Former Steelers Super Bowl Champion Running Back Dies at 68

Pittsburgh Steelers helmet

Scott Taetsch/Getty Images Pittsburgh Steelers helmet

Former Pittsburgh Steelers running back Sidney Thornton has died at the age of 68, the team announced Wednesday.

Thornton was Pittsburgh’s 2nd-round pick in the 1977 draft, selected the same year as linebacker Robin Cole (1st round), quarterback Cliff Stoudt (5th round), offensive guard Steve Courson (5th round) and linebacker Dennis ‘Dirt’ Winston (5th round), among others.

He appeared in 74 games for the Steelers between 1977-82, with 21 starts, as per Pro Football Reference. All told, Thornton had 356 carries for 1,512 yards and 18 rushing touchdowns, an average of 4.2 yards per carry. He also caught 46 passes for 515 yards with six touchdown receptions.

During his six-year Steelers career he won two Super Bowl rings, and was a big part of the team’s success in 1979-80, which culminated with a win over the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl XIV. That season he started 10 games, rushed for 585 yards and scored a total of 10 touchdowns — the team’s second-leading rusher behind the late Franco Harris, who had 1,186 rushing yards in 1979. Thornton’s longest run that season came during a Week 4 win over the Baltimore Colts at Three Rivers Stadium, a 75-yard romp that hints at why he earned the nickname ‘Thundering Bull.’

Sidney Thornton Starred for the Northwestern State Demons

Before getting drafted by the Steelers, the Baton Rouge native played his college football at Northwestern State from 1973-76. He was a four-year starter for the Demons and re-wrote the school’s record book, rushing for 2,336 yards en route to 25 rushing touchdowns. His best season at Northwestern State was his last, as he averaged 100.1 rushing yards per game and went on to earn Most Valuable Player honors in the 1976 Blue-Gray Classic, in which he ran for a game-record 151 yards and scored two touchdowns.

The school tweeted the following message on February 1 in the wake of Thornton’s death.

A cause of death has yet to be announced, but a 2018 interview segment by KSLA-TV (Shreveport, La.) indicates that he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), having also suffered a stroke in 2005 that left him partially paralyzed.

Sidney Thornton’s Son Preston Was Killed in an Officer-Involved Shooting in 2017

After Sidney Thornton’s playing career came to an end, he spent more than a decade coaching high school football in Coushatta, La. He had a son Preston — born in 1988 — who went on to become a standout high school running back before joining the Army and serving his country for six years, including tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

According to a longform feature in Playboy titled “A Veteran in Crisis,” Preston Thornton suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after returning home from the Middle East, having saved a fellow soldier’s life after their truck ran over an improvised explosive device (IED).

Preston died at the age of 29 after being shot by a police deputy while at his grandfather’s house in Aug. 2017 — shot by one of two officers who had arrived to take him for treatment at the nearest V.A. Medical Center. One of the officers involved also suffered a gunshot wound to the leg in the incident, which was recorded by an officer’s body camera. Per KTBS-3 — ABC TV’s affiliate in Shreveport, La. — the deputy who shot Thornton was subsequently cleared of wrongdoing.

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