“The best fullback I’ve ever had ... In your years of coaching, you work with a lot of guys. It seems like some become a part of you. That’s the way it was with Joe. He made a terrific impact on our football. I’ve never known a player in our conference that opponents respected more.” -- SDSU Coach Ralph Ginn
South Dakota State’s 14th member of the Jackrabbit Hall of Fame couldn’t be at the ceremony to accept the honor, a casualty of the war in Vietnam. But the memory of Joe Thorne was there.
Thorne was SDSU’s fullback in the days when the fullback was the offense. Fargo Forum sports editor Eugene Fitzgerald wrote, “If the Jackrabbits missed on first or second down, they’d give it to Thorne on third down and he’d usually go for more yards than were needed in the series.”
Thorne died when his helicopter was shot down Sunday, April 18, 1965. Rudi Schiffer, an Associated Press sportswriter at that time, wrote: “Joe Thorne was never one to sit on the sidelines. It was thisdrive that led to his death in Vietnam where his helicopter was shot down ... not content with his first assignment of flying mail, he volunteered to fly assault helicopters. “Joe probably flew his copter like he played football. He was a head-down, bull-dozing type of fullback who saw no barrier in front of him, human or otherwise.”
The eulogies came for a man who played three seasons with the Jackrabbits. The 1961 SDSU press guide said, “He can punch the opponents’ line full of holes with his hard running.” And he did that
often. He earned second-team All-America honors as a senior and was picked to the All-North Central Conference team in 1960 and 1961. As a junior, he broke Pete Retzlaff’s record for most carries in a single season, with 166 – 18 more carries than the old mark. By the time he was done, he ranked first in career rushing, third in scoring and fourth in total offense.
He never had a 1,000-yard season, but he had many memorable games.Thorne rushed for 2,156 yards during his career, and scored 140 points. He also set three school records:
• most carries in one game, 30 (for 161 yards) against State College of Iowa (now Northern Iowa) in 1961;
• most yards rushing in one game, 200 (on 21 carries) against Morningside in 1961; and
• most carries in one year, 174 in 1961.
He had 958 yards rushing in 1961.
Thorne was from Beresford where he played for coach Roger Price. He led the NCC in rushing as a junior. As a senior, he was co-captain of an SDSU team which went 8-2 for the year and tied for the North Central Conference title. He tied Dan Boals of Northern Iowa for NCC Most Valuable Player as a senior.