It's a long way from south Florida to Cedar City, Utah, and Josh Thornton didn't exactly take the direct route — literally or metaphorically speaking.
In 2010, he sustained a broken leg while playing for his high school team — perennial Florida powerhouse Glades Central. Back then, Thornton plied his football trade in the hot, sticky, mucky and football crazed environment known as the 'Glades — short for the Everglades.
This is the neck of the woods that has produced NFL greats like Anquan Boldin and Fred Taylor — whose son Kelvin is one of Thornton's friends. It's a football factory frequented by college coaches near and far.
Ron Zook and his staff at the University of Illinois took a liking to Thornton and Josh eventually committed to play in the Big Ten with the Fighting Illini. But when Zook was fired, Thornton stepped back. He spent 2011 preparing to join a college program for spring ball of 2012 — and it ended up being Western Illinois of the FCS. A coaching change there led to a change of heart for Thornton and he decided to go the junior college route.
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He ended up at Alan Hancock College, a JUCO north of Los Angeles, Calif., and after two years there, Southern Utah fell in love with him and vice versa and he ended up in Cedar City. Now, he's wondering where the bus of life will take him next.
One way or another, he's projected by the site NFLDraftScout.com to be on an NFL roster in May — maybe via the NFL Draft as a day-three selection, or maybe as a priority free agent. Either way, the cornerback's ready.
"It's such a blessing to be in this position," Thornton told HERO Sports while continuing to prepare for the opportunity. "Honestly, it could have gone all wrong a lot of years before, so to be in this position is amazing. I could be in Belle Glade with some of the guys I knew that I don't even see anymore.
"There were a lot of guys there who were supposed to make it. It is eye-opening to see your name mentioned in mock drafts and having NFL coaches talk to you. I keep thinking, 'Dang, I'm that close'. I just need to stay focused and stay ready."
Focus hasn't been a problem for Thornton over the past six-plus years. From Palm Beach County, Florida to Macomb, Illinois to Santa Maria, California and finally to Cedar City, Utah — focus has been one of his strengths.
Like in 2014, when a class credit from Alan Hancock didn't transfer correctly and he had to retake it remotely — instead of just sitting around taking one class, he went to work for a catering company in Cedar City. One of his jobs was to serve pre-game meals to his future teammates.
Two wonderful things came from this humbling experience — Thornton was reminded of how hard work is the only route to go, and he also learned how great his future teammates would be. They never once picked on him for serving their meals, they constantly reminded him that he was one of them and he belonged with them, and not to think otherwise … ever.
It was a lesson Thornton remembers well from two years ago, that his teammates and even the predominantly Mormon town of Cedar City were his new family, and they were embracing him fully, even though he wouldn't be able to join the roster officially until Spring 2015.
"I didn't want to go back to California to take that one class, I felt like hey, I'm in Cedar so let's make this happen here," Thornton said. "I took that class online, and prayed and prayed I'd get through it because it was a tough class the first time I took it in California, and it was still tough when I retook it online. I worked my butt off and I had to work so I could live out there.
"We had guys on the team who took me in. That fall (2014), the coaches were so cool to me and they'd let me stand with the team on the sidelines.
"The guys would always tell me that I was supposed to be out there with them, to have patience because I'd be out there with them soon. Serving them food and drink was one of the most humbling experiences ever."
Was he homesick? He's not afraid to admit it, yes. Was he going to quit?
When he finally did get to suit up in 2015, he got a chance to play defense alongside future NFL players like LeShaun Sims, Miles Killebrew and James Cowser — all three of whom were impact rookies in the league last fall. All three were always supportive of Thornton and have given him advice about what will happen in the next few weeks. Killebrew and Cowser were even on hand at the SUU Pro Day in March (4.39 seconds in the 40-yard dash), to lend moral support.
Oh, there were nearly 20 pro scouts there, too. They liked Thornton's speed and cover skills, and his experience at the NFLPA Bowl in January was key, too. Of late, Detroit and Cincinnati have been the most involved with Thornton.
If drafted, Thornton would be only the fourth ever from SUU — Sims, Killebrew and former QB Brad Sorenson. Cowser was a 2016 free agent signing.
"It's an amazing feeling to see that the hard work you've put into it, people are recognizing it," Thornton said. "It's crazy because before you used to hear people in Cedar City say that if you're not at Utah or BYU, there's no chance. I mean, they'll tell you that they hope you'll get a shot, but don't you have to go to one of the bigger schools? You can't go to the NFL from SUU or Weber State, right? Isn't it impossible? But if you have talent, the scouts will find you.
"Having scouts at practices and games, somebody is seeing something."
BY THE NUMBERS
JOSH THORNTON'S STATISTICS
2016: 38 tackles, 3 INTs, 8 PBU, 11 PD — 11 games, 10 starts
2015: 32 tackles, 2 TFL, 2 INTs, 3 PBU, 5 PD, 2 FF — 12 games, 11 starts
2014: Redshirted at Southern Utah
2013: (JUCO) 15 tackles in 6 games, 1 INT, 5 PBUs
2012: (JUCO) 15 tackles in 6 game
2011: Out of football fall of '11, HS graduate in Spring 2011