Dallas Thornton’s lifelong dream has been to take his family to the Rose Bowl. But now, even if the Spartan football team does its part, Thornton won’t be there. But his friends and family say that the dream of his team playing in Pasadena is quite possibly keeping him alive and – at the same time – helping motivate his favorite team to get there.
As Dallas remembers it, he was nine years old when the Spartans had their first Rose Bowl appearance of his life. His family was too poor to own a television but that hardly mattered since the game wasn’t televised anyway. It was on the radio though, and Dallas remembers the game blaring loudly throughout their small house. He also remembers watching his dad yell and jump and cheer at the action as it was described over the radio. That day, he knew he was a Spartan.
Over the next decade, Dallas would go by bus with his dad to as many MSU games as they could afford – a bonding experience that helped the rocky relationship he had with his father. Although they didn’t always get along, the Spartan games provided common ground for the two of them. Unfortunately, Dallas was 17 when his dad died.
Dallas grew up, got married, had three children and carried on the tradition, taking his own kids to Spartan Stadium. He was able to form a bond with his kids in the same stadium that his father best bonded with him. The Rose Bowl was always the goal for the Spartans. And it became a goal for Dallas as well. But when the Spartans reached the Rose Bowl on January 1, 1988, there was no way that Dallas could afford to take his family to Pasadena.
His daughter, Kelli Thornton-Miller, who was in high school at the time, remembers it vividly. She said her dad always thought that there was going to be another chance to get out to Southern California to watch his Spartans play in the Rose Bowl and her dad has talked about doing so her entire adult life. The Thorntons are such die-hard fans that it was “suggested” to Kelli by her husband and her father that she should get married on a non-home football game date – and of course she obliged. Her wedding colors were – what else? – green and white. This is a Spartan family to be sure.
When Kelli’s son was born in 1999, Dallas expanded the number of his season tickets to include three generations of Thorntons on Spartan Saturdays. He always left the tailgate early and took his grandson to their seats so they could watch the Spartan Band march – and the football team run – into the stadium. The Thornton family did this year after year, through the ups and the downs, always hoping for that magical run for the roses.
Fast forward to December, 2011. Dallas has saved enough money to take his entire family out to the west coast should the Spartans prevail in the Big Ten Championship Game. The Thorntons are in Indianapolis and watch as the Spartans lose a thriller to the Wisconsin Badgers. Disappointed, the Thorntons make the drive back to mid-Michigan and hope for next year.
But “next year” disappoints as well as the Green and White lose several close games and aren’t even in the running for the roses. Shortly after the unexpectedly mediocre season ended with a Spartan victory in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, tragedy struck the Thornton family.
Dallas lost the majority of his sight in January, 2013. On February 20th, he was diagnosed with a large walnut-shaped tumor in his brain stem. Faced with a tough decision, Dallas chose not to have surgery to remove it because he didn’t want to chance “becoming a vegetable” or “being a burden” to his family. He decided, instead, to proceed with chemotherapy and radiation. This, of course, changed things for the Thornton family as they embraced their father’s new reality.
A difficult summer was made better, though, in June, as Dallas was honored with the “Citizen of the Year” award for Williamston, a small town just 20 minutes east of East Lansing. A life-long coach for children, Dallas had donated hours and hours of his time to the community – and the community decided that it was his turn to be honored.
While Dallas has been a Spartan fan his entire life, his nomination for Citizen of the Year actually came from someone who cheers for the archrival Michigan Wolverines. John and Reva Richardson’s children had been coached by Dallas over the years and they had seen the impact that Dallas has had in helping their kids and the rest of kids in the community grow from boys into men, on the field and off it. Even though he is a Wolverine through and through, John has actually rooted for the team from East Lansing this year so that his friend could hopefully see his life-long dream come true.
To celebrate his award, Dallas was honored at a dinner at the Brookshire Inn & Golf Club in Williamston. And, to Dallas’ surprise, several players of this year’s Spartan football team showed up to honor him. They brought him a signed football and stayed and talked with him for a while after presenting him with the award. MSU senior linebacker Max Bullough gave a speech discussing how mentors and coaches like Dallas make a difference in children’s lives and how some of those children even get to grow up and live their dream of playing collegiate athletics.
