By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin
None of the 37 players at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center had to overcome more tragedy before pulling on an Indianapolis Colts helmet than rookie offensive guard Hugh Thornton.
As a 12-year-old in 2004, Thornton was asleep downstairs in his mother Michele’s house in Jamaica when she and his eight-year-old sister Marley were murdered in an upstairs bedroom.
The boy blamed himself for not being able to protect them for a long time and bounced between homes with relatives in Idaho and Ohio. All the while, he was growing into a star football player who eventually signed to play at the University of Illinois.
Thornton’s journey included a pair of arrests while he was playing with the Fighting Illini before he learned to channel his anger in a positive direction.
When the Colts made him their third-round selection in last month’s NFL draft, he was surrounded by family and friends in a Boise, Idaho, restaurant. Video of the celebration has become a YouTube sensation.
On Friday in his new locker room, Thornton said he often thinks about his past while focusing on his future.
“In life, you have a lot of adversity and you reach a fork in the road where you can either go the right way or you can go the other, which is the opposite way,” he said. “You’ve got to make a decision, and once you make that decision you run with it.”
Thornton’s decision has been to honor Marley’s memory through his actions on and off the field. And that has made all the difference.
“I do it for my sister,” he said. “I’ve got four sisters, and that’s my mom’s legacy pretty much. I’m just out here representing for my family, and I’m enjoying it while I’m doing it.”
Thornton is expected to compete for a starting spot along the Colts’ remodeled offensive line this season.
On Sunday, he’ll complete the team’s three-day mini-camp with memories of Michele fresh in his mind.
“There’s no better way to celebrate someone than through achievement,” he said. “I’ve made it here, and I’ll be practicing on Mother’s Day, and my mom is going to be proud looking down on me.”
NOT SO FAST, MY FRIEND: Safety John Boyett did not participate in Friday’s on-field drills.
The sixth-round pick out of Oregon is recovering from torn patella tendons in each knee, and the Colts hope to have him ready for organized team activities that begin in two weeks.
Boyett worsened the injuries with the Ducks by playing through pain in his knees for his entire junior season. Now, Indianapolis head coach Chuck Pagano and his staff are trying to protect Boyett from himself.
“He wants to go,” Pagano said. “He’s champing at the bit. He’s really eager like the rest of the guys, but we are going to make sure that he’s 100 percent before we throw him out there.”
WHO’S IRRELEVANT NOW?: Tight end Justice Cunningham, who earned the moniker “Mr. Irrelevant” after being selected with the 254th and final pick of the draft, was one of the head-turners during Friday’s practice.
Though he came out of South Carolina with a reputation as an outstanding in-line blocker, Cunningham displayed a bit of his versatility during his first practice.
He made a nice catch on a deep crossing pattern for a big gain and added a diving reception on a shorter thrown late in the afternoon.
“He’s an athletic guy,” Pagano said. “He can stretch the field. I know there are a couple of balls he’d like to have back, a few that hit the ground. A big, athletic guy. We knew that. A pretty sharp guy. We feel like we have another guy in the mix who is a good blocker and can also become an effective pass receiver.”
LEADER OF THE PACK: Quarterback Andrew Luck joked early in last year’s training camp that center Samson Satele’s long hair protruding from the back of his helmet helped him remember who to line up under before each play.
If that’s case, Luck’s also going to love Southern Cal center Khaled Holmes — the Colts’ fourth-round pick this year.
Holmes resembles Satele with his long locks pulled back in a ponytail, and he’s already displaying some of the leadership qualities shared by the veteran center.
“The guy is brilliant, very sharp, very bright, makes all the calls,” Pagano said. “He picked up (things fast). It seems like he’s been here months the way he operated out here. He had that aura about him. He’s a very, very confident kid. I was very impressed with Khaled.”
WORDS OF WISDOM: The list of 13 undrafted and unsigned players trying out for a spot with the Colts this weekend includes three men with Indiana connections — Marian University kicker Mike Josifovski, Indiana State defensive end Jordan Bright and Mount Union safety Nick Driskill, who hails from Wabash.
Like the 10 other rookies hoping for a place on the 90-man roster and an invitation to training camp this summer at Anderson University, the Hoosier trio faces long odds.
But Pagano gave all the underdogs hope during the team’s first meeting.
“I told them (Thursday) night, ‘You’re here. I don’t care how you got here, but you’re sitting in an NFL meeting right now. You made it to this point,’” Pagano said after Friday’s practice. “We talked about a lot of guys. We talked about a guy like defensive coordinator Greg Manusky, who sat around in 1988 when they had 12 rounds in the draft. Guys sit around for seven now and act miserable. Can you imagine sitting around for 12 rounds? He sat there and went undrafted for 12 rounds and ended up getting in a camp and played 12 years in the National Football League. Anything can happen. You’re here. We don’t care how you got here. Take advantage of the opportunity.”