WILMINGTON, N.C. Former UNC Chapel Hill and current Tennessee Titans football star David Thornton encouraged UNC Wilmington’s 330-plus student-athletes to pursue their highest dreams during an appearance Monday night as part of the school’s annual National Student-Athlete Day recognition.

A native of Goldsboro, N.C., Thornton has started at outside linebacker for two of the NFL’s most successful teams. He was drafted in the fourth round (106th overall) in the 2002 draft by the Indianapolis Colts, and signed a free agent deal with the Titans in 2006.

“It’s not always going to be easy,” said Thornton, who was named the 2008 Titans Walter Payton Man of the Year for his work off the field. The award honors players who demonstrate balance in their lives between civic and professional responsibilities. He also won the award in 2003 while with the Colts.

“When you leave this place, ask yourself, “What will your story be?”  That’s my challenge for you. Don’t let anyone discourage you from doing what you want to do,” Thornton said.

UNCW’s student-athletes assembled in Trask Coliseum to hear Thornton’s comments before enjoying a catered dinner in the arena. It was just one of many celebrations across the country at NCAA institutions to commemorate the academic and athletic accomplishments of student-athletes.

“To achieve something in life that you’ve never had you must be willing to do something that you’ve never done. I go by these seven “P’s” - Prayer, Planning, Preparation, Pursuit, Persistence, Passion and Perseverance.”

Thornton backs up what he says. For the last three summers, he has operated the David Thornton Football Camp, a free camp for youths ages 8-18 in Goldsboro that features football instruction and like skills messages.

He partnered with Vanderbilt University last year and visited several schools to speak on topics such as networking, academics, goal-setting and good sportsmanship. In addition, Thornton was a leader during the Titans’ annual Hometown Huddle event, spending time at Nashville’s Martha O’Bryan Center to encourage young children to study and use their time wisely.

During the holiday season, Thornton provided nearly 300 families in Tennessee, Indiana and North Carolina with a Thanksgiving meal. He also joined Genesco, Inc., for “Cold Feet, Warm Shoes,” a program that provides new shoes, socks, winter hats and shirts to more than 300 underprivileged youth in Nashville and Indianapolis.

In three seasons with Tennessee, Thornton has become a key component of one of the NFL’s most respected defenses. His career totals include 656 tackles, four sacks, five interceptions and seven forced fumbles in 95 games.