INDIANAPOLIS --- Colts right guard Hugh Thornton knows he's starting in the National Football League thanks in part to his first love, Greco-Roman Wrestling, which taught him to fight through every setback that comes his way.
Thornton became a state champion heavyweight wrestler his junior year of high school in Idaho before moving to Ohio his senior year and finishing 3rd in the state, but that wasn't before working for years to perfect his craft.
"I wasn't really good at first, but I saw myself being better than what I was at the time," said Thornton.
In 7th grade, he weighed too much to wrestle in matches. In 8th grade, his father took him off the team when Thornton's grades slipped. Freshman year of high school, he wasn't good enough to make junior varsity. Sophomore year, Thornton had trouble making weight, with the heavyweight division capped at 285 pounds.
Four years worth of reasons to stop wrestling, but Thornton refused to quit, continuing to hone his skills. By the end of his junior year, he was wearing a state championship ring.
"It was definitely an exciting time in my life," Thornton recalled. "I had a lot of opportunities to go wrestle in college, just chose to play football. Everything I can do in wrestling is going to help me be a better football player."
Thornton was resolute in that decision. His wrestling ended his senior year at a county all-star meet. Thornton won his final match. After the referee raised his hand to announce the victor, Thornton removed his wrestling shoes and left them in the middle of the mat, as the crowd cheered.
It was time to lace up his cleats.
Fast-forward past his college days at Illinois, and Thornton's NFL path mirrors that of his wrestling days growing up. Many setbacks, but no quit. Thornton was drafted in the 3rd round of the 2013 NFL Draft by the Colts, but after starting 12 games as a rookie, he only started 8 in his second season, before finishing 2014 on Injured Reserve. He started 2015 on the bench but didn't stop working.
"I didn't necessarily have to give up wrestling. A lot of my technique, a lot of the way that I play is based on my wrestling background," said Thornton. "The balance. When you're playing football, blocking a defensive tackle, pass protection...It's about being able to transfer your weight, transfer the center of gravity, and stay on your feet. A lot of big guys wrestling they don't like to go down."
Thornton doesn't go down without a fight. When he doesn't play well, he's hard on himself. Thornton says he gets that from his wrestling days too, the ultimate physical individual sport, one in which you have nobody to congratulate or be critical of but yourself after a match.
Thornton had his worst game of the season in his debut as a starter at right guard week 3, with three penalties at Tennessee. According the Pro Football Focus though, he followed that up with his best game of the season so far in 2015 the following week against Jacksonville, when protecting back-up quarterback Matt Hasselbeck became even more critical. Like his junior year of high school wrestling, Thornton was getting better.
"I recruited Hugh out of high school. I've known Hugh since 17-years-old," said Colts offensive line coach Joe Gilbert, who also coached Thornton at the University of Illinois. "I know what type of person he is. He's got that fiery personality and nastiness to him. He'll snap on you in a heartbeat. That's what you want."
Thornton's mindset hasn't changed. Pin the person in front of him. Don't talk about it. Do it.
"I don't talk a lot now, and I think that's a lot because of wrestling. You speak with your body," said Thornton. "My mindset every match was, 'I'm going to kick your ass. I'm not going to wrestle three periods. I'm going to beat you in the first period. If we have to go to the second period, kudos to you. If we go to the third period, I did something wrong.' You almost have to be like a gladiator."
"He's come along. He really is," said Gilbert of Thornton's play this season. "His understanding the offense is getting better and better each week."
One adjustment Thornton has had to make though in the NFL from his wrestling days though is the fact that the "matches" now can't end early by pinning his opponent. It's about endurance, as much as it used to be brute strength.
"In wrestling, you can have that mindset (of wanting to win quickly), but also six minutes on the mat will do what 60 minutes on the football field does to you," said Thornton. "You think of the average football play, a six second play. Then you get a break, you huddle up, six second play...I learned to pace myself, conserve energy. For me, I might get worn out a little bit the first or second quarter, but (after) halftime, third quarter I feel a lot better. Fourth quarter is probably when I play some of my best football."
As the fourth quarter of the 2015 season approaches, Thornton hopes to do the same, wrestling his way in the trenches to the final bell.