"Jacksonville and Atlanta also showed interest in me, but they wanted me at defensive end," Thornton said. "Yeah, the fact that my dad played here weighed in on the decision. But I just felt like it was the best opportunity for me. I felt like this is where I had the best chance to make the team, and I wanted the opportunity to play for Coach Parcells. He has this team pointed in the right direction -- toward greatness."
When he signed with the University of Texas out of St. Mark's School of Texas (in Dallas), Thornton was a 270-pound defensive end/tight end. In part because of his background of playing against private schools, in games in which he almost always was the biggest and fastest player on either team, Thornton didn't enjoy some of the recruiting hype afforded to some of his more heralded teammates. But by the end of his first season -- he earned a starting job as a true freshman, while many of his more publicized teammates sat out their first year as redshirts -- UT defensive coordinator Carl Reese called Thornton the best defensive player on a squad full of high school (and college) All-America players.
Thornton started for four years in Austin but was bypassed in the NFL Draft, perhaps because of his size (Thornton stands 6-foot-3 and trimmed down to less than 260 pounds while at UT) or because of the knee injury he suffered at UT. But when he showed up in Valley Ranch for the Dallas mini-camp, Thornton had whipped himself into even better shape, slimming down to 245 pounds and making the move to linebacker.
Texas DE Kalen Thornton
"I lost the weight at Texas because I didn't want them (the UT coaches) to move me to defensive tackle," Thornton said. "I played defensive end there, but would have had to get bigger again to play defensive end at the pro level, and that might have hurt my quickness."
Thornton said the Dallas coaches haven't specified a particular task or list of goals that will ensure him a spot with his father's former club.
"Nothing specific -- they said it's up to each person to earn a spot," Thornton said. "Special teams will definitely be a factor, and I want to play on every one of them to show the coaches different ways I can help the team. You have to be willing to do whatever it takes, and I am."
Before he spreads himself too thin with all the special teams, Thornton said he needs to iron out the kinks of playing a new position.
"The biggest change at this level for me is switching to a new position," he said. "I have to learn how to drop into coverages. In a way, it's almost like I'm playing football for the first time."
There's a chance that the Thornton family blood runs even deeper in Valley Ranch than just Kalen and his father. The Cowboys spent their fourth-round draft choice on Georgia cornerback Bruce Thornton, who Kalen says might be related.
"My dad has family in Georgia, in Columbus, and he (the younger Bruce Thornton) is from LaGrange," Kalen said. "So maybe we're cousins or something. We're going to talk to family and see if we might be related."
"LaGrange is only about 30 minutes from Columbus," said the younger Bruce Thornton. "I've never met Kalen before this mini-camp, and I haven't met his dad yet. I remember seeing Kalen on TV, when Texas was on, and I noticed 'Thornton,' but it didn't occur to me that we might be related."
Bruce Thornton said that getting drafted was a thrill, but getting picked by the Cowboys made the experience even more special.
"I've always been a Cowboys fan," hge said. "I watched them when Jimmy Johnson was coaching. My high school wore the same colors, and we had stars on our helmets. I always felt like I was playing for the Cowboys, and now I have a chance to do that."
Kalen also grew up thinking about playing for the Cowboys, his home team and his father's former employer. But the element of fantasy is now gone.
"Yeah, I wanted to play for Dallas, but this is a job now," he said. "I have just as much of a chance as anyone else here to be gone tomorrow. It's a little different, I guess, than it is for the other guys, because my dad played here. So it's a dream job, but it is a job, and I have to treat it that way."