More than a coach: Thornton to be remembered for his attitude and spirit at LaFayette High School

Published 11:50 am Saturday, April 6, 2024

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On Friday, LaFayette High School and the community gathered to honor a person, coach, mentor and champion Bulldog that left a mark on every person he came in contact with. Coach Corey Thornton embodied the spirit of the LaFayette community, and his impact goes far beyond any field he coached on. 

Every student at LaFayette High School has memories of Thornton as a coach or in class, but senior Malik Burton was one of the students that Thornton impacted the most. 

Thornton was involved in just about every sport for the Bulldogs, but his main role was as the track and field coach and offensive line coach for the football program. Burton has been one of LaFayette’s leaders on the offensive line for the past few seasons, and he has been involved with shotput, javelin and discus for the Bulldogs under Thornton’s tutelage. 

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“On the field, he was an amazing person,” Burton said about Thornton. “He starts them young. My first year, he looked at me and saw something in me. He knew before I did that I could be something great.” 

Thornton was known as a hard worker in everything he did. Every coach that Thornton helped knew him as their right-hand man. When many others would have complained about a lack of support or help, Thornton put his head down and did it himself. 

“He was one of those people that did all the things behind the scenes that nobody ever thinks about getting done,” LaFayette assistant principal Micheal Pattillo said. “If it needed to be done, he didn’t have to be asked, he was going to jump in there and get it done.” 

LaFayette was not Thornton’s home, but you would never know that from the outside looking in. Thornton was originally from Opelika before becoming a teacher and assistant track coach under Don Turner in 2011. 

Once Turner became principal, Thornton took over the track program and built it into a powerhouse in 2A. Under Thornton, the program won three-team state championships as well as several runner-up finishes. 

Thornton poured into a place that he did not originally call home because that is just who he was. Thornton refused to give anything less than his all because the kids, his coworkers, his faith and the community meant that much to him. 

Any standout teacher and coach will eventually have opportunities to go to bigger and higher-paying areas, and Thornton definitely had those opportunities, but he grew to love the school and everyone in and around it, and something always kept him there. 

“I feel like it’s a God-given assignment to be in certain places,” LaFayette assistant coach Anthony Kyles said. 

By all accounts, Thornton had a presence in LaFayette that made everyone around him feel welcomed. Every member of LaFayette’s staff, coaches and teachers, felt close to Thornton and had a bundle of fond memories. 

“You couldn’t find him without a smile,” Pattillo said. “He was always going to be trying to make something positive.”

“My biggest [memory] would be 2022 when we won the state championship. We didn’t know what we had going into that. Just to see the look on his face. When he called me, he said, ‘What did Woody do over there on the javelin?’ I told him he finished second. He said, ‘Coach, we just won the state championship.”’

Several teachers and coaches have been at LaFayette throughout Thornton’s tenure, but even some of the newer teachers and coaches were welcomed into the Bulldog family by Thornton.

Football coach Juan Williams and LaFayette’s basketball coach, Chase Lewis, are newer to LaFayette’s family, with Lewis being there three years and Williams being in his fourth year, but Thornton had already left a major impact on each of their lives. 

As soon as Williams became the football coach, Thornton immediately became his right-hand on and off the field. Thornton would always be the last person at practice with Williams, they ate lunch together every day and Williams knew that not seeing Thornton’s car behind him after practice will be hard to get used to.

“He was just a genuinely good person,” Williams said. “Someone who would listen to you. He listened to me a lot. Late nights, a lot of late nights. I’m going to miss it.” 

Thornton was not technically an assistant coach for LaFayette’s basketball team, but he worked harder than just about anyone else at every game. Thornton could be seen at every home game working the friers and doing some of the harder work in the concession stand that others did not want to do.

LaFayette’s games drew some of the larger crowds in the area, and the team’s schedule was one of the more rigorous in 2A. Lewis never heard a complaint from Thornton. Instead, he always showed up and did more than what was expected. 

“I’m sure some nights they can’t even sit down,” Lewis said about the concession stand. “I’m so appreciative of him for that because he didn’t have to do that. For him to work with me on that level, I have nothing but respect for him.” 

One of the main things talked about at the balloon-release ceremony honoring Thornton was his ability to push people to their full potential. Toniya Collier has played several sports at LaFayette, and she is considered to be one of the school’s best athletes. Without Thornton, Collier would not be the athlete or person she is today. 

“He told us that if we wanted to be better at our events, we have to put the work in and have to want to work hard,” Collier said. 

Thornton helped turn LaFayette’s track and field program into a powerhouse despite funding limitations. LaFayette does not even have a track to practice on, and the team would often have to travel to other locations just to get practice in. 

Even with those limitations, Thornton was the ultimate perfectionist as a coach. Thornton could spot his athletes’ mistakes just by watching the way they stood. 

The perfectionism that Thornton instilled in LaFayette’s track program led to dominance at meets and several championships. Now, the Bulldogs plan to honor him on the field this season with another championship. 

“The main goal for me, I want to see both girls and boys win state at the end of the season,” Burton said. 

“I just really want to go out there and compete, and get everybody to be on board,” Collier said. 

Thornton was an incredible coach, but he was also so much more than that. Thornton was larger than life and had a voice that you could hear from a mile away, but he was also never afraid to show other sides of himself.”

Thornton sang on stage at school and shocked some, but several others knew he had that voice. Teachers and coaches also knew how much joy and laughter Thornton could bring into a room. 

“Heart-wise, he is just what everyone else should want to be,” Williams said. 

Every person in life should want to leave a legacy behind, and Thornton has done that. The coaches and players hope to continue his legacy. Several things are already in the works, like naming an award after him at LaFayette’s banquet, but Williams and the other coaches hope that Thornton has his name on a facility in LaFayette. Either way, the rest of the track season and several other upcoming seasons will be in Thornton’s honor. 

“If we don’t want to uphold what he has started and done here, shame on us,” Williams said. 

“The legacy for me is just a great person,” Lewis said. “The coaching stuff is the coaching stuff, but the way I see these kids’ reaction to knowing that coach isn’t coming back, that he has passed on, that right there is enough for me to say that his legacy is established.”