner, business leader, we all have business decisions that involve tough personnel decisions. And so I’m sure you and Coach Dungy had a great relationship, but the fact that he would sit down and have that kind of meaningful conversation with you about, “David, you’ve got a business decision to make here. What’s best for you and your family?” I think that’s a great leadership takeaway that our business leaders can take.
Adam: And as a player, as the employee in that, I guess, chemistry with your boss, Tony Dungy. Now, years later, you’ve reversed roles. So you have those conversations with young guys, really making life decisions, helping them make those decisions as to where they’re gonna go next with their, I guess, business decisions. You’re the Tony Dungy for this generation.
David: Exactly. You know, when I look back at that time of my life, you know, Dungy was very sincere and genuine. You know, he has a true appreciation for people, and there was no question I knew he cared about me. So as a leader, you know, to know that he cared about his employee, his player at that time, and to help me make a decision that really wasn’t necessarily in the best interest, maybe of the team, but for me. You know, he cared about me and my future and my family, and wanted me to make the wisest decision. I just have a tremendous amount of respect for him, and just who he is and how he handled my situation personally. And so, our relationship never wavered from that point, even though I was wearing you know, the AFC South rival jersey. But yet, like I said, it was it was a business decision, but I’m thankful for that whole experience.
Ray: Adam, one of the questions that we love to ask the leaders that we interview here on Bottom Line Faith is some of the best practices of how their Christian faith impacts the way they lead, the way they perform their work, are leading their companies. So David, how did your Christian faith impact the way you played the game of football?
David: I definitely relied on my faith heavily. Like I said, growing up early on, you know, my family, my parents, my father was very influential in my life. And just understanding the importance of relying and depending on God, you know, pretty much for everything. And so, for more of my story, like I said, I was a walk-on in college, no one recruited me, getting to Carolina, and just finally getting a chance my last year to play. You know, I’d be foolish to think I was so superb or outstanding of an athlete that I could just do everything on the field under my own strength. So each and every day, I’m reminded, you know, that apart from God, I can do nothing. Each day I wake up, you know, I say my prayers, spend my quiet time with him, and just ask him to continue to fill me with wisdom and strength to do what he’s called me to do, and just to help me go out and serve with love and just to be that consistent person that’s needed to help others. And so, as a player, like I said, every day I’m relying on God to give me strength to do my job. And I was always passionate about, you know, football, and just going out and giving my best, and when I look back at my experience of what I went through on and off the field, it’s amazing to me to see what God really did through me. I know I didn’t do it under my own strength.
Adam: A lot of athletes are visibly Christian, praying before and after the game, rival teams coming together at the 50-yard line, holding hands and praying at the end of the game, a nod to the sky after a touchdown. When you played, and you were visibly Christian, were their teammates that maybe weren’t? I’m not gonna say you converted them or ask if you converted them, but did they maybe, by the end of the season, lead towards “You know what? I think David’s onto something here?”
David: Well, you know, there’s definitely some believers and some non-believers, and that’s okay. You know, for the two teams I was a part of, it was never anything that was thrust on the guys. Just the organization as a whole always has had a reverence for faith. That’s always been encouraging, and it’s nothing that’s kind of thrust down on others; It’s something that’s welcome, and everyone just has always been a part of it. So I appreciate that culture, you know, I appreciate that that is important.
Adam: It really goes along with football. I mean, it’s faith, family, football. That’s been one of my favorite sort of clichés since I started playing football in third grade: faith, family football.
Ray: I didn’t know you played football. That’s great!
Adam: I’ll have you know, I played football at Purdue University. Yeah, I was not in the Rose Bowl, and that’s the end of the story.
Ray: And I think I was the first and only kid ever in the history of my junior high school team that got cut from the football team, and you know why I got cut is because they ran out of helmets. So that tells you how bad I was at football.
Adam: You were down the list!
Ray: Fortunately, I discovered baseball later on. So David, one of the things we love to highlight and learn about with the leaders that we interview here on Bottom Line Faith podcast is, it’s a learning platform. So we ask questions on lessons learned, best advice given. So think back for us over the course of your life and/or career; what’s the best advice that anyone ever gave you? What was it, who was it, and how does it continue to impact you today?
