Clayton Thorson Jersey

When Chad Thorson strolls into a Steak ’n Shake in Indianapolis, he turns heads.

It happens at the Potbelly on Washington Street too. The cashiers swear Thorson is Peyton Manning. So you can imagine the reaction when Thorson appears within 50 miles of Lucas Oil Stadium.

And how’s this for a juicy topping? Clayton Thorson and his brothers will play along, asking their dad just loud enough: “Hey, when’s Uncle Eli coming to town?”

During one visit a waiter remarked: “Mr. Thorson, it wasn’t until you gave me your credit card that I knew it wasn’t Peyton Manning.”

So Chad Thorson, Clayton’s father, is not the five-time NFL MVP and ace pitchman. But Manning is a family friend. His agent, Tom Condon, is also the agent for Clayton Thorson, the former Northwestern quarterback.

And speaking of connections: Before the 1990 draft, ESPN analyst Mel Kiper heralded Chad Thorson, linebacker from Wheaton College, as a sleeper.

Want your mind blown? Kiper remembers doing it. Vividly.

“He was a tackling machine, a phenomenal player, a 3-4 inside linebacker,” Kiper said. “I had him 6-2 and about 239, 240 (pounds). What hurt him was that he ran a 5.05 (40-yard dash) at the combine, but he was a dominant performer at a lower level of competition. All over the field.”

There were 12 rounds that year. More than 330 players were drafted. Thorson was not selected. It was 29 years ago.

READ MORE: Which local prospects will hear their names called in the 2019 NFL draft? »

And now Kiper is grading Clayton Thorson, taller and trimmer than his dad at 6-foot-4 and 222 pounds. Kiper projects him to go in the fourth round Saturday.

“Before you know it,” Kiper joked, “I’m going to be scouting Clayton Thorson’s kids.”

Chad Thorson recalls the Chargers and Giants saying they would draft him in 1990, but neither did. It was the first year juniors were eligible for the NFL draft, and the linebacker group was so strong, seven went in the top 18. (The Giants snagged a future Pro Bowl kicker, Matt Stover, with their final selection.)

Thorson recalls being the first Division III player to participate in the Senior Bowl and thought he would be a mid-round pick, so it stung. But the Giants signed him right after the draft, and he celebrated at his family’s home in Columbus, Ohio, with fiancee Shauna.

He reported to training camp in New Jersey. His coaches were Bill Parcells, Bill Belichick (defensive coordinator) and Al Groh (linebackers). Romeo Crennel coached the defensive line, and Charlie Weis helped with special teams.

“To see that expertise,” Thorson said, “you can understand why they won the Super Bowl.”

Thorson recalls a bit of razzing — “Where is Wheaton College?” — but no hazing. The Gulf War broke out in August 1990, and Thorson says they talked politics; he was a political science major at Wheaton.

“Pepper Johnson went to Ohio State; he was someone I looked up to,” Thorson said. “Carl Banks became a close friend. LT is arguably the greatest defensive player in NFL history. He held out that training camp but was there the next one. They were happy and willing to show me how to shed blockers. They said: ‘Hey, let’s get the second- and third-team guys better.’ It was the epitome of team.

“And they used to tell us: ‘Don’t watch film of LT. What he’s doing, you can’t do.’ ”

That professionalism permeated the organization. Before the Giants’ final preseason game, players were brought by bus from the team hotel to the stadium.

“If they were going to cut you,” Thorson said, “they’d grab you before you turned left into the locker room.”

After Thorson made it in safely, he thought: Oh, my goodness. Then Parcells found him and told him the team had tried to trade running back Joe Morris to open a roster spot.

Thorson long-snapped and played linebacker for the Birmingham Fire of the World League of American Football. The Eagles signed him and kept him for six weeks. The Giants picked him off waivers, and he spent 1991 on injured reserve. After the Colts released him in 1992, he moved to Wheaton and got a job in financial services, selling bonds.

He’s now an executive at Performance Trust Capital Partners. He and Shauna have five children: Hunter, Luke, Clayton, Molly and Ben. Three are married, including Clayton, 23, with another wedding scheduled for June.

When it comes to settling down, this family runs the two-minute drill.

Thorson started 53 games for Northwestern, beginning his senior season less than eight months after ACL reconstruction surgery on his right knee. He threw for 10,731 yards, but his 58.4 completion percentage was middling.

Asked what he believes Thorson must do to have a good NFL career, Kiper said: “Getting healthy. Getting back to where he was. He was limited (last season), playing at less than 100 percent. I give him a lot of credit for playing and being an inspiration and leading them to a lot of victories. He certainly has an NFL arm. He’s a smart kid, a tough kid. Once he gets back to 100 percent, I think Clayton Thorson has a chance to be a starting quarterback in the NFL.”

Thorson will watch the draft with family members in Wheaton, breaking for the occasional game of touch football. (He’s the automatic QB.) On Saturday he’ll throw with former NFL quarterback Kent Graham, his longtime personal coach.

His father remains Clayton’s role model. They view football the same way — a huge part of Clayton’s life, but not his life.

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