It has not been a good week for Iowa legends. Hoops star Murray Wier passed away on Wednesday and he was joined by Sherwyn Thorson, one of the most spectacularly unique athletes in the history of Iowa sports. What made Thorson so unique? The fact that he was excellent on the football field (where he played on offense and defense) and on the wrestling mat. He was an All-American football player and a National Champion wrestler. Thorson is the only player in Iowa history to accomplish both of those feats and he might very well be the only athlete in NCAA history to pull off a double-dip like that.
Thorson starred for the Iowa football team from 1959-1961, where he played offensive guard and linebacker. Iowa went 18-9 during those three seasons, including an 8-1 Big Ten co-Champion season in 1960, legendary coach Forest Evashevski's final year as head coach. Thorson was named second team All-Big Ten in 1960 and 1961 and also earned third team All-America honors in 1961.
Fittingly for a two-sport star, Thorson had two good nicknames: "Thumper" (or "Thump") and "Thor." He was a state runner-up in high school wrestling and continued with the sport during the winter months at Iowa -- in part out of spite, to hear wrestling historian Mark Palmer tell it:
A native of Fort Dodge, Iowa, Sherwyn Thorson was a star on the football field and on the wrestling mat. At least twice in his wrestling career, he achieved new heights by avenging humiliating losses. When he lost in the heavyweight finals at the 1958 Iowa high school state tournament, he made a point of beating the champ repeatedly in the wrestling room at the University of Iowa, earning the starting spot in the unlimited weight class for the Hawkeyes.
You can see where that mean streak would have served Thorson well on the football field and the wrestling mat. He certainly wasn't just dabbling in wrestling, either -- he was excelling. He finished as NCAA runner-up in 1960 and, after taking a year off in 1961, finished as NCAA Champion after pinning Wisconsin's Roger Pillath (who had pinned him weeks earlier at the Big Ten Tournament). There's footage of Thorson's win in the video below (skip ahead to 35:00):
Thorson was the first Iowa wrestler to win a heavyweight national championship and he helped lead Iowa to a third-place finish in the team race, their highest-ever placement at the time (this was almost two decades before Dan Gable established a dynasty in Iowa City, remember).
"Thump" played football professionally after leaving Iowa, too. He was drafted by teams in both the NFL (Los Angeles Rams, 7th round) and the AFL (Boston Patriots, 3rd round), but ultimately chose to play in the CFL for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. (He wasn't the only Iowa football standout from that period to play in the CFL, either -- Randy Duncan went to the CFL and played for the BC Lions despite being selected #1 overall in the NFL Draft by the Green Bay Packers and Cal Jones played for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the CFL.) Thorson helped lead the Blue Bombers to a Grey Cup championship in his first season (1962) and a runner-up finish a few years later (1965).
The late 1950s and early 1960s were a fertile time for Iowa athletics and while many of the athletes from that era (Randy Duncan, Cal Jones, Alex Karras) are widely celebrated among Iowa fans, Thorson is lesser-known star. But he was an exceptional athlete for Iowa and the uniqueness of his accomplishments is truly astonishing. It's mind-boggling to imagine someone now being an All-American football player and an NCAA champion wrestler at the same time. But Thorson did just that. Our condolences to Thorson's family and friends on their loss.
More information: A good obituary from Thorson's local paper, The Fort Dodge Messenger.