Thornton tackles adversity

Hardly a cloud in the sky.

Temperatures in the low 80s. All before 9 a.m.

That’s the view Hugh Thornton had last week while visiting family and friends in Hawaii.

For the former Illinois offensive lineman, it wasn’t all fun in the sun. Not entirely. Not with the NFL draft less than a week away.

“I’m enjoying the beach,” Thornton said before quickly adding, “and working out.”
Relax, Hugh. The time spent in Hawaii is likely the last vacation you’ll have for a while. Thornton will spend the latter part of this week — most likely Saturday — anxiously waiting to hear from an NFL team.

Any team is fine by the well-traveled Idaho native.

“The whole experience is exciting, but it’s a little nerve-racking,” Thornton said. “It’s so much different than going from high school to college.

In that transition, you had the choice of where you wanted to go whereas now teams are deciding if they want to take you at all and where they want to take you.”

One of the 32 NFL teams is likely to give Thornton a call. But it’s still an unknown, like much of what could transpire in New York from Thursday through Saturday.

“This is a draft that people are complaining it’s not sexy at the top,” NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said. “There’s more depth in this draft than I’ve seen in a while.”

Most mock NFL drafts have the 6-foot-4, 320-pound Thornton going anywhere from a mid-round selection to possibly going undrafted and signing a free agent contract.

Thornton has heard those musings, too, but said he doesn’t pay much attention to it.

“Mock drafts are like a bunch of old guys sitting on a couch guessing,” Thornton said with a laugh after he went through pro day workouts at Illinois on March 7. “As far as projections, I don’t really pay too much attention to it. There’s really no good idea where you’ll go.”

If he does, it’s a moment the 21-year-old will cherish. With good reason.

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Most NFL players want to take care of their mothers.

A new house. A new car. A new wardrobe.

Some substantial item to give back to the woman who helped raise them.

Thornton can’t.

His mother, Michele, is gone. Same for his younger sister, Marley.  

They were murdered in Jamaica shortly after New Year’s Day in 2004.

Thornton was there. In the house. It’s a moment even nearly a decade later Thornton doesn’t go long without thinking about.

“There will be times I wish in the next week that my mom could be around and see all the stuff that’s happening with me,” Thornton said. “But I don’t use it as a crutch for me. I use it more as motivation.”

The traumatic adolescence Thornton endured is what makes the possibility of him getting drafted that much sweeter for the gregarious lineman.

And for those who are close to him.

“He’s overcame so much in his life,” former Illinois offensive lineman Graham Pocic said of his old roommate. “There’s not many people that have gone through what he’s gone through.”

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Thornton left Illinois in December to focus his training efforts for the draft.

He has trained in Chicago and in Boise, Idaho, where he was born and spent time growing up.

No matter what NFL team takes a chance on him — Thornton said he has visited with the St. Louis Rams, Carolina Panthers and Tennessee Titans, but declined to reveal who he has worked out for — he is well-versed to adapt to any environment.

He lived in Boise in his infant years but moved to Oberlin, Ohio, before kindergarten.
He resided there for four years until his mother moved to Jamaica, where he stayed for a few more years before moving back to Boise.

“Jamaica is completely different than America and any other place I’ve been,” Thornton said. “I ran around the neighborhood barefoot. There’s no subdivisions. We farmed and had our own crops.”

He was visiting his mother and other relatives in Jamaica during the winter holidays when tragedy struck.

“I think anything that’s happened to Hugh in the past has really shaped him to the man he is today,” said Rick Smith, Thornton’s agent with Priority Sports. “Anybody who had to deal with something like that could have taken the wrong direction. Hugh used all of it in a positive way.”

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Clear a room if Thornton and any other offensive linemen at Illinois are nearby.

It’s a safe bet to remove the furniture, too. Wrestling matches are bound to transpire.

“When Hugh is around and he wants to wrestle, you’re going to wrestle,” Illinois offensive lineman Simon Cvijanovic said with a laugh. “Or else you’re going to get hurt. Furniture will be broken.”

Thornton won two state wrestling championships at Mountain View High School in Meridian, Idaho, a 10-minute drive to Boise.

He said his wrestling background not only benefited him on the football field at Illinois but also to loosen up new teammates and earn credibility.

“People can give you a hard time coming in as a freshman, so I’d just wrestle them sometimes and they’d leave me alone,” Thornton said. “I think people kind of respected me for it.”

Thornton moved back to Oberlin, though, before his junior year at Mountain View ended. Thornton said many factors went into the decision, among them spending more time with his mother’s side of the family — Michele and Thornton’s father, Mark, divorced when Hugh was young — and having a chance for college coaches to see him at a higher level of high school football.