David: Well, that’s a great question. The best advice – you know, there was so many different coaches and people who kind of spoke into my life, and just different quotes that kind of hang tight to me. I’m gonna just highlight my father once again like I said his message is this just the things that he’s gone through and he’s turned his mess from his background into a strong message and testimony. One of the Scriptures he’s always kind of reminded me to always keep in mind is Galatians 6 and 9, and I think it’s great advice which talks about not growing weary of well-doing. In due season, you’ll reap a harvest if you don’t quit, you know, so for me, you know, it’s just a friendly reminder that each and every day, you just keep doing right, keep doing right. You know, keep serving, keep loving, whatever you’re called to do, if that’s the mission that God has given you, just keep doing it over and over. In due season, there’ll be a change; in due season, there’ll be a reward, there’ll be a harvest, there’ll be a blessing if you don’t quit, which is that perseverance piece. So I remind my players of that a lot of times. In our industry, you know, guys get cut, they lose their job, they get injured, they go through some form of adversity. I’m always quick to encourage them just to keep going. Right? Once you know what’s right to do, keep doing it. Have the courage to live right, do right, treat others right. Because in due season, there’ll be a reward for you. There’ll be a blessing, there’ll be a change if you have the courage to not give up and quit. For me, that’s something I keep near and dear each and every day. Do right, live right, treat people right. And there’s typically going to be some type of reward for you.
Adam: I’m ready to practice. Get me a helmet; I’m ready to make a tackle or two right now. That’s inspiring; I love that.
Ray: Well, as I’m listening to what you’re commenting on, David, there are a lot of parallels that are rolling through my mind about a professional athlete – in this case an NFL player – and a business owner, because I’m imagining every day when you got up, you were David Thornton, Inc., right? And the only way you were going to earn your living is to be able to produce, to be the top and the best at what you were doing. And you came from humble beginnings and you’ve already you know, given credit to the Lord for bringing you through that and then as an unknown for the first few years in your college career, and then notoriety. I’m thinking about the pathway that a business owner goes through as a startup, right? They get up every day, and every company at one point even the Ford Motor Company at one day was Henry Ford, back in the very beginning. It was him getting up every day, right? So you were David Thornton, Inc., getting up every day, building this enterprise eventually, you know, you understand what I’m saying, right?
David: Yes, sir.
Ray: But then you began to get some success and notoriety. I would imagine that just like a business owner, at some point, you had to wrestle with your identity as a football player. It’s just like, is my identity as a business owner? Is this really who I am? Or is it simply what I do? I believe that’s probably got to be something that football players deal with: separating their identity of who they are and what they were created to be versus what they do. Can you speak to that a little bit?
David: Yeah, I can definitely see where, you know, the identity conflict could come into play.
Ray: You mentioned injuries, for example, and career in a moment can be ended, right? Now who am I tomorrow if I’m not out on the football field? That’s kind of where I’m getting at.
David: Right, right. And I think it’s important you know, for not just players, but people in general to know who they are. I talk to my guys a lot about their values their personal values. What are the things that you stand for? What do you believe in? What do you represent? What does your name represent? And that, to me, is kind of the foundation, the core of who you are. So for me, I think personally, once you know your identity and those core values, you know, I’m a man of faith and this is what I stand for, this is what I believe in, this is what I live by. I think it helps you govern yourself accordingly each and every day. So a lot of times, I even encourage my guys, “Don’t focus on a certain position, so to speak. We can lose sight of our daily mission when we focus too heavily on what a position may be. Work on your personal mission each and every day.” I’m gonna focus on serving, getting better, working at my craft, and those daily tasks that you’re assigned to do. The position will come. It’s the cumulative effect, it’s the seeds you’re planting along the way, and God will prepare you for when that position is for you. It’ll be there. You don’t want to get the position or the opportunity too soon. Just focus on “what is my mission today? Today, my mission is to perfect X, Y, & Z.” And just keep getting better at that, keep getting better at that. The position, don’t focus on being the top All-Pro. That’s great, you know. I would love to be All-Pro, Pro Bowler, or the starter, but there’s a process that has to happen before you can become that. And so that’s your mission each and every day: work on that process, working on those steps. And those are the things Coach Pagano is great at teaching: teaching guys, you know, your daily agenda, what you should focus on. We essentially just build in pro habits, and they help prepare you for when your opportunity comes to be in that position, and you’ll be equipped.
Ray: Adam, as I hear that, I’m reminded of the passage in the New Testament that says that “when we’re faithful with the little things, God will entrust us with much.” And David, that’s what I hear in that is, you get up every day, do the right things, do what you need to do to prepare, and the opportunities and success will come in due time.
David: Absolutely. That’s exactly what it is. It’s grit. If you ever get a chance to hear Coach Pagano talk or speak, he always uses the word “grit,” and the definition – the way he defines it – is passion and perseverance and pursuit of a long-term goal, which for us is the Super Bowl. So yeah, that’s a big part of the traits that we encourage our guys in our locker room to have perseverance
Adam: David Thornton, he’s an overnight success. It just took him 25 years to get here.
