President and CEO of AMIkids says Tennessee Tech football prepared him to be a leader
As president and chief executive officer of AMIkids, Inc., Mike Thornton, ’89 business management, leads the nonprofit organization dedicated to helping youth develop into responsible and productive citizens. For nearly 50 years, AMIkids has helped more than 150,000 kids across the country by allowing them to discover their full potential and guiding them on a path to a positive future.
It’s hard to imagine where many of those individuals might be today without AMIkids and without Thornton at the helm. And it was at Tennessee Tech – in the classroom and on the football field – that Thornton first learned the skills needed to be a leader.
“I learned a lot about leadership at Tech,” said Thornton. “Obviously, in my position now, that is the number one thing I do: lead. And a lot of that I learned as a leader on the Tech football team, whether calling plays or having other responsibilities to my team. Learning that at 18 or 19 really helped me.”
Thornton came to Tech in the 80s to play football. He remembers that during his first visit as a potential football recruit, he saw snow on a football field for the first time. Thornton grew up in Florida, so snow was a rare sight. He and his father visited Tucker Stadium and dug through the snow to see what was underneath.
“It was the first time I had seen a real turf field,” he said. “That was a pretty big deal.”
Thornton also remembers meeting Delores Wheatley, who monitored the academic progress of Tech’s varsity athletes for nearly 30 years. Wheatley explained the academic support student-athletes receive, and Thornton’s father was impressed with the emphasis Tech placed on academics in addition to athletics.
Thornton says he made lifelong friends at Tech, and he stays in touch with many of them today.
“The people I met at Tech are the type of people that, if you break down on the side of the road in the middle of the night, they are going to come help you,” he said. “They are quality people with really high values. That’s what stands out about Tech, even today.”
After graduating from Tech with a bachelor’s degree in business management with a concentration in management information systems, Thornton returned home to Florida. His pastor told him about an agency looking for people to work with youth who were at risk of entering the justice system. Thornton was mainly looking for technical jobs where he could use his MIS degree, but he knew he liked working with kids. In 1990, he accepted a position as a remedial education instructor with AMIkids.
“My mom described it best,” Thornton said. “I remember she said to me, ‘You come home so excited about what you do each day.’ That first job turned into a career.”
Thornton quickly ascended through the ranks. He worked for seven AMIkids programs and served as executive director of four programs in three states. He joined the home office as a regional director, later took on the position of director of human resources, then became vice president of support services. In 2017, Thornton was named president and CEO of AMIkids.
Thornton says he has worked in high-crime, urban areas of Chicago, Illinois; New Orleans, Louisiana; and Newport News, Virginia. He has seen some terrible things, but he knows AMIkids is making a difference.
“You see young people who have a tough exterior because they have been dealing with so much trauma,” said Thornton. “One of the biggest injustices we do is lock up people and throw away the key. You can’t do that with kids. They are still developing. Give a young person an opportunity and they see that they can do more.”
AMIkids provides mentoring, vocational education, behavior modification, residential and day treatment programs, family services and more.
“I’ve seen kids get their scuba diving certification and go out on a boat for the first time,” said Thornton. “That opens their mind to changing in other ways. We teach them that they can be good students. They can make good grades. They don’t have to be ‘the bad kid.’ These kids aren’t bad. They just need an opportunity.”
Thornton spoke of one young man he encountered years ago who was on a path to prison. But AMIkids intervened. Today, that AMIkids alumnus is married with three sons, and one of his sons is finishing up his residency to become a doctor.
“That is the change that we make,” said Thornton. “It’s not just with the kids. It’s with their kids. We are seeing generational change, and that’s what keeps me doing this every day.”
Thornton says he has been able to share many of the lessons he learned on the football field with his team at AMIkids.
“I try to show everyone how they are important to what we do,” he said. “It’s similar to football. Everyone has a position. Everyone has a role. From the weakest to the strongest, we are a team. The hardest thing about playing football was learning humility. We worked so hard, but sometimes we still lost. But you learn persistence and determination. Sometimes we have kids who aren’t successful in the program, but I can’t get discouraged because I know there are many more kids out there who need help.”
Thornton has chosen to give back to his alma mater by making a significant financial commitment to Tech’s new Football Operations Center. The 40,000-square-foot facility will be the primary sports medicine, athletics training and physical therapy facility for all 14 athletics teams and will feature a lighted practice field, Football Academic Success Center, player lounge, contemporary team locker room, film room, coaches’ offices and hospitality suite.
“I want to see more OVC Championships,” said Thornton. “I want to see more alumni in the pros. And I want to see Tech mentioned with other top programs. I believe in the university, I believe in academics, I believe in the football team and I believe in Coach Dewayne Alexander.
“Tech was the perfect match for me. Educationally, it put me in a really good place, and it really helped prepare me for my career.”