Those virtues were tested early in his college career, when Thornton went from heralded recruit to seldom-used back-up. Now in his senior season, Thornton is a starter, the reward for sticking around and relentless hard work.
“I’ve got a lot of wisdom from my family, and they really helped raise me to be the man I am today,” Thornton said.
Growing up in Columbus, Thornton and his family lived with his grandparents until middle school. The now 6-foot-1, 293-pound nose tackle was particularly close with his grandfather, who brought him along to chop wood on a daily basis. Thornton says he learned many things from his grandfather, mostly how to be a man.
He wears a set of dog tags every day displaying the names of his mother’s parents.
“Family is just super important for me because they’ve always been there for me, and I feel like if I can do anything to give back I want to do everything I can to give back,” Thornton said.
Thornton was a four-star defensive tackle coming out of Stephenson High, a major recruiting win for the Bulldogs after having changed defensive staffs in the offseason leading up to signing day. While the Bulldogs were the eventual winners, Thornton didn’t make his mind up until Todd Grantham, near the finish line of the recruitment, told Thornton he was, “going to play and be able to fit in the defense.”
That wasn’t the case. Thornton redshirted and collected only seven tackles and a sack the next three seasons.
By the time his senior season rolled around, Thornton was working for the second defensive coordinator and third defensive line coach of his career.
Now, given new opportunity thanks to coordinator Jeremy Pruitt’s takeover, Thornton is a starter.
Roommate and fellow defensive lineman Ray Drew said Thornton’s personality and demeanor hasn’t changed.
“I just look at where he’s been and what all he’s been through,” Drew said. “This is his fifth year here and he’s not really gotten an opportunity until this time and he’s really stuck it out. I’ve talked with him and he said one of the main reasons he did it is because of the guys on the team.”
“It’s been a great opportunity just coming from where I’ve been from,” he said. “Everybody’s treating me right.”
It’s not always easy for a player to rise from a lesser role to a position where leadership is expected. Thornton says he’s drawn on past experiences with his family to help make his voice more respected in the locker room.
The relationship between individual and team reminds him of growing up in a big household.
“You learn from your older siblings, so when they get in trouble with things you’re kind of like, ‘I’m not going to do that,’ so I kind of teach that to my younger siblings from just experiences,” Thornton said.
The results, according to teammates, are obvious. Never much of a talker in the past, Thornton now routinely breaks down the huddle for his defensive mates at the conclusion of practices.
“He’s speaking up a little more as well where as in the past he didn’t say as much,” Drew said. “I’m hearing a little more from him, which is understandable.”
Thornton’s influence has caught the attention of seemingly everybody in the program, all the way to the top.
“Mike’s been a guy who’s been working like mad to get an opportunity like he has now, and I’m happy for him,” coach Mark Richt said. “I’m glad he’s getting playing time. I’m glad he’s being able to be productive enough to feel like he can lead, and he does have some good leadership skills.”
It’s taken time for Thornton to get where he wanted to be, but that’s OK with him. He’s learned something more important than tackles and pass rush through his process to this point.
“Don’t stress yourself out about anything as far as football because it’s only a small part of your life,” Thornton said.