Ray: Without question. I’d love to pause just for a moment, and just as a word of encouragement to our listeners, because perhaps you’re young in your business, or you’ve just started, or maybe you’re really hit a low point. Cash flow is difficult, difficult with employees, difficult marketplace, whatever it is, I want to encourage you right now to just be very mindful of the words that David just shared with us, to get up every day, instill those success habits and be disciplined, be consistent, and prepare – continue to prepare – for that long-term goal. David, that is great wisdom that is applicable in sports and business and family and in life. Actually, I heard this morning, as I was coming in, somebody said that if you just do the next best right thing, you’ll never go wrong, and that’s what I heard you really talking about.
David: Yeah, that’s great advice. You know we encourage our guys all the time just to build the right type of habits, give great effort. These are things that don’t require tremendous talent, but just daily practices of great habits – we call them pro habits – that’ll help prepare you for success: teaching them having pride in your job. you know, protecting your name, you know. What are they going to say about, you know, Adam Ritz? What do they say about your name every day you come in the building? Are they saying you’re a consistent person, you’re prepared, you’re on time, you have a great attitude, you’re giving great effort, he’s a joy to be around, he’s a good teammate for the business? Those are the traits you want to just continuously do over and over. Those are seeds you plant as well. And there’s always a harvest from the seeds you plant, whether they’re good seeds are bad seeds.
Adam: And those pro habits you speak of literally have nothing to do with their ability to do a vertical jump or how much weight they can lift.
David: That’s totally right. You know, to have a great attitude, you don’t have to get on the bench press and have a 300-pound max. Just have a good attitude. That’s the choice to give great effort. That’s a choice, you know, to be kind. Be a good teammate, you know, to listen to your coach – being coachable – to listen to your leader, which some people struggle with because they have their own personal agenda. They can’t listen to someone else, you know, who may be trying to offer some advice to help them reach their goal faster.
Ray: That’s great. Well, I know we’re getting close to the end of our episode here at Bottom Line Faith, and David, it’s just been a blast talking with you. I just really have a couple more questions. One of the challenges that we see in the marketplace today is it is a changing workforce, with this millennial generation that are coming in with a different worldview, and perhaps even a different work ethic, right? So you’re how old right now?
David: I’m 37.
Ray: You’re an old man by now! Well I’m 50, so I got shoes as old as you, my friend. But my guess is that you’ve seen some changes in – you’re talking about disciplines – but what changes have you seen take place in the mindset, the approach, and the work ethic of players that were in the league when you came in versus now? What changes are you seeing in your workforce, which is the NFL? Then we’ll compare that to what we see in business.
David: Well, there is definitely some different traits that this generation coming into the league, that they have. And the challenges, you know, excite me personally, because I know the core values still have to be taught. The culture still has to be taught, regardless of what their background is, regardless of what their own personal agenda may be. We want to get the guys that come in, that fit our culture and help teach the guys what our expectations are here within our organization. So yeah, there’s definitely guys that come in that may be lacking, you know, from a responsibility standpoint, you know, that may be lacking, you know, just maybe a little more arrogant sort of speak, or maybe some entitlement. I guess that may be a better word. But it is definitely a difference, and it’s part of, you know, the way this generation is raised. Everyone uses the text message a lot, you know, not a lot of communication person-to-person.
But I’m really intentional about still teaching those important basic values, you know. From just having a conversation with someone, seeking to understand someone before you’re trying to be understood, which means you gotta listen. So my rookies, if you ask them right now, what’s the one most important skill you gotta have to be successful in this league? And it’s listen, the ability to listen. A lot of guys in our industry don’t make it because they simply won’t listen. The players you see, you know, in the media, who, whatever reason, they didn’t figure it out, and we don’t have to highlight all of them that are out there, but typically, the guy just didn’t listen. And listening requires an application process. When someone shares information with you, are you applying it? Because information without application is just information, but information with application can be transformation. I ask my players all the time, are you listening? Are you listening to your coach? Are you listening to your leader? Really listen, because it can really help advance what you’re trying to do. So it is a difference. It is a difference in this generation, but like I said, I embrace those challenges. And I love looking to find the right guys that fit what we’re doing here in Indianapolis.
Adam: When are you gonna start your own business? That’s my next question.
Ray: That’s great. I’m thinking, you know, watching these young kids today, even in their college selection, you know, they have their table spread out with all the hats of all the schools that are recruiting them, and they make it into this big production. It’s this whole narcissistic, self-centered thing. So, social media and exposure has changed the approach, right?
