NFL offensive linemen are rarely in the spotlight unless they surrender a sack, but the the thankless aspects of the position are celebrated by Hugh Thornton.
Thornton, an Indianapolis Colts guard and 2009 Oberlin High School graduate, will deliver the commencement speech at graduation next month.
He said offensive linemen put accountability, teamwork, and a blue collar mentality over personal glory.
“I actually love that I don’t get a lot of recognition because that’s not why I’m in this profession,” he said Friday. “My inherent nature is to be a protector of people.”
In the moment Thornton most wanted to be a protector, it was beyond his control. It was 2004 and he was just 12 and living in Jamaica with his mother Michele Thornton and eight-year-old sister Marley. Thornton, now 24, attended Eastwood Elementary before moving to Jamaica around 1998 after his parents split up.
Thornton said in a 2013 interview with KTVB television in Boise, Idaho, that he was asleep downstairs in the family home when he awoke to an aunt’s scream. He found his mother and sister fatally stabbed in an upstairs bedroom.
His mother’s ex-boyfriend, a Jamaican man who she had split up with, was responsible, according to Thornton. Because the man was a Jamaican citizen and his mother was an American, he said the man was never convicted.
“For the longest time I was angry at everything and everybody,” Thornton told KTVB.
Thornton moved to Boise to live with his father after the murders. He fought in school, skipped class, and argued with his father, Mark Thornton. The elder Thornton reluctantly sent him to to Oberlin in 2008 to live with his aunt, Lydia Nord, Michele Thornton’s stepsister. Thornton and is father have since reconciled.
Hugh Thornton was attending the University of Illinois on a football scholarship in 2012 when Nord, granddaughter of W.G. Nord, founder of the Nordson Corporation, was sentenced to a year in prison for lying to police in a 2010 Cleveland homicide involving her boyfriend.
Thornton said Friday he isolated himself emotionally after his mother and sister’s deaths. While football and wrestling — Thornton ranked third in Ohio in wrestling and was a state champion in Idaho — weren’t ways to channel his grief, he said they challenged him.
“It wasn’t necessarily playing sports to get over the death of my mom and sister, but more so to grow as a man with limited parental figures,” he said.
Thornton said he wants to keep his commencement speech a surprise, but his goal is inspiring students. He said those facing adversity should remember “vision will always conquer circumstances.”
Students need to have a plan and when things get tough, they need to persevere, he said. It’s easy to feel trapped when things go wrong.
“You forget to understand that life is going to go on,” he said. “You’re blessed with every day of life that you’re given so you make the most of it.”
Thornton was asked in March to speak at commencement by Oberlin High social studies teacher Bill Roniger at the behest of superintendent David Hall.
Roniger, who also coaches football, connected with Thornton through their love of football and the two have remained close.
Roniger said he and Thornton regularly speak. He said Thornton has never forgotten his Oberlin roots and is committed to the community. For example, Thornton sent a donation of shoes last year to needy Oberlin children.
“Nobody asked him. He just did that on his own trying to give back to the community of Oberlin,” Roniger said. “And he’s probably going to do that again.”
Roniger said Thornton, who had to adapt to a more sophisticated offense when he left the Phoenix for the Fighting Illini, has worked hard and earned everything he’s achieved.
“He’s made it to the top (but) he’s never forgotten who Hugh Thornton is,” Roniger said. “The hard work, the dedication, he’s still staying Hugh.”
Thornton, a 6-foot 3-inch, 325-pounder who has played right and left guard since being chosen in the third round of the 2013 draft, said he knows football careers are often short. The NFL Players Union says an average career is three seasons while the league says it’s six seasons.
While highly paid, players are in constant risk of serious injuries including brain injuries such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy from concussions that frequently occur. The NFL for years downplayed the risks of concussions and their connection to permanent brain injuries.
However, Thornton, who is recovering from a knee injury that led him to be placed on the injured reserve list in December, said he accepts the risks.
“I understand there may be consequences down the road,” he said. “But for now, the best that I can do is to hone my craft, perfect my technique, and give myself the best possible chance to come out of this (sport) with good health.”
Thornton, who majored in sociology at while attending the University of Illinois, said he is also planning for life after football. He plans to return to Champaign to obtain his degree when healthy enough in the off season.
Thornton said he hopes to work with young people in the future and is trying to lead by setting a good example. Thornton said he is excited about delivering the OHS speech.
As a 24-year-old black man, Thornton said he may be able to connect better with students than an older speaker in a less high profile profession.
“I just want to challenge these kids to never give up on their dreams and understand that timing is everything,” he said.
Evan Goodenow can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @GoodenowNews on Twitter.
Photo courtesy of the Indianapolis Colts Hugh Thornton, who plays for the Indianapolis Colts, will deliver the commencement speech at Oberlin High School exercises June 3 at Finney Chapel.