This is the 13th in a series of 10 off-season “Blue Bomber Stories,” (yeah, yeah, we know, we still can’t help ourselves) that are actual excerpts from the next football book written by the authors of Quiet Hero: The Ken Ploen Story. Scott Taylor and Roy Rosmus provide young fans with an opportunity to learn a little about the history of one of the greatest franchises in CFL history…
By Roy Rosmus (with some help from Scott Taylor)
If it wasn’t Dave Raimey, then Winnipeg Blue Bombers defensive back Dick Thornton was the coolest, grooviest player in the Psychedelic Era of the CFL. “Brash,” “Flash” and “Panache: were words used to describe the man known as Tricky Dick.
He was not only a great football player, he was also fearless — on and off the field. A journalism graduate himself, he’d say things to the press that no player would say today. In fact, the moment that got him run out of Winnipeg by a coach he hated with a passion, was a moment that made most fans around the CFL laugh heartily.
After Thornton had helped the Bombers reach the 1965 Grey Cup, the team started a steady decline. The man he called his “favorite coach of all-time,” Bud Grant had gone off to coach the Minnesota Vikings and the Blue Bombers were never the same until Cal Murphy arrived in the 1980s. So in 1966, he did one of the things he did better than anyone in the league, he called up the press and told them, “the only good thing about Winnipeg was the road out of town.” Not long after, he was free of Bombers coach Joe Zaleski.
Of course, it wasn’t the first time that year he said something that pissed off the Bombers brass. Early in the season, he changed his number from 14 to 28 and told the local scribes, “I have to be twice as good playing on this team.”
He once told his pal, Globe and Mail columnist Dick Beddoes, “Remember, those were crazy times; the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Bay of Pigs invasion, John, Bobby and Martin get assassinated, there was a sexual revolution when the birth control pill got invented, we were fighting the Vietnam War, players became hippies with long hair and weird clothes, there were protests and massive demonstrations. It was all happening around us. I had to think ‘outside the box’ and keep doing things differently in order to keep my sanity.”
A star at Northwestern University, he was a high draft choice of the Cleveland Browns in 1961, but the Browns traded his rights to the old St. Louis Cardinals. He was also selected by the Dallas Texans in the American Football League and was on Bud Grant’s negotiation list in Winnipeg. Thornton talked often with all three teams but decided that better money and a bigger field in Canada combined to make an offer he couldn’t refuse.
So Richard Quincy Thornton signed a contract to play for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and he was a great player from the day he arrived. As a defensive back and corner, he was supurb, but like many players of the era he played multiple positions including quarterback. In fact, his real passion was to be the Bombers quarterback and he let Grant (and the world) know that he should be the No.1 QB, not Ken Ploen. As even casual Blue Bombers fans know, it was as a defensive back that he made his reputation and excelled. Thornton holds the CFL record for touchdowns off of interception returns (8). He was a “blanket” in coverage and always had the job of tailing the oppositions best receivers.
Off the field he was a riot. He loved the attention and was one of the first players to consider himself a “brand.” He had his No.14 everywhere in his life from his car, to his 14th floor apartment to buying his girlfriend(s) #14 pendants! He would tell anyone who would listen how great he was. He talked the talk, but he also walked the walk! Tricky Dick was a man who could produce a “black hole” (his words) around the receivers and forced opposing quarterbacks to throw it up for grabs his entire career.
In the 1962 Grey Cup (The Fog Bowl) the vaunted Hamilton receivers were litterally smothered all game long, contributing mightly to the Blue Bombers win. However, it was an even dose of offensive and defensive talent that showed his true worth to the defending champions.
In a do-or-die 1965 Western Final (Game 2) Thornton had to replace a slightly injured Ken Ploen just before the half with Calgary leading 3-0. Grant told him to “just play out the clock” to be safe. Instead Thornton told Grant, “shit, we’ll be leading 7-3 at the half.” Then he went out and in three plays scored a touchdown on a 38 yard scamper. The Bombers went on to win 15-11. Then, in the deciding game, he forced a fumble at the Bomber goal line with a thundering tackle. That saved a touchdown and sealed the Bombers win, sending them to the ’65 Grey Cup.
After Grant left Winnipeg — and Grant asked Thornton to go with him to Minnesota — Tricky Dick made his “road out of town” comment and was traded to the Argos in 1967. He completed his brilliant career in Toronto and some say he was better there than he was in Winnipeg. And he was great in Winnipeg — a three time Western All-Star (62, 63 and 65), a Bomber hall of Famer and a winner of two Grey Cups.
In Toronto, he was an Eastern all-star in 1969 and 1971 and he was just as much fun off the field.
His buddy Beddoes once wrote in the Globe, “When a team goes on the road for an away game, most players call their girlfriends. Richard Quincy Thornton always called the local sportswriters and broadcasters.”
After his career ended, he went on to be an extremely successful international businessman and today he lives permanently in Southeast Asia, commuting between Manila, The Philippines and Bangkok, where he is a weekly sports columnist for the Bangkok Post, the region’s most popular newspaper.