TAMPA — Juan Thornhill was exactly what the Kansas City Chiefs hoped he would be as a rookie. Selected 63rd overall in the 2019 NFL Draft with the Chiefs’ second-round pick, the defensive back out of the University of Virginia finished second on the team with three interceptions (one returned for a touchdown), fifth on the team with 58 tackles, and he started all 16 games.
But in that 16th and final game of the regular season, Thornhill went down with a non-contact injury in the first half, and it turned out to be a torn ACL. He missed the Chiefs’ entire playoff run, which culminated with them winning Super Bowl LIV. As his teammates took down the San Francisco 49ers, he could only sit and watch and be happy for them.
As he endured the grueling rehab, Thornhill processed the “hurt” of not being on the field for Kansas City’s playoff run. He felt as if he’d let his team down, and he missed out on his childhood dream of playing in a Super Bowl.
But Kansas City is back again, set to take on Tampa Bay in Super Bowl LV on Sunday, and Thornhill will step on the field this time. He battled back from injury in time to start the first six games this season, but dealt with knee pain and saw his usage dwindle, starting only two more games the rest of the season. But Thornhill played 77 percent of the defensive snaps in the AFC championship game against Buffalo, and said he’s 100 percent healthy.
“Obviously it means a lot. I didn’t have the chance to play last year, and it really hurt me a lot just to be at the game but not able to be on the field with my team,” Thornhill said Tuesday during his session with the media. “So this whole offseason, in my mind, I was just thinking we were going to get back to the Super Bowl. Like, there was no other option. So it definitely means a whole lot for me just being able to actually step [on the field], play in the Super Bowl. This is like your childhood dream to go out there and play in one of the biggest games ever. So I’m really excited.”
Throughout his knee rehab and up-and-down 2020 season, Thornhill said he also relied on God.
“With this ACL injury, it can really knock you down. A lot of guys don’t really know how hard it is on the body and on the mind. The biggest thing for me, I was trying to keep a positive mentality, relying on God, reading different books and things like that, just so my mind could stay cleared. Because if your mind’s not cleared, you’re not going to be able to make it,” he said Tuesday. “There were some hard times throughout the year; I was struggling mentally and physically, but was just keeping my faith in God, just knowing that He’s going to push me through those hard times and get me back to where I want to be.”
When asked which books he read to help him through rehab, he said the Bible.
“Whenever you’re down, there’s always the Word of God that can lift you up and bring you through that hole,” he said.
Now that he’s emerged from the valley, Thornhill and the rest of the Chiefs defense is tasked with preventing quarterback Tom Brady from collecting his seventh Super Bowl. After six championships in 20 seasons with New England, Brady has, in his first season here, surprisingly led Tampa to its second-ever Super Bowl appearance, and first since the Buccaneers won Super Bowl XXXVII in 2002-03.
Thornhill welcomes the challenge of facing arguably the greatest quarterback ever, and realizing a childhood dream in the process.
“I’ve always been watching the Super Bowl with my parents, my grandfather, my grandma,” he said Tuesday. “I’ve always been watching it growing up, so it’s going to mean a whole lot to finally get out there, just to be able to play in a game that you’ve always wanted to play in.”