“One thing that I really loved about the night,” John Richardson said, “was the fact that Dallas got awarded citizen of the year at the beginning of the ceremony and then he and the football players all sat in the back of the room after he received the award. Dallas is hard of hearing and talks really loud. He was so excited! Breaking down the whole team with the players – who was going to play where, the position battles, and more. Basically, he was giving the MSU players his thoughts on everything. Of course, he got very loud and passionate with a “bring home the Roses” pep talk that would rival any half time speech that you’ve heard. Of course, it completely disrupted the rest of the event. It was definitely awkward for some of the people there as he drowned out the speakers, but I loved every minute of it.”
Dallas took pictures together with the players, and, at the end of the night, he told the players that he really wanted to make a trip to the Rose Bowl – they said they would do what they could.
The next day, though, tragedy struck again. Dallas became ill and had to be hospitalized. He then had a major brain bleed (stroke) and was in the hospital for three weeks. Following that was a large blood clot that delayed him even more. When he eventually left the hospital, he was in a wheelchair. But Dallas wouldn’t give up. Although he couldn’t coach his grandchildren anymore, he was still adamant to attend all of their sporting events. He made it to the dugouts and although he could only see shadows, he still managed to coach as much as possible from the sidelines.
When the Spartans started their season this August, Dallas had a renewed excitement and was bound and determined to see all the games and take a trip to the Rose Bowl. His streak of 30 consecutive years of season tickets was broken this year because the family decided to forgo the tickets. They decided that they would all watch the games together with Dallas at their home and have tailgates there, as a Spartan family.
Even though his sight was nowhere near where he wanted it to be, he still watched every second of every game. Dallas would listen to the Spartan broadcast on the radio and would shout “touchdown” before the television announcers could announce them.
As the season progressed, Dallas’ health worsened. An MRI confirmed the family’s suspicions: the tumor had grown. Dallas opted to forgo any further treatments and was given a month to live. That was two months ago. Yet, it seems quite clear to his friends and his family – Dallas is staying alive to see his life-long dream of the Spartans making it to the Rose Bowl fulfilled. He is completely bedridden and exhausted most of the time but still manages to listen to his radio and stay awake for each football game, cheering them on. Kelli says she has heard him chanting, “we’re going to the Rose Bowl” in his sleep.
Dallas’ hospice nurse, Jennifer Alverson, wondered if she could get some of the football players out for a visit. It was clear to the Thornton family that they would have no way to transport him to the Rose Bowl – or even the Big Ten Championship game for that matter. His family thought maybe this would help soften the “blow” of that news.
On the Friday after Thanksgiving, the day before they were set to take on Minnesota in the last game of the regular season, Bennie Fowler, Tyler Hoover, Marcus Rush and Tyler O’Connor made Dallas’ day by stopping by and spending time with him. Bennie Fowler, who was also at the dinner in June, asked Dallas if he remembered him.
“Boy, did my dad remember him!!” said Kelli.
The players stayed for a while and talked football and answered any questions that any of the Thornton family had.
They told Dallas that when they went to practice that day, they would be thinking of him.
They said that when they beat Minnesota and attempted a Big Ten Championship win, they would be thinking of him.
They said they would do what they could to get him a Rose Bowl.
“These young men amazed me,” said Kelli. “They are well-known football players getting ready to go to practice and yet they took the time to drive out to Williamston to visit my sick father. Anyone who isn’t a Spartan fan should be now! They weren’t asked to visit by a coach or someone within their program. They visited out of the goodness of their heart and made someone’s day. I would like to thank them for making my dad feel special and giving him hope.”
His beloved Michigan State Spartans are once again only one game away from making that dream a reality for Dallas and his family. And as the Spartans take the field Saturday night in Indianapolis, a life-long Spartan fan will be in his bed in Williamston, tuned in to the radio broadcast, hoping upon hope that his Spartans will make it to the Rose Bowl, shouting “TOUCHDOWN” before even the TV broadcaster gets the words out of his mouth.
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