Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson was confident in what was called.
Trailing Kentucky 7-3 in the second quarter of the Music City Bowl last December, the Wildcats called a trick play. Jeremy Larkin took a handoff and passed to Thorson, who was booking it downfield, yards away from the nearest defender.
Thorson nearly reached the end zone but was dragged down by Kentucky’s Jordan Jones inside the 10-yard line. As Jones made contact, Thorson’s right knee buckled.
Before he knew it, Thorson, who was projected by many to be a top-five quarterback in the 2018 NFL Draft, was on the ground gripping his knee.
He immediately thought his football career was over.
“What happens now?” Thorson asked.
In one week, Thorson went from potentially being the highest-drafted Northwestern quarterback since Otto Graham, who was picked fourth overall in 1944, to being bedridden with a large brace on his leg after surgery to repair the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.
What followed was the “most physically and mentally grueling offseason” Thorson said he has ever had.
His recovery was more of a mental battle than physical. He learned to celebrate the small victories, like bending his knee 90 degrees.
“That was the biggest thing, knowing pain will bring success,” Thorson said Monday at Big Ten media days at the downtown Marriott. “You don’t really [understand] it until you have shooting pain through your knee to know this is what I have to do to get better.”
Thorson has relied heavily on Northwestern linebacker Nate Hall, who also spent a majority of the offseason recovering from knee surgery. They confided in one another about how they felt, physically and emotionally.
“I think things that might have worried us, we’ve kind of just put it on the back burner because we realized it’s normal,” Thorson said.
They also pushed one another during rehabilitation and had mini competitions — like one-legged squat holds, which Thorson and Hall both said they won.
Doctors told Thorson his recovery is ahead of schedule.
“I feel like myself again,” Thorson said repeatedly. “I’m feeling really well. Doctors said after three or four months you’re going to feel like yourself and we’re going to have to hold you back. And that’s what I’ve experienced.”
Thorson doesn’t believe he’s the same quarterback who took the field with the Wildcats last season. He’s better because of what he has endured.
“That’s why I feel so confident coming into this year,” he said. “Because I’ve overcome things mentally that no one else has. And I think that just continues to breed confidence.”
Barring setbacks, Thorson plans to start Northwestern’s season opener against Purdue on Aug. 30, although coach Pat Fitzgerald was hesitant to jump to that conclusion, saying Thorson will be “day-to-day.”
And although it’s perhaps a little too early to start drawing up 2019 NFL mock drafts, Thorson is confident his name will move toward the top of the quarterback list.
“I’ll definitely have to prove that I’m healthy, which I know I’ll do right away,” he said.