Thornton's Long Journey to Indianapolis

Being drafted in the NFL is a big accomplishment for any college football player, but for former Illinois offensive lineman Hugh Thornton, hearing his name called Friday night carried much, much more weight.

The road to the NFL was never easy for Hugh Thornton. A life filled with adversity, off-field issues in college, and injuries here and there still wasn't able to hold him back from making his dream of playing in the NFL come true.

Thornton, who will head to Indianapolis to play for his former offensive line coach at Illinois Joe Gilbert, is excited about what's ahead of him in his career.

"I'm just excited to be called to be in the NFL and have this opportunity to pursue my career in football," Thornton said. "I owe it to the people at Illinois that helped me in my career. I owe it to Illini Nation."

Thornton, who came to Illinois from Oberlin, Ohio, was actually in Boise, Idaho where he grew up when he got the call.

"I was in Boise. I had a draft party with my family and friends," he said. "Coach Gilbert gave me the call. I was so excited. I was starting to stress a bit since I didn't know where I'd be going. But the emotions came out."

One of the unique aspects of Thornton's draft pick is that it will reunite him with his college offensive line coach Joe Gilbert. Thornton credits Coach Gilbert with much of his development as a lineman and looks forward to getting back with Gilbert in Indy.

"Being back with Coach Gilbert is a blessing really," Thornton said. "That's one of the guys apart from Coach Butkus that was with me the most. He was a mentor and pushed me to be the best. It's a great opportunity to be a great lineman at the next level."

Illinois isn't typically a destination for players from Boise, Idaho, but one season in Ohio his senior year of high school and some extra work by Gilbert, and the rest was history.

"Coming out of high school, my first three years, I was in Boise before Oberlin. Once I moved, the midwest offers started coming," he said. "I was between Michigan State and Illinois. Coach Wolford actually recruited me, then he left for South Carolina. Then Coach Gilbert came in and really helped prepare me for the next level."

Of course, now Thornton will be tasked with blocking for one of the league's young guns in stellar quarterback Andrew Luck. Thornton almost sounded nostalgic when he thought about being on the front line for Luck.

"I'm so excited," Thornton said. "Andrew Luck is an incredible quarterback. It'll be different than having scrambling quarterbacks. He's incredibly smart. It's going to be awesome."

And while their time at Illinois didn't coincide, Thornton now joins former Illinois cornerback and first round draft pick Vontae Davis, formerly of the Miami Dolphins, in Indianapolis.

"it's going to be cool to be teammates with a former Illini," he said. "A lot of my Illinois friends knew him and talked about him. I've met him a few times when he came back to school."

For Thornton, Indianapolis is nearly the ideal location, too. With a sister nearby and his alma mater just a couple hours away, the fit worked out well.

"I'm excited to get to rookie minicamp and learn it all. I'm a hard worker and a quick learner," he said. "Being in the midwest is great. I have a sister at Illinois and I train in Chicago in the offseason. So it's great."

Thornton's past is something that would be difficult for anyone to handle, but he's put that out of the way and is keeping his eyes fixed on his goals. And as a person who remembers those who helped him get to where he is now, he's eager to give back.

"Right now I'm not concerned about the past, I'm focused on the future," Thornton said. "The things I grew up with are over with and done. This is a perfect opportunity to give back to the community and give back to the people that helped me."

With so many skilled offensive linemen in this year's draft, and so many already being picked in the first three rounds, Thornton is grateful to be associated with that kind of talent and have his name called this early.

"It's awesome. I have a special respect for anyone that's played offensive line," he said. "To be picked so highly knowing so many great athletes are left on the board means a lot."

Thornton isn't sure whether he'll be played at tackle or guard yet. He most likely projects as a guard on the interior, but no matter where the Colts want him, he's ready to get to work.

"I can't remember for sure where they want to use me," he said. "Whether it's guard or tackle, I'm just ready however they want to use me."

A lot of draftees have a pretty good idea of where they might end up based on contact they've made throughout the pre-draft process, interviews with teams, workouts, and through their agents. But Thornton, who never talked much with the Colts, got a bit of an unexpected call. Then again, the Colts would have known what they were getting with Joe Gilbert on the scouting report.

"It wasn't (a team I had much contact with). I really didn't have any contact with the Colts," Thornton said. "When I got nervous about where I'd end up, I talked to Coach Gilbert about it. Luckily they picked me up and I got the opportunity to be an Indianapolis Colt."

Thornton now joins other former Illinois offensive linemen such as Dave Diehl, Tony Pashos, Jeff Allen, Jon Asamoah, Jack Cornell, and others in the NFL.

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