David: It definitely has changed, and I’m thankful Adam is an expert at the whole social media and, you know, helping my guys understand that angle. But now everyone has a platform; everyone has their own followers or customers or however you want to define it, but you know, everyone has a platform, everyone has the microphone. Adam does a great job.
Adam: You know, what you just said about listening is the exact opposite of this millennial generation, the entitlement, and that social media. The digital internet and social media generation is sending their information out; they’re tweeting and posting and uploading, and they’re vomiting their information to somebody else, and they’re not listening to anything coming back. So that’s what I hear from you talking about how important it is to listen. The most important skill in the NFL is listening? I mean, that’s pretty powerful.
David: Absolutely, absolutely. I stand on that. It was important when I played, before I played, now, and it’s going to continue. Players have to have the ability to listen, and that’s something that can be learned. Listening requires you to get out of the way
Ray: It requires humility, doesn’t it?
David: That’s exactly what it is. The humble approach, being full of humility. I’m open to receive whatever the coach has to share, so that I can help accomplish whatever goals we’re going after.
Ray: And that applies absolutely to business. And so, you know, if you’re a business leader listening to this podcast, you know, be mindful. I think it’s important that you educate your employees on the power and impact of social media, like David just said. Let them know that they are a representation of the brand of your company, just as the players are – in this case of the Colts or the NFL – their representation of the brand. And so it needs to be thought out, what’s going out and it’s powerful. The last question I have for you, David – this is a really interesting question; you might need a moment to think about it, so let me set the stage for you. In Proverbs 4:23, written by Solomon – Bible calls him the wisest man who ever lived – in chapter 4, verse 23, he’s writing what many biblical scholars call some of the last words that Solomon wrote. They think perhaps he even wrote these words while on his deathbed. So imagine, you know, we’re at the end of our life, and we’re on our deathbed, and you’re about to say some pretty powerful words, and you say, “Now, above all else, this is what I want you to remember.” You know, so you’ve got your family, and you’ve got your friends gathered around your deathbed. And Solomon says, “Above all else, guard your heart, for it determines the course of your life.” Those were among his last words; these were his “above all else” words: “Guard your heart for it determines the course of your life.” What do you suspect, at the end of your life, will be your “above all else” statement to your family, friends, and loved ones?
David: Well, that’s deep, that’s powerful. You know, my daughter is a freshman in college, and I give her so many reminders of things to keep in mind. But if I had to say, you know, when I think of your heart, you know, those are the things that you really treasure the most, you know, those are the things that you really value. For me, you know, just personally, I truly value my faith in God, and just what he means, and just everyday, you know, it’s a surrender to Him, and just asking him to lead and guide and just to direct your steps, and just honoring him. And that’s the best advice, you know, my dad gave me is just, no matter how much you know, you’ve done in life, or where you go, you know, did you remember who God is? And what he meant to you? You know, what did you think of God? How did he fit into your world? How did you value him? Where did he fit into the things you were planning? Was he first in your plans?
And so, you know, just what I really would say are the things you should treasure, for me, is just treasuring who God is in your life and just really valuing him. The Word teaches that we should love him with our heart, mind, soul, strength, everything we got, you know, and just honoring him each and every day in all we’re doing. It should direct how you interact with people. Do people recognize the light that’s in you, and just being salt, and all those wonderful things is really at the heart of and at the core of who you are. So for me, if my daughter, she knows that, I tell her: “I can’t give you everything, you know, but if I don’t give you anything else, just remember that, you know, that God is the most important and is essential in everything that you’re doing. You can get a degree you can get this big job, this position, but if you don’t know the Lord, everything else is pretty much meaningless.” So that, to me, would be something that I want to be remembered and to hold near and dear to my heart.
Adam: On and off the field, pretty inspirational stuff from David Thornton, Director of Player Engagement for the Indianapolis Colts. Twitter … you’re doing Twitter. What is your Twitter?
David: I do tweet from time to time. I’ve actually been a little more consistent on Twitter lately. It’s @dt_50
Adam: That’s for our listeners to be able to check out some of your tweets and maybe even message you through Twitter. We’d like to encourage our listeners to check out this show on our website, past shows and podcasts, and subscribe online at bottomlinefaith.org. David, we’d love to have you back sometime in the future to talk more about your faith and how it drives your leadership in the NFL. And Ray, always a pleasure to join you from the Indianapolis Colts headquarters in Indianapolis. This is Bottom Line Faith.
Ray: It’s been a blast. Thank you, David.
David: Awesome. Thanks for having me on, guys.