Shadrach Thornton has been walking on a notecard in the sole of his shoes for the past several months since getting kicked off N.C. State’s football team.
He lists his goals on it. Be a better man than I was yesterday. Don’t take anything for granted. Choose my friends wisely.
“So I’m walking around standing on my words,” the running back said Wednesday from the NFL Scouting Combine. “I really felt like I turned the corner for the better, and I feel like you have to go through something to be great.”
This isn’t a redemption story. Not yet, at least. He has a past that he needs to answer for. I sat down with Thornton for 10 minutes in Indianapolis at the combine he’s lucky to be attending.
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He stood up when he shook my hand. He kept eye contact throughout. He spoke with passion. In other words, he did and said all the right things.
Thornton had a message and he wanted to get it out. He will no doubt be relaying this message to the NFL teams he meets with this week, but will they believe him?
To hear Thornton tell it, he’s had a string of bad luck the past three years.
In 2013 he was having an argument with his then-girlfriend in the campus library. Thornton was young and thought he was in love, but he was emotionally hurt. She stormed out of a room in the library, he said, and eventually he went to find her.
Immediately, Thornton said, he called coach Dave Doeren to give his side of it. Then he learned the police had a warrant for his arrest for misdemeanor assault.
According to the warrant, Thornton grabbed her by the arm and pushed her against the wall. He took a deferred prosecution, and later the charges were dismissed.
Wednesday he denied ever touching her.
“So I’m literally in the back room with this (deferred prosecution) paper in front of me, bawling in tears because I didn’t do it,” Thornton said. “(My lawyer) said just agree to it, we can put this behind us and we can go out there and play some good ball. So that’s what I did. That’s what I agreed to.
“I never touched her or anything. That’s just something I agreed to to make it all easier for everyone.”
Had Thornton tried the case and been convicted of the assault, he wouldn’t even be here. The NFL ruled earlier this year that players with convictions on assault on a female wouldn’t be allowed at the combine.
“It is important for us to remain strongly committed to league values as we demonstrate to our fans, future players, coaches, general managers, and others who support our game that character matters,” NFL Football Operations Executive Vice President Troy Vincent stated in the memo to NFL teams, according to NFL.com.
More trouble to come
Four months after the arrest, Thornton was charged with misdemeanor marijuana possession and drug paraphernalia possession. He’s promised to stop smoking weed.
Thornton led the Wolfpack in rushing in three consecutive seasons. He had 768 rushing yards as a sophomore despite the two legal troubles. The following year, in 2014, Thornton had 907 rushing yards and was primed to have a huge senior season.
Then he was arrested in the fall, just 30 carries into his senior year, charged with two misdemeanors related to hitting a pedestrian while on a moped. Thornton was charged with failure to stop and render aid and failure to provide information.
Thornton had an explanation for that, too. He did hit Jimmie Woodard, he said, but he stopped and asked if he was OK. Thornton said Woodard told him he was fine and that he just needed to call his mom.
Woodard had a busted lip and Thornton’s hands were bleeding from falling. He was worried about how he’d be able to carry the ball in N.C. State’s next game against Louisville.
Walking through a parking garage, Thornton was stopped by an officer who then arrested him after an onlooker called the police. That was his third strike.
But that’s not who he is, he says. He said his older brother, David, died at 25 when he was a victim of a hit-and-run when Thornton was 10. He’d never hit someone and run, he said.
And he said he paid the excess medical bills for Woodard to the tune of $1,600. Thornton promises he has no ill-will toward Woodard.
Hard to believe?
But this is where I stop him. I tell Thornton the string of bad luck that has spanned nearly three years is almost too much to believe.
“I feel like I’ve been through everything I’ve been through because I’m strong enough to handle it,” Thornton said. “Bad luck, good luck, it’s all about how you come back from it. Five years from now I’m pretty sure we won’t be talking about this.”
In five years we may not be talking about Thornton at all. In five years he would be on his second NFL contract when few believe he’ll even be drafted.
What NFL team wants a guy with three strikes against him already? In today’s climate where the league (finally) has a heightened sense of awareness about violence toward women and where we talk about players’ pasts regularly, will Thornton’s talents be enough to convince a team to take him?
Here’s what Thornton says he wants teams to know: “I’m a kind-hearted, genuine person who loves to play football. Probably the most determined running back here with the biggest heart.”
Thornton believes in himself, and needs just one team to join him in that belief. He’s walking on his words, and now he needs to act on them.