Juan Thornhill could only watch while his Kansas City Chiefs captured Super Bowl LIV in February. He tried to stay positive during the playoff run, but he was obviously disappointed and felt like he’d let his team down because he was injured.
“I would literally have the game of my life tonight,” he tweeted, followed by a distraught-looking emoji.
That’s all in the past. Last week, Thornhill proved he’s back with a stunning defensive performance in a 26-10 win over New England.
There he was, making a team-best six tackles, all solo. There he was, leaping high to intercept a pass. There he was, doing a little celebration dance moments later.
He was clearly feeling no pain from that torn ACL after surgery and a roughly seven-month recovery process.
In Week 4, he was busy making his native Altavista proud.
Thornhill has always been his hometown’s favorite son. He helped bring the Colonels two state football titles, three state basketball championships and numerous district and region titles.
For several years, he was the area’s most talented athlete. Thornhill could do it all: star on the basketball court, command the offense as quarterback, garner Division I offers while wowing high school crowds as a defensive back.
But while he was an extremely talented athlete, Thornhill wasn’t the best. He was never the top-rated high school player in Virginia. Wasn’t even in the conversation about the best safeties in the state for the Class of 2015.
None of that mattered. Thornhill, of course, went on to star at UVa and was the acquired by the Chiefs in the second round last year.
A guy like that is bound to mean an awful lot to his hometown. Some of his former teammates still live in the town of roughly 3,400. Kids idolize him. Grownups have followed his career. Banners, pictures and plaques all showcase his accomplishments and those of his fellow Colonels.
If you throw down rim rockin’ dunks, scamper to the end zone over and over and bring trophies home, they generally view you as a hero.
Mike Scharnus, the former football coach, brought Altavista to hope. He transformed a laughing stock, pushover program into one that captured three state titles in a six-year span.
Thornhill brought Altavista pride. He was the kid everyone knew would be a star one day and who actually accomplished those goals. Everyone is bound to struggle, though, and Thornhill made some of those glaring, post-injury errors for the Chiefs at the start of the 2020 season.
He got burned by receivers and missed chances to corral interceptions.
There was talk about whether the errors were mental or physical, whether he was feeling 100% or should even be playing.
The 24-year-old put all the questions to rest against New England.
After securing 57 tackles in his rookie season, he bumped his 2020 total to 17 by leading the Chiefs in that category last Sunday.
While struggling, or perhaps during rehab, Thornhill got advice from a Chiefs teammate, safety Tyrann Mathieu.
“There’s going to be sometimes I would be so close to making a play, but I’m going to be a little short just because of the fact that I’m not comfortable and I’m not where I was,” Thornhill told reporters. “... I just have to remind myself, like, ‘It’s going to come, just be confident,’ because that’s the main thing. If you’re not confident in your ability, you’re not going to make any plays at all.”
Young football players, listen up. That’s awfully good advice.
There’s another lesson for young players here, too. Thornhill wasn’t the fastest or the biggest or the most talented player in the state. But he never stopped working, and that made all the difference in the trajectory of his career.
Years ago, he proved he could lead Altavista to new heights. He proved he belonged at UVa. Then Thornhill broke through and proved himself in his sport’s most challenging level.