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Like many of his Kansas City teammates, Juan Thornhill has a distinct Super Bowl memory seared into his soul from a year ago, when the Chiefs defeated the 49ers in Miami.
The memory for the second-year safety out of Virginia, though, is quite different from those of his teammates, who surely remember the confetti raining down onto the field while hoisting the Lombardi Trophy after the win … or a big play they made in the game.
Thornhill’s memory was about not playing in the game because of the season-ending, non-contact torn ACL he suffered in Week 17.
“The part that hit me the most is when they ran out that tunnel,” Thornhill said of his teammates in his Super Bowl recollection. “When they ran out the tunnel, I was standing front row screaming for them and then after that, it hit me super hard and I shut down.
“Mentally, I just really wanted to be there on the field.
Like, ‘I’m going to get back to that game.’ I had to get back.’’ Juan Thornhill breaks up a pass intended for Cole Beasley during the AFC title game.Getty Images
Thornhill used those moments as fuel as he recovered from his injury and played in all 16 games this season. And now, he’ll get to realize what he called a “childhood dream’’ of playing in a Super Bowl on Sunday when the Chiefs play the Bucs at Raymond James Stadium.
Sunday will not be a cruel tease for him. It’ll be real this time.
“Him not being able to play in the playoffs and not being able to go through the Super Bowl run that we had last year was heartbreaking for me,” Chiefs defensive backs coach Dave Merritt said.
You’ve got to understand that you are one of the reasons why we are where we are.’
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“Just to see him fight back and to come back this season with the knee injury and going through the rehab and being able to be on the football field during this run has been thrilling and exhilarating for all of us because of the fact that he worked so hard to get back to where he is today.”
It hasn’t been an easy road back for Thornhill, who spent some of this season trying to trust the knee and manage the residual pain while trying to return to his rookie-season form, which produced 16 starts, three interceptions, a touchdown and 58 tackles. This season, he shared time with Daniel Sorensen, starting eight games, and had one pick and 41 tackles.
“With this ACL injury, it can really knock you down, because a lot of guys don’t really know how hard it is on the body and on the mind,’’ Thornhill said. “The biggest thing for me, I was trying to keep a positive mentality. It’s not really more about the physical capability.
Once we hit the playoffs, I made up my mind, just like, ‘Listen, you have a couple more games. Go as hard as you can, and everything will fall into place.’ ’’
Thornhill — who plays deep safety for the Chiefs, allowing the versatile Tyrann Mathieu to roam and disrupt — had arguably the best game of his career in Kansas City’s AFC Championship game win over the Bills with four pass breakups and tight coverage.
“I can definitely say I’m back to 100-percent,” he said. “I feel like I’m back to where I was last year, and I’m ready to go. This whole offseason in my mind I was just thinking that we were going to get back to the Super Bowl. There was no other option.So, it definitely means a whole lot to me just being able to step out there, play in a Super Bowl. This is like your childhood dream.’’
His dream had to wait a year, but a win on Sunday and it will have been worth the wait.