ST. JOSEPH, Mo. — In Week 17 of the 2019 season, Kansas City Chiefs safety Juan Thornhill suffered a season-ending ACL tear. Despite the usual year-or-longer timeline to fully recover from a torn ACL, Thornhill appeared in all 19 games for the Chiefs in 2020. Now, as the Chiefs kick off training camp ahead of the 2021 season, Thornhill says he's closer to 100% than he's been in a long time — both physically and mentally.
"Honestly, I had to play it off a little bit," Thornhill said of his recovery throughout the 2020 season. "I wasn’t at 100%, but it was just more about the mental. Like, I had to tell myself, 'It’s going to hurt, but you’ve got to play through it.' So, that’s why when the end of the season came, you saw me making more plays, just because it was more mental, and I just pushed myself through that mental block.”
Thornhill's role fluctuated in 2020, playing the vast majority of defensive snaps through Week 9 before taking a more limited role until Week 17, when he played 100% of snaps before again playing a part-time role in the Chiefs' 2020 playoff run.
Thornhill also mentioned that he was glad to be called to camp early as one of a small number of recovering-from-injury veterans who reported along with rookies and quarterbacks. This made Thornhill, at age 25, the most experienced defensive back on the field for the first two days of camp.
I asked Thornhill if he enjoyed being the veteran and leader in the absence of fellow safety Tyrann Mathieu, who isn't scheduled to report until Monday afternoon.
"Yeah, I love it," Thornhill said. "Just because of the guys. I was once a rookie, and with Tyrann, we were going through the playbook at the same time, but he was a little bit ahead of me. But with me being a vet out here, there are some rookies who aren't really sure how camp's gonna go. Basically, I don't have to say a lot, just tell them to follow me. And if there are calls they don't know, I'll communicate and walk them through it. If they mess up on a play, it's okay, you're gonna make mistakes, just get through it, forget the play and move on."
Later in the press conference, Thornhill discussed how he made every defensive call for stretches of practice as the veteran in the defensive backfield, making sure he knew every detail of the defense.
Thornhill also said defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo is working to help him develop into a leader of the defense, telling a story about a walkthrough from last season where Thornhill believes Mathieu and Spagnuolo had bigger goals for him to achieve.
"I'm not sure, but I'm pretty sure that [Spagnuolo] told Tyrann not to say something in walkthroughs one day, like he told Tyrann not to speak and basically made me make every single call," Thornhill said with a smile. "And I was like, 'there's something going on, Tyrann's not making any calls?' I started making every single call loud, and from that point on, I started getting louder and louder, and I feel like that's just him turning me into a leader."
With his health returning to 100% and a concerted effort to develop as a leader of the Chiefs' defense, Thornhill seems to be exactly where he wants to be with the 2021 season just around the corner.