Cedric Thornton is a 21-year-old football player who hopes to be playing in the National Football League next year. There is one player already in the NFL who Thornton particularly admires: Danny Woodhead.
Now there's a decent chance, even if you're a pretty regular follower of both the NFL and college football, that you haven't yet heard of Cedric Thornton. Using the little bit of evidence we've presented so far – the affinity for a certain Northeastern NFL fan favorite – you might guess that Thornton is an undersized running back from a small school. You'd be half right.
Woodhead is already the second most famous NFL player to come out of Chadron State in Northwest Nebraska, after former Bills wide receiver Don Beebe. Like Woodhead, Thornton is the product of a Division II program, having played his college ball at Southern Arkansas. However, Woodhead, generously listed at 200 pounds, makes his living running the ball. Thornton, a little north of 300 pounds, clogs up the running lanes and could become a mid to late-round draft pick by a team looking for an intriguing talent to develop for the interior line.
Thornton can't really model much of his actual game on Woodhead's, but what they do have in common seems to matter more to the young defensive lineman.
"This is my belief and you can take it however you want to: I think in Division the guys are pretty much spoiled," said Thornton on Saturday at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. "On the Division II level we have to work hard; we have to do the little things as well as they do but we have to do more. On the Division II level, if you don't stand out you get overlooked, so I think I have to do way more than a Division I guy has to do."
Woodhead certainly did "more," rushing for more yards during his college career than any player at any level ever had before (that record has since been broken). Thornton doesn't have that sort of gaudy record on his resume, but he was a Division II All-American in 2010 and he racked up 36 tackles for loss and 10 sacks over the past two seasons. It's easy to see why Thornton admires Woodhead – they both had to go the extra mile to get noticed.
"I'm looked over because I'm a small-school guy," he said. "But once you produce, it's eye-opening. I guess that's an advantage because people aren't expecting it."
Kenrick Ellis, another defensive tackle from a small school – historically Black university Hampton in Virginia – found his own NFL inspiration closer to home. Hampton defensive end Kendall Langford was drafted in the third round by the Miami Dolphins in 2008 and has been a starter all three of his NFL seasons so far.
"That's really encouraging," said Ellis, a massive run-stopper who has lost weight to get down to 347 pounds. "Every time I had a chance to, I watched Kendall Langford. He gave us hope, us small-school guys. We're not on TV every week. Him doing that gave us hope that we could do it. I looked at myself and said, 'Kendall was a good player and I'm going to emulate what Kendall did, being strong in the weight room, working hard and just trying to be like him.'"
Like Thornton, Ellis feels as if he has to keep pushing forward at all times to avoid losing ground. That's the type of work ethic and drive that can arise in a player when he finds himself in the background, overshadowed by peers with more recognizable alma maters and, by extension, names on their jerseys.
"I'm just relentless," said Ellis. "Every play I just try to hustle to the ball and dominate whoever is in front of me, and do my job."
Thornton says he has enjoyed his Combine experience, meeting players who were more prominently featured on Saturday afternoon television. He has enjoyed even more the growing feeling that he belongs among those players, that he can hold his ground with them despite his background. That feeling really started to blossom at the Senior Bowl in January, a valuable all-star game that often lets select small-school players prove themselves against the young men from Alabama and Ohio State.
"I was overlooked in high school," said Thornton. " I played at the Senior Bowl and my talent is on the same level as everybody who was there. I actually think I'm more explosive and my talent was a little bit better than some of the guys that were there. I think I showcased my skills very well. I think I could have made more plays but I actually think I did pretty good at the Senior Bowl."
Both Thornton and Ellis ended up at their Division II schools in part because they had, in their words, disciplinary or character issues. Those issues complicated their potential paths to the NFL, but playing on a smaller stage didn't keep them from the NFL's notice, and they both feel as if they have moved beyond those early problems.
"I feel like I have grown and matured into a different human being," said Ellis, who was born in Jamaica and lived there until the age of 11. "Where I was three years ago, I'm definitely not anymore. I feel like I'm a grown man right now."
The Senior Bowl built Thornton's confidence that he was a legitimate NFL prospect, just like his larger-school peers. The NFL Scouting Combine, an event to which only 329 players were invited, is even more encouraging. Now that they are in Indianapolis, these young men with humble roots are doing all they can to prove they belong.
"I always had this dream as a child, so I'm not very surprised that I'm here," said Thornton. "I'm just trying to take advantage of the opportunity now that I'm here."