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Faces of the NCAA: One in a series of profiles from the Winter 2011 issue of Champion magazine.
By Gary Brown
Moravian President Christopher Thomforde.
Moravian President Christopher Thomforde likens his life to a series of interstate highways that start randomly but converge briefly before dividing again.
Such a map might explain how a tall kid from an immigrant family ends up playing basketball at Princeton, lands on the cover of Sports Illustrated, teaches in Taiwan, gets a tryout with the New York Knicks, becomes a chaplain and then is hired as a leader in higher education.
Perhaps for Thomforde, one of two presidents on the Division III Management Council, it’s like being on the bypass loop around a major city. The exit he eventually took after being shaped by all the inbound roads reflects a unique blend of intellectual, spiritual and athletics experiences.
Thomforde, who came to Moravian in 2006 after five years as president at St. Olaf, urges students to seek a similarly proportioned life, which fits nicely with Division III’s new strategic-positioning platform.
“Be passionate about more than just a couple of things and keep it all in proportion,” Thomforde tells them. “Take advantage of the wonderful riches of the college experience – guest lecturers, concerts, all of it – because unless you stay in higher education you probably won’t be part of something like this ever again.”
His passion for education came from his parents. His father was a German immigrant who did not attend high school, and he and his wife insisted that their children earn college degrees. But there’s also the athletics highway fueled by a growth spurt in junior high that took Thomforde to 6 feet, 5 inches. At that time in the early 1960s, the wide-eyed teenager noted that Green Bay Packers defensive end Dave Robinson was that height, too, though about 100 pounds heavier.
“But nonetheless, I thought that someday I was going to be the defensive end for the Packers,” Thomforde said. “So I went out for football. But by the end of the season, the coach said, ‘You know, Chris, you could probably be a good football player, but you should look into basketball.’ In other words, take the next exit off this highway.”
Position: President at Moravian College.
Previous positions: President at St. Olaf (2001-06); president at Bethany College (Kansas) (1996-2000); chaplain and instructor at Susquehanna (1986-96); pastor at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Dansville, N.Y. (1978-86); assistant chaplain and instructor in philosophy and religion at Colgate (1974-78).
Education: B.A. in medieval and Russian history (Princeton, 1969); Master of Divinity (Yale, 1974); Doctor of Ministry (Princeton Theological Seminary, 2000).
Athletics Accomplishments: Three-year letter-winner in basketball at Princeton; all-Ivy Group selection in 1967-68; received the Franklin Bunn Award for contributions to the Princeton basketball program in 1969.
NCAA Governance: Currently one of two presidents on the Division III Management Council.
What you didn’t know: Thomforde spoke at former Princeton coach Butch can Breda Kolff's funeral in August 2007.
Thomforde grew another four inches and became a hoops prodigy at Long Island Lutheran High School in Brookville, N.Y. His academic prowess made him attractive to recruiters from Duke, Northwestern and North Carolina, but Thomforde chose Princeton, where he earned a B.A. in medieval and Russian history in 1969.
As a sophomore, Thomforde joined point guard Gary Walters – now Princeton’s athletics director – to lead the Tigers to the 1967 Eastern Regional semifinal, in which Princeton lost in overtime to eventual NCAA runner-up North Carolina. That team also attracted attention from Sports Illustrated (see story below). As a senior, Thomforde was part of a frontcourt with juniors and future NBA first-round draft choices Geoff Petrie and John Hummer that took the Tigers back to the NCAA tournament, where they lost in the first round.
While Thomforde said he was no LeBron James, he was good enough to stay on the athletics highway. But that also came to, as he says, “kind of a humorous end.”
He was drafted by the Knicks in 1969, but Thomforde said he was tired of playing basketball, so he taught Western languages and medieval European history at Tunghai University in Taichung, Taiwan, until 1971. When he returned, Knicks coach Red Holzman urged Thomforde to try out.
Thomforde made it through rookie camp and a couple of more weeks before Holzman gathered the team, which included Phil Jackson, Dave DeBusschere and Bill Bradley, and announced that this edition of the Knicks wouldn’t include any rookies. But then he looked at Thomforde and said, “But Chris, you’re a lot better than we thought you would be.”
Still, Holzman didn’t think Thomforde had the strength to endure the rigors of the NBA. He asked him to work on strength and conditioning over the next year and try out again.
“But by then I was in graduate school (at Yale) and wanted to finish that,” Thomforde said. “So Holzman said to me, ‘Well, what are you studying?’ And I said I wanted to be a minister. And he said, ‘That’s much more important. You’re actually going to help someone by doing what you’re doing. Plus, I think you’re going to be much better at it.’
“So the end of my football career and the end of my basketball career came with affirmation and humor – but decisiveness,” Thomforde said.
As for the spiritual highway, Moravian’s location in Bethlehem, Pa., is probably fitting. Yes, there is a star atop a tower near the campus that might serve as a theological GPS, but Thomforde’s guiding light appeared during a “what do you want to be when you grow up” assignment in third grade.
“I thought, you know, I can’t be Willie Mays,” Thomforde said. “My father was a businessman and I wasn’t sure I’d be good at that, and so I thought about our pastor – I would like to be like him. That got me going in the direction of ministry and service.”
He received a master of divinity degree from Yale in 1974 and was an assistant chaplain and instructor in philosophy and religion at Colgate for four years. He eventually became chaplain at Susquehanna and taught in the department of philosophy and religion.
After that, Thomforde was president at Bethany College in Lindsborg, Kan., from 1996 to 2000, and then at St. Olaf in 2001.
“I’ve always wanted to be part of a small group of people – perhaps this came from my basketball experience – who were in community with each other and who wanted to provide some kind of service of value to others, and who had a spiritual as well as intellectual base,” Thomforde said. “The small liberal arts college does that.”
Chris Thomforde's Sports Illustrated magazine cover.
One day in February of his sophomore year, Princeton basketball star Chris Thomforde was “minding his own business” when Tigers coach Butch van Breda Kolff called him to the gym to have his picture taken for Sports Illustrated.
Knowing his charismatic coach to be a kidder, Thomforde said no thanks, that he had some pressing school matters to attend to.
“Then the assistant coach calls back and says it’s not a joke,” Thomforde said. “Sure enough, when I got down there, it was serious.”
Princeton, already made famous in basketball by Bill Bradley a few years earlier, was at it again in the 1966-67 season, having won 19 of its first 20 games and attracting the SI cameras for a cover shoot that would end up featuring Thomforde and point guard Gary Walters (though as Thomforde dutifully points out, the article was about the whole team). Being on the cover, though, came with ramifications, including Princeton losing to Cornell just after publication – the only Ivy League loss for the Tigers that year.
It also prompted a letter from Thomforde’s brother, an attorney who had recently relocated to Chicago.
“He wrote, ‘Congratulations, Chris, but I moved to Chicago to get away from you, and now at every bus stop, train station and drugstore you’re smiling at me.’ ” Thomforde said.
Even now, Thomforde occasionally fields autograph requests for that cover.
“It makes me wonder what life must be like for athletes who really are famous,” Thomforde said. “I don’t know what it must be like for those people if a relatively obscure player like me gets this attention for a one-time photo.”