The move worked. Shortly after he landed at Oberlin in the spring, more and more college coaches started to come by for workouts. He committed to Illinois in late August 2008 and stuck with the Illini, even when his lead recruiter, former offensive line coach Eric Wolford (now the head coach at Youngstown State), left in January 2009 to take the same position at South Carolina.

“I actually committed to play for Illinois before I took a visit and that was because of Coach Wolford,” Thornton said despite offers from Michigan State, Indiana, Oregon State and Washington State. “A couple weeks before Signing Day he left, but I’ve always been a man of my word. I had offers from other places. I talked to some of the other guys in my class and just was going to stick with it and make the best of it.”

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It wasn’t always easy at Illinois for Thornton.

He was thrust into the starting lineup as a true freshman. Many colleges prefer for incoming offensive linemen to redshirt. Thornton didn’t have that option.

He started his first game at Indiana on Oct. 17 and started the final six games of the 2009 season.

“It was fun to see,” Illinois sixth-year offensive lineman Corey Lewis said. “At one point, he was learning everything and trying to get his feet wet. Then he was playing and being pretty productive as a freshman.”

Thornton wound up starting 35 games at Illinois, with 10 coming this past season at left tackle. He has started 18 games at guard and seven at right tackle, filling in areas of need at Illinois while showcasing his various skills to pro teams.

“Most of the teams are wanting me to come in and play guard,” Thornton said. “I think I’m more suited to play guard than tackle. But playing tackle at Illinois for two years gave me the versatility factor.”

Illinois has had 26 players taken in the NFL draft in the last decade. Seven of those players have come from the offensive line. Thornton is optimistic he can become the eighth, especially after solid performances at the NFL combine in Indianapolis in February and at the Senior Bowl in late January.

“It’s not just Illinois, but the Big Ten in general,” Thornton said. “They have a lot of great offensive linemen and defensive linemen. I give credit to everybody that plays on the O-line. It’s a very detailed, intricate position, and you don’t get much credit.”

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Thornton played in two bowl wins at Illinois, which were sandwiched in between disappointing 2009 and 2012 seasons that saw the Illini finish a combined 5-19.

“It was definitely a bumpy road,” Thornton said. “Off the field and on the field.”

Less than a week after he left Memorial Stadium on a stretcher during a game against Northern Illinois in 2010 with what was a strained neck, Thornton was arrested at Joe’s Brewery in Champaign for being involved in a fight and carrying an identification card that belonged to someone else. It was his second brush with the law during his time at Illinois after he was involved with an incident the previous spring regarding a confrontation between Thornton and his resident adviser after Thornton was allegedly drinking underage.

The incident at Joe’s violated his court supervision for the incident with the RA.

Champaign County Judge Richard Klaus ordered Thornton to perform 100 hours of public community service and pay $1,143.93 in restitution to Joe’s, along with all court costs and fees.

“I did break the law,” Thornton said nearly three years later. “It wasn’t the right thing to do. I’ve grown from it. I’m not ashamed of what I’ve done because it helped me transition into being a better person. I was allowing myself to be in situations that were unhealthy at times. I had to buckle down and get straight. I wasn’t terrible and in a dark place. It was just a chain of unfortunate events.”

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Cvijanovic, an Ohio native who prepped at Benedictine High School in Cleveland, has a lasting image from his official visit to Illinois, courtesy of Thornton.

One not necessarily related to football.

“Hugh sat in a chair at the Atrium (apartments) because he lived there for a while,” Cvijanovic said. “He sat in the chair and went right to the ground. The chair splintered into about 20 pieces. It was the biggest chair explosion I’d ever seen.”

Cvijanovic said he is close to Thornton and his family. Same goes for Illinois offensive lineman Ted Karras.

“When you get here as a freshman, especially on the O-line, there’s a totem pole of leadership,” Karras said. “He and Pocic really took it upon themselves to take a freshman and put them under their wing on what to do and how to be a college football player. Hugh is a very vicious football player. We had a knockdown board. He probably had three times as many as the next guy. He plays a pretty bruising style of ball.”

Thornton majored in sociology at Illinois. Aside from his wrestling and football skills, Thornton likes to work with electronics. Doesn’t really matter what, either.

“I always knew how to troubleshoot or fix things growing up,” he said. “People in college came to me to show things. It’s a good skill to have.”

Living out West in Boise, Thornton enjoyed the great outdoors.

Hiking. Fishing. Mountain biking.

It’s where he will watch the NFL draft surrounded by family and friends.

With his phone close by.

“It will be in my hands fully charged,” Thornton said with a laugh. “It will be a little nerve-racking seeing all these people go before me. Either way, no matter what happens with the draft, I’m going to continue to pursue this as long as I can.”

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