INDIAN HILL, Ohio – When John Thornton recently received a call from Indian Hill High School Principal Jeff Damadeo, he was initially concerned.
But any uneasiness quickly dissipated when Damadeo and a few other school administrators got on speakerphone to laud Thornton’s son, senior Jalen Thornton.
“They just said, ‘Thank you for sending Jalen here,’” said John Thornton, a former 10-year NFL player who played for the Cincinnati Bengals from 2003 to 2008.
Jalen Thornton, an Indian Hill football standout, was a finalist for homecoming king on Oct. 5. When special education student Michael Phillips won, the entire student section erupted.
So did Jalen. Phillips’ crown came off during their embrace.
“He immediately came over to Michael and was the first to congratulate him and come in for the full hug,” Damadeo said. “Several of our district administrators were there as well; they have known Jalen and Michael since they were children. They were literally fighting back tears. It was a special moment for all of us -- one that we will not forget.”
Jalen, 17, exemplifies integrity, pride, excellence, respect and opportunity, school officials say. That's what makes his father so proud. The conversation doesn't start with football.
“Jalen is a true model for his teammates, classmates and Braves,” Damadeo said.
Thornton, a defensive end/tight end and West Virginia University verbal commit, also happens to be one of the state’s top football players.
He has 59 tackles including eight and a half sacks on defense. He has nine receptions for 148 yards and four touchdowns on offense.
“He’s an outstanding dude,” Indian Hill Athletic Director Matt Haskamp said. “He’s first class all the way.”
The Braves (7-1), rated No. 3 in the Division IV, Region 16 computer points standings, will play host to Deer Park (6-2) on Friday night. The Braves are in good shape for a fourth consecutive postseason appearance.
“Jalen is that positive, 'glass is half full' leader where when things maybe aren’t going the way we’d envision them he doesn’t get rattled, he doesn’t get overtly excited and sort of lose the sense of himself,” Indian Hill coach Tony Arcuri said. “He’s more likely to pick people up and say, ‘Hey, next play’ and move on.”
Sports represents so much to Jalen Thornton and his family.
His brother, Indian Hill freshman cornerback Ty Thornton, is also the team’s backup quarterback. The brothers also play basketball for the Braves. This football season is the first time the brothers have played on the same team.
In mid-September, Ty, 14, connected on a pass to Jalen in the Madeira game. The brothers smile at that memory. Their bond has grown stronger this fall as they drive to and from school together each day.
“We’re together all the time now,” Jalen said. “I wouldn’t want it any other way. He’s my best friend and I love him to death.”
Football is always on TV in the Thornton home. The brothers play video games and watch the game film on Saturday mornings. Dad will offer his analysis, too.
John Thornton is a Roc Nation sports agent and counts Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson and Browns head coach Hue Jackson among his clients. He often travels but he makes sure to return home for the Indian Hill games.
He watches the home games by himself near the Tomahawk Stadium fence along the track. He encourages his sons but doesn’t yell.
“I want them to stay in the moment,” John Thornton said. “Don’t think like you are in college now or, when he was on JV, don’t think about varsity. Really try to have fun and get better.”
Being the son of a former NFL player naturally brings the spotlight, but Jalen and Ty are carving their own paths to success.
“Nothing is given to you in this game,” Ty said. “Just because he knows a lot of people and he has experience with football, it doesn’t mean I am going to get noticed obviously. I just got to work for it and that’s what I try to do every day.”
Like his father, Jalen will play for the Mountaineers. West Virginia showed the most interest in Jalen. He wants to study sport management or business.
Jalen said his father is the greatest role model in his life. He wants to be like him, but he also wants to be the best version of himself.
“I know he is motivated a lot by Dad,” Arcuri said. “He wants to do the things that Dad has done. I know they’ve got a great relationship. But he is also very team oriented. He wants to lead this team to places that we haven’t been led to before. He’s very motivated to leaving that type of legacy behind.”
John Thornton likes to say Jalen is self-made through a relentless work ethic and the desire to be considered an elite player. He added that Jalen is a better defensive player than he was in high school.
“I think he wants to be great,” John Thornton said. “He sees the attention that being good gets you. He knows the hard work. He’s been named one of the top players in Ohio and I think that drives you.”
No one at Indian Hill could doubt Jalen's effort on or off the field.
“My time here I couldn’t be more lucky of a kid to be at a great program and have a chance to play football in college, too,” Jalen said. “Day after day I become more grateful of the things I’ve been given and the things I have here. Just to play with my brother and my teammates in front of my community – there is nothing like it. I am really going to miss it when it’s all said and done.”