The first college offer Juan Thornhill received provided him an opportunity to play Division I basketball. During his freshman and sophomore years of high school, Thornhill figured hoops would be his path. His dad played basketball. He loved the sport.
But as a Radford University (Va.) assistant coach presented the offer, Thornhill felt hesitant to make a formal commitment. He wanted to see this football thing through. Wanted to buy himself a little more time before choosing between the two sports.
Then the coach made the decision for him.
"He told me, 'Listen, you're not going to play Division I football,'" recalled Thornhill, a Chiefs rookie safety. "He said I'd have to put up crazy numbers. He looked me right in my face and said, 'You're not going to make it.'"
In a figurative snap of the fingers, that comment settled Thornhill's future as an athlete. See, there's something we should get out of the way about Juan Thornhill. His college position coach says he's "the most highly competitive kid I've ever been around." Takes everything as a challenge, even when that isn't the intention.
So this was a layup.
"Basically, I changed my mind right then and there. I didn't want to play college basketball anymore," Thornhill said. "Once he said I wasn't going to make it in football, I started pushing myself even harder in football. I just took that (statement) and ran with it."
The basketball programs kept calling anyway. Kept coming after the athletic point guard who would lead his high school to three straight state championships.
Even that Radford assistant, whom Thornhill preferred not to name but said is no longer with the program, didn't give up his pursuit. On a fall evening, the coach drove from the college to Altavista, a Class 1A high school in Virginia, to prolong his recruitment. Thornhill requested the coach come to a football game. They could talk afterward.
The coach sat next to Thornhill's family in the stands. But at some point during the game, he stood up and turned to Thornhill's father.
"Yeah, he's a football player," he said.
'A man among boys'
Midway through his freshman season at Altavista, Thornhill remained strictly a junior varsity safety, though the varsity coach at least offered him the opportunity to dress on Fridays. One fall night in 2011, he stood on the sideline as Altavista got crushed, an opposing 6-foot-5 wide receiver catching pass after pass in the secondary.
Seniors on the team yelled for coaches to put Thornhill in the game. He'd never played a varsity snap. Mike Reavis, then the school's defensive coordinator, turned around and looked up and down the sideline, searching for a solution. Thornhill stared back at him.
"Juan, you want to give this kid a shot?" Reavis asked.
Thornhill nodded, though he had never practiced a down at cornerback. On the ensuing possession, the opponent lofted another deep ball to the 6-5 receiver.
Thornhill picked it off.
Altavista had a star. Even if so few colleges recognized it.
Thornhill led Altavista to back-to-back state football championships. Led the basketball team to three straight titles. In football, he played safety and quarterback. His senior season highlight film runs nearly 20 minutes. In a state semifinal game, Thornhill lined up at the Mike linebacker, yet Reavis still tasked him with serving as a Cover 3 safety. He had three interceptions.
"He's a man among boys," Reavis said.
Colleges weren't yet convinced. The competition made them apparently hesitant - Altavista's enrollment usually hovers around 100 per grade.
"Juan heard from a lot of people that he couldn't play Division I," Reavis said." I guess because he was playing in the smallest classification, I'm not sure. But every time he heard it, he just put his head down and got to work."
The doubt became a silent rallying cry. Thornhill even strayed from hanging outwith some of his friends, instead opting to work out at the local YMCA on Friday and Saturday nights. He did not drink a sip of alcohol while in high school, he said.
"I knew what I wanted to do," he said. "And I know what would ruin me."
He received only three college football offers, and only one from a Power 5 school. But it didn't matter. His dream offer, from the University of Virginia, was one of the three. He didn't play much his freshman season there, a miserable year that prompted defensive coaching changes.
Before arriving on campus, his soon-to-be new position coach, Nick Howell, requested some practice film.
"Immediately, immediately, he flashed some talent -- like a guy who could really move and do some good things," Howell said. "You just hope he's not a senior. Luckily for me, I found out he was just a freshman."
Settling in with the Chiefs
The Chiefs were bad enough defensively last season to get their defensive coordinator fired. Bad enough that the problems couldn't be traced to one cause.
But improvement from the safeties topped their wish list. In free agency, the Chiefs added Tyrann Mathieu, a big name with big-play potential and a veteran leader. He checked all the boxes.
The Chiefs weren't done addressing the need. They traded up to draft Thornhill late in the second round, with the 63rd overall pick.
Thornhill's initial month of games included some rookie mistakes. Some learning moments, if you will. But it hardly changed the person. As Thornhill says, "I always step out there feeling like I'm the best (defensive) back on the field."
Or as Howell describes it, "He thinks he can win at anything. He would tell you he could've been starting on Virginia's national championship basketball team last year. And if you put the shorts and tennis shoes on, he's going to try to dunk on you."
Howell has long compared Thornhill to Marty McFly from Back to the Future. Why? In a scene from the sequel, McFly takes it as a challenge when called a chicken. "That's Juan," Howell said. "He'll lose his mind if you say he can't do something."
Thornhill has never seen the movie. He still appreciates the comparison.
After an opening month that featured some ups and some admitted downs, Thornhill says he never wavered. And suddenly, it started to click. The game slowed down. He stopped overthinking and just started playing.
He grabbed his first interception. Knocked down a couple of passes. Statistically speaking, he has been one of the Chiefs' top weapons in coverage. He's allowed fewer than 100 yards in nine games, per Pro Football Reference and Pro Football Focus.
"He's coming along. He's making some big tackles for us," Mathieu said. "A lot of the things he does may not necessarily show up on the stat sheet, but ... he's making some big plays for us."
Days before his rookie season, Thornhill began to figure out that he would likely be starting. He'd had an impressive preseason paired alongside Mathieu.
On the day the Chiefs announced their 53-man roster, officially cementing Thornhill's place on it, he reached for his phone and logged onto his social media accounts.
"For those who said I wouldn't make it and wouldn't be good enough to play at the next level," his post read, "I just want to say thank you for the motivation."