by Ben Donovan 

Senior defensive back Juan Thornhill has come to epitomize one of Coach Bronco Mendenhall’s favorite sayings. Earned not given, a simple phrase, but one that you will find all over the team’s locker room and facilities. This phrase has become a rallying cry for the team and their coaches. But for Thornhill in particular, this phrase describes his experiences with football.

“The quote ‘Earned not given’, if you know Coach Mendenhall, you know that he’s not giving you anything,” Thornhill said. “When you first get here, you start off with a white t-shirt, you don’t just get a bunch of gear, you have to actually earn what you get, you have to earn wins, you have to earn everything you get, there is nothing handed to you.” 

Thornhill’s drive to be better feeds off of those around him, the other players in the program, pushing him to be better.

“I’ve been able to play with these guys, I treat them like my brothers since my brother is not actually here,” Thornhill said. “These guys just keep pushing me to get better each and every day, and I am playing just to build these relationships with others, honestly.” 

Thornhill has earned all of his success in college, and there has been a lot. Thornhill earned his second ACC Defensive Back of the Week nod of the year after picking off two passes in the home win over Miami. This came several weeks after the game against Indiana in which he came down with his first interception of the year two quarters after blocking a point after attempt and returning it to the house for two points.  

The Miami game also earned him the respect of his team and coaches. Coach Mendenhall has begun a new tradition this season, starting in summer conditioning, of “Breaking the Rock” after wins. In this, a distinguished performer from that week is chosen to break a custom slab of rock to celebrate the win.

“I was supposed to break it after the Miami game,” Thornhill said. “They couldn’t find me, I couldn’t get back to the locker room because of all the people on the field [after the fans rushed the field] and everyone that wanted pictures and everything.”

While Thornhill was not able to break the rock after the Miami game, he had the opportunity to lead the team out for the game at Duke, carrying with him the hammer used to break the rock. Asked about the experience of carrying the 30-pound hammer from the locker room to the tunnel, Thornhill laughed before responding, “That hammer is heavy.”

Thornhill worked hard for the opportunity to play football at Virginia, and made the most of his opportunities to shine.

“I was having a good season my junior year in high school and then I had Coach (Anthony) Poindexter, that used to coach here, came to one of my games when we played against Rustburg,” Thornhill said. “I just saw him out there and it was one of my best defensive games and he stayed there and watched me play the whole time and I had a lot of tackles and made a lot of plays on the ball.” 

Even after arriving in Charlottesville with an extensive list of high school honors, Thornhill continue to grind to earn his playing time.

“I was thinking that I would possibly be playing as a freshman, but I did not really get as many chances as I thought I would,” Thornhill said. “But after that, I came in and actually got a chance, and then the coaches threw me in at cornerback and I played the whole season and just moved on from there.” 

Thornhill came to Charlottesville not only with an impressive list of football credentials, but as a three-time State Champion on the basketball court.

“I thought I was a basketball player and I thought I was going to end up in college playing basketball,” Thornhill said. “I had an offer in basketball and that was from Radford University. I got that maybe my sophomore year after the state championship game because the Radford head coach was at the game and saw me play.” 

It was not until later in high school that it became clear that football offered him the best avenue to college athletics.

“I was going to try to come to college for basketball but then I started to notice that I was getting more college interest in football so I pushed basketball to the backside,” Thornhill said. “I kept playing though. I wasn’t going to play my senior year but my coach was pretty hard on me, he wouldn’t let me go. I think that I’m pretty good at basketball.”

Thornhill plays a similar game on the football field as the one that he used to play on the basketball court: a high-flying and aggressive approach that has translated well.

“In basketball, I have to jump a lot,” Thornhill said. “And then in football, I’m a defensive back so when the ball’s in the air, I have to go up and get the ball. Also, when I was playing cornerback, I had to press a lot, which is kind of like guarding somebody man-to-man, so that definitely helps.” 

While he still feels he can keep up on the basketball court, Thornhill is not content with what he has earned to this point in his football career. Next year, he has the National Football League in his sights.  

“Hopefully, I’ll get a chance to play in the NFL,” Thornhill said. “That is my plan right now, if I stay healthy, to go to San Diego and train for the combine and the Senior Bowl if I get invited. My goal is definitely go play at the next level. Even thinking about in ten years, hopefully I’ll have my own family one day and maybe even still be in the NFL, but you never know. There’s no telling where I’ll end up.”

Thornhill is one of the best safeties in college, and as he continues to keep the phrase ‘Earned Not Given’ at the front of his mind, there is no telling how far his talents and hard work can take him.