Local prospect Hugh Thornton awaits new home in NFL Draft

Former Valley lineman has overcome mother's murder, father's prison sentence to become pro hopeful.

ccripe@idahostatesman.comApril 26, 2013 

Hugh Thornton, far right, played on both lines in high school but was a better fit on offense. His dad, Mark, played defensive line at Boise State. Hugh was a four-year starter on the offensive line at Illinois. "He's just a big protector,'' Mark said.

ROBERT K. O'DANIELL — The News-Gazette (Champaign, Ill.)


    Former Boise State cornerback Jamar Taylor, considered a borderline first-round pick in the NFL Draft, will have to wait until at least the second round Friday. That round begins at 4:30 p.m.

    Four cornerbacks were drafted in the first round - Dee Milliner of Alabama (9, Jets), D.J. Hayden of Houston (12, Raiders), Desmond Trufant of Washington (22, Falcons) and Xavier Rhodes of Florida State (25, Vikings). The front of the second round is loaded with corner-needy teams, so it could be a short wait for the three-year starter.

    "Wasn't in Gods plan #noworries," Taylor tweeted Thursday night.

For a guy who spent his childhood in Idaho (two stops), Ohio (two stops) and Jamaica, who attended three high schools in three cities in three years, whose mother and sister were killed while he slept in another room, whose father spent three years in prison, and who briefly was removed from his home as a teenager and placed in foster care, it's a natural question.

Where's home?

"Wherever I'm at," Hugh Thornton says.

That's Meridian right now as Thornton waits to hear about his next hometown.

The former Mountain View High and Boise High football player and Idaho state champion wrestler likely will be selected in the third or fourth round of the NFL Draft. The offensive lineman will join his family and friends at MickeyRay's restaurant in Boise on Friday evening to watch the second and third rounds.

Thornton (6-foot-3, 320 pounds) started 35 games over the past four seasons at Illinois. He graduated from high school in Oberlin, Ohio, but attended seventh through 11th grades in the Treasure Valley and was born here.

Still just 21 years old, he's overcome a lifetime of adversity - experiences he says shaped him, matured him and led him to this dream opportunity.

"So many times in society people let circumstances define them," Thornton said. "I didn't want to be another example of that. I want to be a role model to my community. I studied sociology because I want to give back. I wouldn't be able to give back if I was still broken inside. For that reason alone, I had to get back on my feet, keep walking, walk with a strut and live life."


Some of the challenges were self-inflicted.

Thornton moved from his mom's home in Jamaica to his dad's home in Meridian after trouble at school forced a change. He was placed into foster care after his dad "spanked him with a belt" - an incident that followed a fight at school.

A bar fight during his sophomore year at Illinois convinced him to change.

"That was kind of like a turning point in my career and my life, when I started to get better at everything and care more," Thornton said. "… All these guys are trusting me to do my part and I let them down. I let my coaches down. I let my family and friends down. I didn't want to be that guy. I wanted to be somebody people could look up to. It took a lot of work to get my name cleared in Champaign (Ill.).

"The people who knew me when it happened - the kind of people I was hanging out with - don't know me anymore."

Thornton, who chose Illinois over Michigan State and Oregon State, started the final seven games at right tackle in 2009 as a true freshman. He started eight at weak-side guard - flipping between the left and right sides - in 2010 and 10 at weak-side guard in 2011. He moved to left tackle and started 10 games last season, earning All-Big Ten second-team honors from coaches.

He played in the Senior Bowl in January and attended the NFL Scouting Combine in February.

ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. said Thornton is a third-round prospect. NFL Network's Mike Mayock labels him a fourth- or fifth-rounder.

"When you look at his versatility, he can settle in and be a heck of a guard in this league," Kiper said.

Thornton also worked out at Illinois' pro day in March. He has visited three teams and worked out for three, including one in Boise. Along the way, he has answered many questions about his background.

