When Andrew Thorne was fresh from high school and needed a lifeline in August 2009, two weeks before college move-in day, basketball coach Kirby Dean threw him one.
Dean first met Thorne when he went to see a game at Skyline High School in Front Royal, Va., during Thorne’s senior year. Dean saw Thorne as a perfect fit for the style of basketball played by his men’s team at EMU, loving the passion with which Thorne played football.
Thorne spent his elementary years in Manassas in Northern Virginia but his family moved west to Front Royal, just off I-66 about 60 miles northeast of Harrisonburg, when he was 11. Thorne credits the move to his parents’ efforts to address their marital, financial and legal difficulties, along with their realization that they needed to get their two sons away from bad neighborhood influences.
New neighborhood, but still a struggle
Thorne says his parents feared that one more bad move on their part, and they might have their sons taken away from them. So they picked up and started over in Front Royal.
Thorne’s parents are still together, and his family is doing much better, his mother a janitor in the local ER, his father delivering sheetrock. “We’re not perfect,” Thorne says. “We still struggle.” But he could count on his father coming to his sports matches, with his mother, whenever she could get free from work.
Thorne played both football and basketball from his earliest years in elementary school, activities he credits with keeping him busy and mostly off the streets. James Thorne, Andrew’s father, says that “playing sports helped. If he wasn’t playing sports, he would have done worse in school.” Once in high school, Andrew quickly rose to star athlete, playing wide receiver, but a scare with a wrong-place, wrong-time, drug-possession charge sent college scouts running, including JMU’s football scouts. On top of that, Thorne struggled to achieve a high enough SAT score to win admission to many universities.
Impact of Coach Kirby’s visit
Both Andrew and James speak fondly of a time when Dean visited the Thorne home in Front Royal. “Having something like that from a small school stuck with me,” says Andrew.
James concurs, saying, “He sat down, talked to us and made us feel comfortable about EMU. He was like a father figure outside of this home to Andrew. Sometimes a coach will deal with a person as a player only. Kirby deals with a person as a student first, a player second.”
After scholarships and opportunities looked lost to him, Andrew knew whom to call, despite initially turning Dean down for a spot on the EMU team. “He told me, ‘If you change your mind, I’ll be here.’ That stayed with me. I knew if I didn’t go to school, I didn’t know what I would do.”
Once the season began, Andrew – playing forward for the Royals – showed his drive to succeed and strength, proving he belonged with the team. “He is a competitor in every sense of the word,” Dean says today, “which is why we were always kindred spirits.”
Andrew says Dean stayed “in my ear to push me along and to be honest. He never gave up, and he’s been getting on my nerves for four years! But that’s what people need.”
Basketball was “it” at first
Dean’s decision to recruit Andrew proved prescient. From 2009 to 2013, Andrew racked up 527 rebounds and made the top 20 list of Career Scoring Leaders at EMU with 1,053 points.
Andrew admits that once the team began to excel (25-5 record in 2009-10, ranked No. 4 nationally in Div. III), his studies and attendance in classes were benched. By the end of his freshman year, he had failed out of EMU. Andrew says this opened his eyes to the seriousness of his choices; he realized he might never return if he stopped college after his first year.
Andrew, with Dean’s support, appealed for re-admission that fall and a reprieve was granted under academic probation. From there, Andrew knew in order to succeed he needed to focus and keep his priorities. “I worked my butt off to get off of probation,” Andrew says. “EMU’s decision to keep me after my freshman year and the chance to come back allowed me to try again.” Now a fifth-year senior majoring in liberal arts, Andrew has raised his GPA to above average.
Once he became an upperclassman, Andrew stepped into a place of leadership within the team. “EMU has helped him out a lot,” says his father. “He is more focused on being a man now, more responsible, more mature.”
Andrew agrees. “I’m glad I came here; it helped me grow as a person and as a man. EMU helped me see two different worlds – this one, and the home I came from – and how I can transition to either one and still be the same person.”
Hoping to prove unbelievers wrong
Now that his time as the Royal’s star forward has passed, Andrew is looking ahead. “I am definitely ready to graduate, to make my parents, Coach Kirby, and myself proud, and to prove wrong those people who thought I couldn’t make it.” Andrew plans to return home to Front Royal – not to return to his old habits, but to change the path followed by many youth in his community.
Thorne says that an active Boys and Girls Club or a recreation center could make a significant impact in Front Royal. “At home, there isn’t a place that provides something or somewhere for young people to go. Kids are out after school for hours, getting into trouble. If I had had something early on, a lot of things would be different,” says Thorne, alluding to some of his brushes with trouble. “I can lead by example.”
“Andrew is determined to get a degree and to get a decent job. He’s not going to give up,” his father says. “EMU started him working with kids and he really liked it. He knows the Boys and Girls Club here in Front Royal needs help. He loves working with kids and wants to help them.”
Andrew admits to still struggling and still needing the kind of mentoring Dean has provided. “I do what I have to do. I don’t want to let my parents down. I’m doing this for me but also for them.”