My phone rang the other day, and it was my good friend Martin Hegwood, an old-line Pascagoulan who now splits time between his residence in Canton and his hometown.
“Listen, I just heard that Thunder may have died,” he said. “Is that accurate?”
Sadly, the news turned out to be true. John Joseph Thornton, known to all locally as Thunder, had indeed passed away on September 18 after some recent months of serious illness.
I first met Johnny Joe, as he was known then, playing Little League baseball here in town. In this particular instance, I had bounced one over the fence for a ground-rule double, which was the first such blow in my league that season. I was feeling pretty good about myself until a couple of days later, when Johhny Joe Thornton, a couple of years younger than I, hit one about thirty feet over the fence for a prodigious home run.
From then on, Thunder went through youth and on into adulthood as a larger than life figure. At Pascagoula High, he was a star lineman in football and a champion shot put and discus thrower in track. At 6-4 and 260 or so (huge back then), he was highly recruited in football and fulfilled a dream by signing with Ole Miss.
Beginning as a freshman in Oxford in 1969, Thunder forged a colorful career at OM. In addition to the gridiron, he also continued his track exploits under legendary Coach Doc Knight. Plus, he was just as memorable off the field as on.
Always popular around campus, Thunder parlayed his notoriety into quite a cottage industry. Back then, at all college venues, actual team football jerseys were not available in stores or online as now. The only way you could get them was on the black market through football players.
Early on, Thunder exhibited the natural acumen that would serve him well later as a successful businessman. He created a successful jersey and accessories concession, the likes that had never been seen before nor has been seen since. Need a red number 34 game jersey? No problem? How about a blue UMAA practice jersey? Got it. Heck, I even got a pair of cleats once. You name it, Thunder could get it for you.
I’m not even going to speculate how much Mr. Thornton was clearing each month. I’ll always remember him telling us that, when he took his first job in the real world, he took a cut in pay from his jersey business.
After Ole Miss, Thunder headed to Southeastern Louisiana University where he earned his MBA. See, those who thought of him as just a big, bad defensive lineman just didn’t get it. John Thornton was a very intelligent, perceptive human being.
Like many back in the day, Thunder made his way back to Pascagoula after college. Soon, he had built Thunder’s Tavern on South Market Street, which became a multi-purpose entertainment facility over the years. In addition to a massive bar and good food, the Tavern regularly hosted top local bands far into the night. There are pool tables, widescreen TVs, video games, and even beach volleyball available.
Thunder also owned and operated several other businesses over the years, including Johnny Joe’s Country Music. Along the way, he was always very community-oriented. Not so much out in the public—old Thunder was a bit of a recluse—but when there was a cause to be supported, a sponsorship needed, he was there.
The last decade or so hasn’t been particularly kind to Thunder. Several years back, he lost his beloved wife and companion, Suzanne, who was always his rock and who shared his community spirit. Then, soon after that, his brother Walter, with whom he was very close, also passed away. Waldo, a very good Panther defensive lineman in his own right (a stalwart on the 1976 state champs), was also a successful, local businessman plus a radio personality and football historian.
These losses, plus Thunder’s own health issues, have made the recent past understandably difficult for him. However, through it all, he has retained his upbeat personality and affection for his wide circle of friends.
So, now, we in Pascagoula will have a Thunder-sized hole in our hearts for a fellow homeboy who went off and did well, then came back to town and did even better. Every now and then in life, folks come along and put their stamp on a community and make a difference with their actions and their personas. John “Thunder” Thornton was one of those people.
Rest easy, Big Fellow.
(Richard Lucas may be contacted at rbl[email protected].)