There are few 4-year-olds growing up in Alabama who root for the Gators.
If you can find one, his or her family must have graduated from UF or been lifelong Florida fans.
But that wasn’t the case with Justin Thornton.
His mother cheered for the Crimson Tide and he knew nothing about the Gators until a trip to Louisiana in late 2000.
His little brother was born with heart problems and had to be flown to a New Orleans hospital for an emergency surgery. The Florida football team was in town for its Sugar Bowl matchup with Miami and paid a visit to his brother, who later passed away.
“They came to see him and took pictures with me and my family,” Thornton recalled. “That really meant a lot to me, and ever since then I’ve been a Florida fan.”
Thornton, now a 6-foot-4, 225-pound defensive end from Prichard (Ala.) Vigor, wants to wear No. 4 at UF to honor that year of his life. He visited Florida for the first time on Saturday and put on his dream jersey.
“I loved it,” he said. “It was a dream come true to wear that jersey and walk into The Swamp. Going into that stadium after watching all the games I have since I was 4 years old and actually being there now, it’s truly a blessing.”
Thornton, ranked the No. 9 weakside defensive end and No. 112 overall prospect in the Rivals250, was the last visitor to show up Junior Day because of car trouble he had in the morning. But his late arrival worked out for him in the end.
“I loved talking to coach (Will) Muschamp and the whole defensive coaching staff,” he said. “I liked the one-on-one time we had. It’s better than being around a lot of people and not really getting a chance to know them. I really enjoyed myself and my mom feels comfortable with the coaches. Plus she loves Florida’s academic program.”
Thornton said he felt at home in Gainesville and built a strong bond with the coaches.
“They’re one big family,” he said. “I feel like I can trust the staff. They kept it real with me. They’re not the type of coaches who will tell me anything just to get me to come to their school. They speak from the bottom of their heart and they tell me the truth.”
The Gators were the front-runner for Thornton going into visit and he said their lead is even larger now.
Did he commit?
“Not yet,” Thornton said, “not yet. But it could happen at any moment.”