Naperville Central's Thorne followed in familiar footsteps

Updated 11/29/2018 9:55 PM
  • Payton Thorne of Naperville Central is a Daily Herald All-Area Team Captain.

      Payton Thorne of Naperville Central is a Daily Herald All-Area Team Captain. Illustration by Patrick Kunzer | Staff Photographer

  • Payton Thorne

    Payton Thorne

Payton Thorne scans the yellowed newspaper.

As a smile crosses his face, he studies the picture. Grainy as it may be, 30 years later it's still clear as day.

"Where did you get this?" he asks.

It's his father, Jeff, who in 1989 was named the Daily Herald's first DuPage County Football Captain for setting IHSA records and quarterbacking Wheaton Central to the Class 5A semifinals.

Now it's Payton's turn.

As quarterback for Naperville Central he became what venerable Redhawks coach Mike Stine described as a "once-in-a-career kind of athlete and person." That's pretty high praise within a program known for producing some of the best quarterbacks the state has seen.

Carrying on a family tradition, Payton Thorne is the 2018 Daily Herald DuPage County Red Grange Football Captain.

"I remember seeing that list of (Daily Herald Football Captains) and his name's in the paper every year as the first one," Payton Thorne said. "I've always wanted to be on that same list as my dad."

Welcome to the club.


Thorne, a 6-foot-2, 190-pound senior, transferred from Metea Valley to Naperville Central following a sophomore year on varsity with the Mustangs, for whom he threw for nearly 1,700 yards.

There was no doubt he'd make an immediate impact at Naperville Central. But what kind of impact?

"Most of us didn't really know him that well," said Redhawks receiver Cade McDonald. "I was a little nervous with this big quarterback coming in. I didn't know what to expect."

Buoyed by receiver Jayden Reed also transferring in from Metea Valley, Thorne fit right in with the Redhawks. He was even voted a captain by his new teammates.

"It was awesome," Thorne said. "I talked with some of the guys and trained with them a little bit. It was pretty smooth."

Thorne threw for 2,294 yards and 25 touchdowns his junior year with four receivers making at least 15 catches. In the following off-season he committed to Western Michigan University to play for Tim Lester, a former Wheaton Warrenville South quarterback who coached for a season with the Thornes at North Central College.

With only one of his main receivers returning, Thorne was masterful this senior season while competing against one of the state's toughest schedules. He completed 64 percent of his 319 passes for 3,079 yards and 40 touchdowns ... with four receivers grabbing at least 22 catches. Sam Jackson had 50 while McDonald had a whopping 91.

No matter the supporting cast, Thorne thrived.

"He took to the leadership role real well," McDonald said. "He takes the lead with the receivers and works with all of them. I was blown away with everything he knew about football. He's already got everything figured out before he goes into a game."

Wonder where he got that from...


When John Thorne was the coach at Wheaton Central in the late 1980s, he'd sit at a table and use pennies to diagram plays for his quarterback as a way to break down defensive schemes.

Jeff Thorne loved his dad's kitchen coaching techniques.

"I remember always being around the game as a kid, and it's amazing how much you absorb," Jeff Thorne said. "Those are great memories for me."

An Illinois High School Football Coaches Association Hall of Famer who won four state titles with the Tigers, John Thorne retired from teaching after the 2001-02 school year and transitioned to coaching at the next level by taking over North Central College's program.

Jeff Thorne joined his dad as the Cardinals' offensive coordinator and took over for him as head coach in 2015. It didn't take long for young Payton to become a fixture alongside his father and grandfather.

"I was in their office all the time just hanging out," Payton Thorne said. "My dad would be watching film with his guys, and I'd just be listening. I was there a lot. I loved being a part of it.

"We're a huge football family," said Thorne, emphasizing the support from his mother, Joanna, and his sisters, Noelle and Lauren. "I'm incredibly blessed and thankful to have a great family behind me."

Watching film with his dad became Payton's pennies, his training ground even as an 6-year-old. In one memorable meeting with his quarterbacks, Jeff Thorne stressed the importance of throwing the ball away and not taking sacks.

Sure enough, in a subsequent game a quarterback took a sack instead of throwing the ball away.

"Payton says to me, 'Dad, he didn't do it right,'" Jeff Thorne said. "A few weeks later we're watching a bowl game and a quarterback throws the ball out of bounds. Then he says to me, 'Dad, he did it right.'"

From pennies to film to Hudl streaming, the evolution and increasing ease of technology definitely played in Thorne's favor the last few years. The true student of the game soaked in everything.

The combination of a brilliant football mind and stunning physical abilities, Stine believes, separates Thorne from his Naperville Central predecessors.

"It was a privilege to be a part of his journey," Stine said. "I don't think it's unrealistic to say he could play on Sundays."


The last three years it became time for father and grandfather to move away from the sideline. Time to sit back and watch Payton from the bleachers.

And enjoy.

"Being around us at North Central was a big part of his growth, but a bigger part of it was the job his parents did in raising him to be such a great young man," John Thorne said. "It's a lot like the Red Grange philosophy we'd teach. Red Grange has been a part of my life for so long. When I heard Payton won the award, I got so choked up I had to sit down."

While Jeff Thorne stands with great Tigers quarterbacks like Lester, Tim Brylka, Jon Beutjer and Reilly O'Toole, Payton Thorne is right up there with former great Naperville Central quarterbacks Tim Lavery, Owen Daniels, Phil Horvath and Jake Kolbe.

Both all-state, both Red Grange Award winners, both Daily Herald Captains.

"I have a hard time turning off the coach in me, but this year I was able to step back and see how much it came together for him," Jeff Thorne said. "The last two years have been so much fun."

Bookends. Whether it's 1989 or 2018, it's nice to have a Thorne on your side.

"He's been a huge role model for me in my life, and as long as I can remember I've wanted to be like him," Payton Thorne said of his father. "For this to be able to happen for me, it's really an honor."

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