"I'm confident with who I am," he said. "I have nothing to hide because nowadays you can find everything on the Internet. Teams want to see how I've grown and how I respond. With my story alone, they see I can overcome adversity."

The challenges began almost immediately for Thornton. His dad, Mark, played defensive line at Boise State in 1984-85 and has lived here since.

But when Thornton was a toddler, Mark was sent to prison for delivery of a controlled substance. That prompted Thornton's mom, Michele, to divorce Mark and move her son to her home state of Ohio.

Thornton started elementary school in Ohio but in 1998 moved to Jamaica - his mom's favorite vacation spot. His mom sent him to live with Mark in Meridian and attend Lake Hazel Middle School in 2003.


Thornton returned toJamaica for Christmas break that year to visit his mom. He woke up one morning to find Michele and one of his sisters murdered. Thornton and two other family members were in the house, but unharmed.

According to The Plain Dealer of Cleveland, which researched the case in 2008, three trials were conducted. No one has been convicted, Thornton said.

"There are times I wish my mom could be here and see all the stuff that I'm doing," he said. "At the same time, I have family who are my support system now. A lot of people around the Valley have helped me out - coaches, teachers. My dad's a huge part of my life."


The relationship between Thornton and his dad has improved dramatically in recent years.

While it was Mark who introduced Thornton to football in eighth grade, the two often butted heads.

"For the longest time," Mark said, "in his mind, it was, 'OK, you took me away from my mom. Because if I hadn't come to school here, I would have been there to protect her (on a regular basis).' "

Father and son clashed over discipline. A spanking with a belt got the attention of school counselors and Health and Welfare stepped in.

Thornton moved to a foster home and eventually lived with his godmother, state senator Cherie Buckner-Webb, for more than a month. He transferred to Boise High as a sophomore during that transition.

Thornton remains a popular figure in Buckner-Webb's house. Buckner-Webb and Michele were close friends.

"He was raised in a lot of love and he had a lot of pain, but he is a hard-driving young man," Buckner-Webb said. "He has always been gentle and loving to me. … When things are so out of whack, structure is helpful. My goal was for the family to be as whole as they could and just keep loving him. … We just all grabbed ahold."

Thornton returned to his dad's home and Mountain View as a junior. He quit football for a couple of days - wanting to just be a kid, he said - but changed his mind and played on the offensive and defensive lines. He also won the 5A heavyweight wrestling championship in 2008.


Mountain View football coach Judd Benedick describes Thornton as a "gentle giant" and "a person everybody was drawn to - teachers and kids and coaches."

But he also noticed signs of strain from Thornton's past.

"Anybody who goes through what he went through as a kid … you're going to be out of whack, out of balance," Benedick said. "You're trying to figure out some real-life, big-picture issues and you're not sure what it all means. That manifests itself in different ways, which sometimes was emotional. He was reacting to the bad hand he's been dealt."

Thornton decided to return to Ohio for his senior year to live with an aunt and graduate from his mother's high school.

"When I moved away, I wasn't really close (to my dad)," he said. "… It was just me acting out, needing to grow up. I was getting spankings. I wanted to get away from all that. It was hard adjusting after my mom died to live with my dad. I just needed to be closer to my mom's family."


He rebuilt his relationship with Mark during his college career. Mark frequently attended Illinois games, and Thornton visited during school breaks. He's been back in Idaho for more than a month this time - the most time father and son have spent together since Thornton was a high school junior.

Mark is a pastor at Capital Christian Center in Meridian. He also is one of the chaplains who works with Boise State athletes, including the football team.

"He's matured by leaps and bounds and grown into a great young man," Mark said.

Thornton has kept in touch with his Mountain View coaches. He stopped to chat when he was in town and sent photos that hang in the school.

"He's overcome so much that it's made him a better person, almost like iron that's forged in fire," Benedick said. "He's confident. He believes in what he can do. He's back to how he was originally when I met him, when he was all smiles, ready to make an impact in a positive way."

Chadd Cripe: 377-6398, Twitter: @IDS_BroncoBeat

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