Safety Juan Thornhill signed a three-year, $21 million contract with the Browns in March, leaving the Chiefs after four seasons. He replaced John Johnson III in Cleveland’s starting lineup, bringing deep reserves of energy and the experience of three Super Bowl trips.
Thornhill spoke to The Chronicle-Telegram during training camp about a variety of subjects. (The questions and answers have been edited for space and clarity.)
Scott Petrak: Chiefs safety Bryan Cook told reporters he admired your perseverance and performance a year ago. What did that mean to you?
Juan Thornhill: It means a lot, honestly. Whenever you can be that leader type guy to a younger guy and he actually picks up on some things that you talked about or maybe taught him that you didn’t even think you taught him. It means the world to me just because he’s like my little brother and I’m happy that he can see me as that leader figure.
SP: Cook talked about you fighting through adversity. What’s the biggest adversity you’ve overcome?
JT: With football, it’s probably the ACL my rookie year, honestly, because the first part was a struggle just because I knew I was so close to making it to the playoffs for my first time. But then I fell short of that because I tore my ACL Week 17. So I had to sit back, watch my team basically go through the whole playoffs without me. And then another part that really hit me hard is when I was at the Super Bowl. Growing up that’s your childhood dream is to go and play in the Super Bowl, and knowing that the team that you’re on is there and you not being able to participate in it just hurt so bad.
And another thing that affected me is I wasn’t able to be on the sideline with my team because I guess they figured that I wouldn’t be able to move in time if a player was to come to the sideline. I would definitely say that was something that I really struggled with just because the recovery process, it was going into the offseason, you don’t have your brothers around you to kind of lift you up. So at that time, I’m doing all my rehab and my treatment on my own and it was a struggle.
SP: You had surgery about a week before the Super Bowl. When did you feel back to normal?
JT: The doctors and people would say it is around eight to nine months, the recovery process, but that’s not true. I wouldn’t say I felt like myself until two years after the surgery. So I struggled the year I came back, my second year.
SP: Did you play Week 1 that second year?
JT: I did. I struggled a little bit just because you still have the pain, you don’t have the confidence in your knee, so you’re just trying to find a way to get through it pretty much. And then the next year you could see me getting a little bit better as the season went on because it was pushing up on that two-year mark.
SP: So even when you’re playing in that next season, you didn’t feel as fast and twitchy?
JT: Yeah. Simple things like tendinitis can build up in the knee. So I would say my left leg was probably lagging a little bit behind the right. Me breaking off the right leg was great, but then when it came for me to push off that left leg, I just didn’t have the same strength that I once had.
SP: So how sweet was it when you made it back to the Super Bowl after the 2020 season and could play in it?
JT: I played in it, but we lost. So that wasn’t a great feeling, honestly. Like I tell everybody, I saw the Super Bowl from three different standpoints, three different people’s perspectives. I won one but I was in the stands, so I saw it as a fan’s perspective. And we lost one, so I was on the losing side of it. And then finally this past year we won one. So I got to see it all.
SP: Everyone says your new teammates are going to learn from your championship experience and you can make an impact. So what lessons did you learn from being with Chiefs and having all that success that you can apply?
JT: It’s just the work, honestly. With Coach (Andy) Reid, he pushes you every day super hard. Like to the point where you don’t think you’ll be able to make it through practice. And some teams, the ball’s in the air, they watch the play go and you just stop running. But in Kansas City with the ball in air, you sprint to the football and try to make a play on the ball even though you know you might not be able to get there. It is just teaching you habits to get to the football. And when you’re around the football, good things happen. So that’s what I’m planning on bringing here is just to push the guys to push through those limits where you don’t feel like you can go no more. You gotta push and make yourself go.
SP: What’s it like practicing against Patrick Mahomes?
JT: You’re facing probably one of the best quarterbacks in history going against Patrick Mahomes each and every day. So going against him is just gonna make you practice hard, which is gonna make the games easier.
SP: You had a tweet during the offseason related to a ranking of the top safeties that didn’t include you. Does that bother you?
JT: What you do in the offseason, you’re working to get to the top, it is either the Super Bowl or in your position. But when you look at that ranking and you’re not even on there and you see some guys, like if you want to compare stats, you can do that. But I know last season I had a really good season and a lot of people look past the stats that I put up. I had three interceptions and nine passes defended. And they say I really don’t make that many plays, but if you really watch each and every week, I really had six interceptions and three of them were called back. Things like that that people don’t really see, I feel like that should also be put into that. I mean, I made a lot of plays. And I work to get to the top of that list and I’m not there, it’s kind of disappointing.
SP: Where do you belong on that list?
JT: If you really ask me, I’m gonna say I’m at the top of the chart. But realistically I don’t take anything away from these guys. There was some really good guys on that list. I’m not gonna really put myself above anyone, but I do feel like I belong on that list for sure.
SP: Does that motivate you?
JT: Yes, definitely. If you’re not on that list, your goal this year is to get on the list and then try to get as high as possible on the list as you can.
SP: Can you reflect on another time in your career when you felt doubted and the need to prove people wrong?
JT: Yeah, definitely. It might’ve been my third year I would say with the Chiefs. I came into the season and not really starting. I felt like I had put in a lot of work, but I wasn’t a starter at that time, so I was just working each and every week being really quiet and just trying to stack good days, stack the good games so people can understand, “OK, Juan belongs on the field.” That was the time I was really feeling like I was being doubted, but my work showed and I eventually got back on the field.
SP: Coordinator Jim Schwartz seems like a big personality. What was your initial opinion of him and how has it been now that you’ve been around him for a while?
JT: You have some of those coaches that can be like hard-a** coaches and some that’s really funny and outgoing. So I didn’t really know at first when I was talking to him, I was just trying to figure him out. But as time went on, I definitely feel like he has a huge personality. He likes to have a lot of fun and I like playing under Coach Schwartz for sure.
SP: How good can this defense be?
JT: The ceiling is super high. There’s guys everywhere, up front, linebacker, DBs, like we have the best pieces I think in the NFL, honestly, if you put it all together. The D-line’s gonna get there fast. Linebackers are covering sideline to sideline. And then you have DBs that can cover tight ends and wideouts. You got the safeties that can do that as well and tackle. I feel like we have a good shot at being one of the top defenses in the NFL.
SP: You played with Clearview High School graduate Anthony Hitchens in Kansas City. Did he have an impact on you as a young player?
JT: Hitch, he did for sure. One thing I learned from him is just how to take care of your body. I would talk to him all the time. It’s just like, “How do you play in this league as long as you do? And how do you continue to perform the way that you do when you’re getting older?” And he was just basically saying take care of your body, hyperbaric chamber and things like that. And now I own a hyperbaric chamber. He’s definitely taught me how to be a vet for sure.”