Some of my first memories are being outside trying to shoot a basketball on a little hoop that my parents got me or throwing a football around in the yard.
I was always figuring out some sport or game to play, and no matter which one, I wanted to find a way to win.
Coming up in Altavista, Virginia, football was always one I focused on. Because we were in a small town, I played ball with pretty much the same guys all the way from little league through high school.
Since we played together so long, we knew how we played and built a bond over the years. By the time we got to high school, we had a good program at Altavista and a lot of talented guys that were hungry to build a winning culture.
Although I loved football, I was more of a basketball guy starting off in high school. Getting an offer from Radford after my sophomore year, I figured that was probably my best shot at playing at the next level.
But I knew I wanted to go somewhere bigger than Radford, and once I started getting letters to play football, that swung the door wide open once again.
On the field, I was playing defensive back as well as quarterback.
I loved both positions, but there was something special about having the ball in my hands. Being one of the more athletic guys on the team, I wanted to figure out any way possible for us to win, so I figured being closer to the ball might let me help out the most.
My junior year, was the real breakout period though. I picked up my first football offer, one that turned out to be pretty important.
It was from the University of Virginia.
I specifically remember my second game that year, we played against a bigger school called Rustburg and Coach Poindexter, my recruiter, showed up randomly.
I didn’t know he was coming or anything, and I saw him in the stands as I was coming out of the locker room. Already this was going to be a big game for me, and now I really had to focus to play my best.
And you know how that goes when you try too hard to be perfect: You always make mistakes.
At halftime, we were losing, so it was an opportunity for my coaches to see how I would respond.
If I was going to fold or actually keep fighting to come back and win.
It wasn’t going to do me or the team any good for me to focus on my mistakes, but to go back out and play like it was a new game.
Coach stayed the whole game to watch, and I ended up making some plays and fought back to a win. It was definitely my worst offensive game but at the same time my best game on D.
I think I had about 20 tackles while playing safety while fumbling and throwing an interception on offense. I was down on myself, but I still knew Coach liked what he saw.
That Saturday, I went to a UVA football game and Coach Poindexter called me over. He said “I was at the game, obviously you saw me. I was going to leave but I wanted to see how you handled adversity.”
He told me I had a “heck of a game on defense,” and that he called Coach Tenuta to say they had to give an offer to me.
A few days later, I got a call from Coach London, and they gave me the official.
Obviously, I had success on both sides of the ball, but the one thing that really stood out to the staff was my mentality. No matter where I was on the field, I wanted to help us win.
And coming to UVA, they wanted me to bring that same hustle. I wanted to come in to possibly start early, but also take a program that hadn’t been winning much into a new chapter.
That’s what made it hard when I first got here.
I’ll be honest: I didn’t like it at all. It didn’t feel right. I felt like the guys here had gotten used to losing.
When they’d lose a game, it didn’t phase them as much as it did me. A thing that I really didn’t like in the locker room were people saying “Hey guys, you tried your hardest.”
If you’re trying but not winning, there’s things you need to go fix and things you need to do to win. We were losing at the time, so I didn’t like that mentality and felt like we had to do something else to win.
Practice was the biggest thing to adjust to in college, but also where we could make the biggest change.
As far as sports, my high school was the lowest level, so we didn’t have the greatest talent around each other at practice. Going from that to the biggest stage, everything was so much faster.
It took a lot of practices, but once I got caught up with the speed, I noticed I started to make more plays because everything else started to slow down.
And once I could make more plays, I felt like I could make more of an impact.
My time to play finally came in the third game on special teams against Boise State at home, and from that moment, things became more natural and I got used to things moving forward.
That next season, I made my first start on defense. I was so nervous and just didn’t want to give up a touchdown. I knew I wasn’t making the plays that I could or should, but this was another thing that just took time to get used to.
All I could think about was how I could help our group get better.
Last season, things started to pay off. We went to our first bowl game and we’re back again this year, so things have definitely been moving in the right direction on the field.
After that season, I actually thought about the NFL a lot. I felt like we accomplished a lot and it might be time for me to move on.
But after speaking with my parents, we all thought it would be best to finish things up at UVA and get my diploma.
My dad told me that the NFL would always be there, and getting my diploma will be a good resource in case the game doesn’t work out.
Even at the beginning of this year, I started to think about the NFL again and noticed it was affecting my game negatively.
I met with Coach, and he told me to put that aside for now and worry about each game one at a time and things in the present. Focusing on the things that got me here, like helping our team win, I started to make plays once again.
Growing up a UVA fan, all I’ve ever wanted was to help bring success to this program. It’s been amazing to be part of a group of guys who’ve made a difference, making us all better as players and people.
No matter where I go next, I just hope to bring that same mentality, not settling for anything else.
Juan Thornhill | Contributor
University of Virginia, Strong Safety