Ernest Thornton had been an athlete himself, a football player years earlier at Kentucky State College. He could recognize a natural athlete when he saw one. And he was pretty sure he saw one right away in the youngest of his four children, Zach.
"I could stand him on my shoulders when he was little, and he'd be upright and perfectly balanced," the elder Thornton said yesterday at his home in Edgewood, where Zach was raised. "He was never shy about hitting the ground when he played. He could watch a sport once on TV and go outside and imitate it. I told my wife, 'You know, he's pretty exceptional.' "
But no one, not even his father, had any idea that Zach Thornton would turn out to be quite this exceptional: an agile, thickly muscled All-American in soccer and lacrosse for Loyola College, so dominating as a soccer goalkeeper that it is well within reason for him to set a goal of playing in the Olympics or even the World Cup.
"He has a special gift in both sports," his father said. "But I had no idea it would come to this."
To this: As Loyola's nationally ranked soccer team plays today at Maryland and prepares for the NCAA tournament next month, Thornton, a 6-foot-2, 210-pound senior, hasn't allowed a goal in 961 minutes, a period spanning 10 games and 37 days. He has a school-record 29 shutouts in less than two seasons at Loyola.
His talent is such that he has been invited to join the U.S. national under-23 team, the selective developmental unit for the Olympic and World Cup teams. That means that the U.S. Soccer staff considers him one of the nation's five or six top young goalkeepers.
"He's big, he's quick, he's athletic, he's quite a package," said Timo Liekoski, the coach of the under-23 team.
Making the national team puts him on a major-league track, but he is trying not to think about that these days.
"Getting to play after college would be a nice bonus," Thornton said recently, "but right now I'm working on getting my degree [in communications] and playing soccer and lacrosse here."
He is Baltimore's Deion Sanders in that he has more ability in two sports than most athletes do in one. But comparing him to the strutting, self-promoting Sanders does him a disservice.
"As unbelievable an athlete as Zach is, he's an even better person," Loyola lacrosse coach Dave Cottle said. "He is honest, straightforward, good-natured, cares about people. A hard worker. Just a super person."
Watching him guard the soccer net or run with a lacrosse stick, it is impossible not to wonder what would have happened had he chosen football. He has a tight end's body and a split end's quickness. He could have been a menace. But his father, who had suffered injuries in football, gently steered him away from the game.
"People ask me all the time why I never played football," Thornton said. "But I just never took to it."
He began playing soccer when he was 5 years old and added lacrosse the next year, joining teams organized by a neighbor. He came through the youth leagues in Edgewood and starred in both sports and basketball at John Carroll School in Harford County, then spent two years at Essex Community College before coming to Loyola.
"Basketball is actually my favorite sport," he said. "And I loved baseball until middle school. But soccer and lacrosse were always my main sports."
Said his father: "The only thing I ever told him was that, no matter what he played, he needed to practice as hard as he played. That's something that stayed with me from football. If you wanted to play, you had to mind the coach and practice hard."
The lesson stuck. "You won't find a more coachable athlete," Loyola soccer coach Bill Sento said. "He came here with the total package. Physically, emotionally, socially, he gets all A's."
Until recently, he excelled similarly in lacrosse and soccer; he was as proficient as a lacrosse midfielder as he was in the soccer goal. "He was by far our best midfielder at the end of last season," Cottle said.
But in the past 18 months, since he arrived at Loyola, he has taken a giant step forward in soccer.
"He's vastly improved," said Loyola senior sweeper Mike Konopaski. "He was good when he got here, but he's fabulous now. He's so big that he seems to fill up the net, yet he's quick. All good teams have good goalies, but we have better than that."
Said Sento: "He is as agile as a cat, with wonderfully soft hands. Plus, with all those physical attributes, he is composed in the heat of the action. Composed emotionally and psychologically."
He is ranked second in the nation with a 0.42 goals-against average, but the most accurate barometer of his ability, say his coach and teammates, is his pattern of delivering in big games. They're still talking about the two point-blank saves he made in the second half of Loyola's 1-0 win at Clemson earlier this season.
"In big games," Sento said, "he just comes up huge."
Loyola, which has a 13-2-2 record, could make quite a run in the NCAA tournament if Thornton continues that pattern.
What will happen to him after college -- and his last lacrosse season, next spring -- is not clear. He will train with the under-23 team during the year, as he did last summer in the Netherlands. The new Major League Soccer is scheduled to start up next year. A handful of elite, young American soccer players are now in Europe.
"It is not unrealistic to think that he could play anywhere in the world," Sento said. "He plays at a different level. But whatever he does, he's going to succeed. Of all the things I applaud him for, that's the No. 1 thing. He's a pleasure to be around."