As the Kansas City Chiefs sealed the deal on their first Super Bowl title in 50 years, there were hardly any mixed emotions; it was pure bliss for the players on the field, the coaches on the sideline and the countless Chiefs fans all over the world.
But for Chiefs safety Juan Thornhill, the excitement of a championship was paired with a bothersome feeling. He had been unable to play during any of the postseason run due to a torn ACL he suffered in Week 17.
During Friday’s press conference, Thornhill said he found motivation in that bittersweet moment.
“I was really happy for my team,” Thornhill said. “But it made me more determined — more hungry — just because I wasn’t being able to play in the playoffs with my teammates. When I was at the Super Bowl watching, I was so happy — but at the same time, it was eating me alive.”
Hungry was the word of the day for Thornhill. If he felt hungry to prove himself as a rookie last year, he’s starving to come back to full health for 2020.
“I’ve never felt this hungry before — and I was really hungry coming into the NFL,” Thornhill recalled. “But with me not being able to play in the playoffs, I feel like I let my team down. I can’t let myself fall backwards. I have to pick up where I left off and take off. Hopefully I can help my teammates get back to the Super Bowl.”
But getting back to where he was at the time he was injured is easier said than done — especially since it happened so late in the season; sometimes it can take more than a year to fully recover from an ACL injury. Fortunately for Thornhill, has a veteran leader who could relate to his situation.
“It’s been very stressful, just being completely honest,” Thornhill admitted. “I was just talking to [Chiefs safety] Tyrann Mathieu about the two ACL surgeries that he had. He was like, ‘The main thing is [being] positive.’ That’s the first thing I wanted to do: just be positive throughout this entire process — ‘cause if you’re not positive, it’s going to slow down your healing process.”
After being placed on the physically-unable-to-perform list at the beginning of training camp, Thornhill was removed from PUP a few days ago. Now he’s participating in some drills on a limited basis — and he’s not sure when he’ll be able to do more.
“I’m not really sure when I’ll get full-go,” he explained. “I’m just trying to stack good days through individuals; just work through the pain a little bit. Hopefully I can get back out there soon... I felt like it was time for me to at least get out there with my teammates and start moving around.”
It wasn’t just that Thornhill missed the postseason run. The injury was also disappointing because he was having such an impressive rookie season. By Week 17, he was beginning to be recognized as one of the best young safeties in the league. But he didn’t start the year with that label.
“Starting off, I was a little rusty,” Thornhill recalled. “Making those rookie mistakes, giving up plays that I shouldn’t be giving up. I definitely watch every single game. and I can just see myself progressing each game. I got better each game, each week.”
Thornhill may have had his natural first-year struggles — but the rest of the defense didn’t start out too hot, either. In defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s first season in Kansas City, it took time for the players to gel as a unit.
“At the beginning of the season, we were trying to learn the defense,” Thornhill noted. “Guys [were] trying to figure out how to play together; we were trying to figure out guys’ strengths and weaknesses. Midpoint of that season, we started to click — because the guys started to know the strengths.
“For example, me playing beside Tyrann. I didn’t know what he was good at — and I didn’t know what he was bad at. Once we started playing multiple weeks together, we started to get that feel that like, ‘Okay. I know he’s going to do this’ and we started making more plays — because we were confident in what our teammates could do.”
The defense made plenty of plays — enough to win three postseason games and a league championship. With so many starters who played in the big games now returning, there could be complacency. If there is, Thornhill won’t hesitate to call it out.
“I’ve been out there a couple days watching the team. I don’t even feel like there’s any guys that [are] living on last year... If there is someone that’s maybe falling off or starting to slack off just because we are Super Bowl champions, yes, I will step up — ‘cause I do see myself as a leader as well, even though this is my second season in the NFL.”
Being a leader means understanding the best role you can play at any given moment. Thornhill said he understood that once he was injured, his role had changed drastically — but he knew he still had a duty to his teammates.
“I just wanted to stay positive — try and lift up my teammates as they were going through the playoffs. I didn’t want to be that guy that’s being a cancer in the locker room; whenever they heard from me and I was down. I just wanted to be there to lift them up.”
As he works to get back to being a big contributor on the field, he continues to have the positivity he did as he watched his teammates achieve an NFL team’s ultimate goal. No one knows exactly when he’ll be back at 100% — but we do know that the 24-year old safety has a bright, exciting future in Kansas City.