Football, Sports, WVU Sports

WVU’s Jalen Thornton found success after he stopped trying to be his hall-of-fame father

MORGANTOWN — Playing college football is hard. It can be even harder if you spend the whole time trying to be your hall-of-fame father.

“I made it way too hard on myself in the beginning of my career and it took a long time for me to get past that,” WVU defensive lineman Jalen Thornton said Monday. “Now that I’m just being the best version of myself, that’s pretty good.”

Thornton is the son of former WVU standout John Thornton, a two-time All-Big East selection, 1997 All-American, 10-year NFL veteran and 2019 WVU Sports Hall of Fame inductee.

The younger Thornton followed in his father’s footsteps to WVU but hasn’t enjoyed the same success since joining the team in 2019. Prior to this season, Thornton played a very limited role on the Mountaineers’ defense. 

“(I was) just trying to be my dad. Trying to be something I’m not,” Thornton said. “I watched him for a really long time. He brought me to games here when I was younger and I watched old film of his and players he played with. But at the same time, that’s just not me.” 

This season, he’s established himself in WVU’s defensive line rotation and has set a career-high with eight tackles while also recording 2.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks.

“That’s a big thing (defensive line) Coach (Andrew) Jackson told me, ‘You don’t have to be your dad, you don’t have to be some of the other good players, you just have to be the best version of you, you just have to be the best Jalen Thornton you can be,’” Thornton said. “And it’s been working out.”

While initially disappointed, Thornton has come to embrace the way his own football career has worked out.

“I appreciate that it went the way that it has for me,” he said. “I took so much more than personal accolades, having a chance at the NFL, being a starter. I thought all of those things matter, but they really don’t. 

“The lessons that I’ve learned from this game that I’m going to take with me, those are the things I’m going to look back on and be happy it went that way. It’s easy to be satisfied when you’re winning and everything’s going your way. Your true character shows when nothing’s really going your way.”

Thornton thought his career might be over after getting hurt in 2022. When he returned, he was determined to make 2023 his best year yet.

“Maybe I wasn’t meant to be a good football player, and that’s fine,” he said. “Going into this last season, I really just put my all into it saying regardless of what happens, I’m going to leave it all out there and put my faith in God. Instead of saying ‘Why me, why is this happening to me,’ this is what’s supposed to happen.”

Thornton grew up around his father’s football career. After playing at WVU, the elder Thornton was selected in the second round of the 1999 NFL draft by the Tennessee Titans. In addition to four seasons in Tennessee, he also spent six years with the Cincinnati Bengals.

The younger Thornton grew up in and around NFL locker rooms.

“I thought it was normal. I think it was 2006 or ’07, I’m in the locker room and I see Carson Palmer, his brother (Jordan Palmer), Chad Ochocinco and T.J. Houshmandzadeh,” he recalled. “I didn’t appreciate it as much then as I do now, but moments like that I’ve been able to share with my dad and with my family mean everything to me.”

Although this is Thornton’s fifth year with the Mountaineers, he has one year of eligibility remaining due to the 2020 COVID waiver. He is undecided about returning in 2024 and is treating this week’s game against Cincinnati (2:30 p.m./ESPN+) as potentially his final home game. It’s fitting that the opponent is the Bearcats as Thornton grew up in Cincinnati, where his family stayed after his father’s NFL career ended.

“(Former UC) Coach (Luke) Fickell was there at the time and he gave me an opportunity to go there, but this was my home, too,” Thornton said. “Both places hold a special place in my heart. That’ll be a surreal moment for me, especially because it could be my final game (at Milan Puskar Stadium).”

Thornton has given up his dreams of recreating his father’s WVU career and has shifted his focus onto just enjoying however many games are left in his own playing career. When the time does come to hang up his pads, Thornton believes he’ll stay in athletics one way or another. Perhaps even following his father again and becoming an agent.

“I would like to stay in athletics. I love watching film, (scouting is) something I’ve thought about. After a game I have to watch the film, I’ll just come back in here and watch all of it,” Thornton said. “Maybe I could be one of his agents. We’ll see about that — I’m just trying to live in the moment right now.”

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