Dean Hubbard

Longtime Altavista High School Athletic Director Dean Hubbard points to an image of Juan Thornhill last week in a huge photo that is part of a group of state championship team photos displayed in an area near the AHS gym called “Colonels Hall of Champions.” In the photo, Thornhill is with an AHS state champ football team. The 2015 AHS alumnus played on five AHS state champ teams total — two football ones and three basketball ones. (Photo by Don Richeson.)

ALTAVISTA — When Altavistans gather around their TVs for Super Bowl LIV this Sunday, they’ll have more reasons to watch than checking out the on-field action between the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers — or the high-profile Super Bowl commercials. They can find solace in knowing there will be one of their own near the action. He won’t be directly in the action, though he did play a key role in making sure Kansas City made it to Miami Gardens’ Hard Rock Stadium, the site of this year’s Super Bowl. 

When the kickoff comes around 6 p.m., 2015 Altavista High School graduate and AHS two-sport state champion standout Juan Thornhill will be wearing his Chiefs uniform, watching from the stadium’s sidelines. And he can still get that Super Bowl ring. 

Playing his first year in the NFL this season, Thornhill excelled in playing as a free safety in all of Kansas City’s regular season games, but injured his ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) in the 16th and final regular season game vs. the Los Angeles Chargers on Dec. 29, 2019. 

While there’s no denying how unfortunate it is to experience such an injury just before his chance to play in the Super Bowl, the 24 year old’s presence there is still generating its share of buzz both at Altavista High School and throughout the Altavista community. Thornhill, after all, graduated from AHS less than five years ago after having key roles as a player on its 2013 and 2014 state championship football teams, as well as its 2012-2013, 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 state championship basketball teams. His parents, Pumpkin Thornhill and Rodney Thornhill, still live and work in Altavista.

“We’re all getting together to watch it (the Super Bowl) at our church, New Prospect Baptist Church,” said current Altavista High faculty member Andrea Hundley, who also taught Juan Thornhill Algebra II when he attended AHS. “His dad goes to our church.”

Hundley, like other staff members The Journal talked to last week at Altavista High, remembers Juan Thornhill well and was quick to note his positive qualities. “He had great manners,” Hundley said. “He always helped other kids. Even on the field, it wasn’t always about him, he was a team player. It wasn’t like he was just trying to shine individually — he worked well with his team. Anytime we’d come in after the weekend and congratulate him on a good game he was never proud about it — he was always humble about it.”

Dean Hubbard, who is in his 23rd year as athletic director at AHS, also shared praise of Thornhill. “Our whole community is very proud of what Juan has accomplished,” Hubbard said. 

“What he did athletically for our teams, then being able to go to University of Virginia and have a great football career there and then have the opportunity to get drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs and start and now be a part of the Super Bowl that is coming up in his first year in the pros is pretty remarkable. Juan is very special to us at this school and is very special to this community.”

He said the torn ACL is likely just a short setback for Thornhill, who still holds a number of school records unlikely to be surpassed anytime soon. “You usually recover from that and I’m sure he's got the best doctors out there,” Hubbard said. “We’re so blessed to have this school in the community. The school means a lot to the community and vice versa — it kind of goes hand in hand.” Juan Thornhill was the the starting quarterback at AHS and also played safety there, before going on to play as a cornerback and free safety for the UVa Cavaliers. Thornhill graduated from UVa with an Anthropology degree in 2018.

Mike Cartolaro was head basketball coach at Altavista High School during the three back-to-back state basketball championship teams that included Juan Thornhill, a two-sport standout. Now coaching at Parry McCluer High School in Buena Vista, he talked about Thornhill during a Journal phone interview Friday.

“He was an incredible, gifted athlete, an amazing athlete,” Cartolaro said. “But the best thing about him is, he’s a great person. 

Cartolaro said of Thornhill, “He’s one in a million.”

(For the full story and additional photo, be sure to pick up a copy of the Jan. 29 print edition of The Altavista Journal.)