From the windows of the yellow bus, the kids looked wide-eyed at the aftermath of the horrific car wreck on the side of Highway 425 South in the small town of Star City, Ark.
"Whoever's in that car is dead," was the observation of several elementary-school classmates that forever burned itself into Cedric Thornton's memory on that fateful morning more than 22 years ago.
The silver, two-door Mercury Cougar was crushed into a ball. It never stood a chance in its head-on collision with an 18-wheeler, which was trying to pass another vehicle from the north-bound lane, about 2 miles from the house where Thornton lived with his parents and siblings.
As the bus inched closer to the scene of the accident, Thornton, who was all of 6 or 7 years old, instantly recognized the car. It belonged to his mother, Angelia Thornton, who was on her way to work at a factory that made school uniforms. He and his two older brothers and younger sister, who were also on the bus, burst into tears. And when relatives at the crash site noticed the bus, they told the driver to let Angelia's terrified children off.
As they struggled to comprehend what was happening, the four younger Thorntons were loaded into a car and rushed to the hospital where their mother – having been extracted from what was left of the vehicle by the jaws of life – was being treated.
Doctors told Angelia she would never walk again. And that's where the driving force behind Thornton's survival as an NFL player, which has led him to a spot on the Buffalo Bills' roster, begins.
Approaching the third game of his seventh season in the league, the 6-foot-4, 290-pound defensive tackle retells this childhood nightmare as much for his own benefit as for the sake of enlightening a reporter seeking to find out more about a player who finds himself in an ever-increasingly important role.
With Marcell Dareus due to miss Sunday's game against the Denver Broncos, Thornton is part of a defensive-tackle rotation along with Adolphus Washington, recently re-signed Deandre Coleman and mainstay Kyle Williams. On what's expected to be one of the warmest days ever for a Bills regular-season home game (the temperature is expected to approach 90 degrees), fresh bodies will be hard to come by, especially in the late stages.
That one of those bodies is Thornton's is no surprise to Sean McDermott, based on what the coach has seen of him through the first two games. Although Thornton didn't think he played particularly well in the season-opening victory against the New York Jets, the coaches gave his performance an A grade. And although Thornton believed he performed much better in last Sunday's loss against the Carolina Panthers (he had three tackles, including one for a loss, while getting increased playing time because Dareus missed 26 snaps with a sore ankle), the coaches gave him a C.
Still, Thornton has managed to draw high praise from the man in charge.
"Well, number one, he’s come in and endeared himself to his teammates, in the way that he’s approached (the job), with his approach in the meeting room, in the weight room and then on the field," McDermott said. "He’s 100 miles an hour all the time, plays with a flat back, plays with good leverage. He’s picked up the system extremely fast, credit to him. He’s done a good job so far, and I think he’s looking forward to more and more opportunities, which is what happens when you play and bust your tail."
"What I'm trying to do is be the biggest impact that I can be on the field," Thornton said.
He couldn't imagine going about his business any other way. Not after witnessing what his mother went through.
After surgeries and months of rehabilitation, Angelia Thornton made an amazing recovery. She, indeed, began to walk again after literally having to learn how to do so all over again.
"She's a healthy lady right now," Thornton said. "She never doubted. Very high-spirit lady. I'm telling you, just to see her make this miraculous turnaround gave me hope in life in general."
Thornton constantly reminds himself of that whenever the challenges of his profession might ever feel like they're getting the better of him. Such as when the Dallas Cowboys – who had signed him to a lucrative free-agent contract after he made his mark in the NFL during five seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles – suddenly released him on Sept. 3.
Despite his $3 million base salary being guaranteed for the season, the Cowboys sent Thornton packing to make room for another defensive tackle, Brian Price, who they claimed off waivers from the Green Bay Packers. All of a sudden, he was back to feeling like the undrafted free agent the Eagles signed from Southern Arkansas – the guy who had to scrap each day to make the roster and eventually prove he belonged in the NFL.
Two days later, the Bills gave Thornton another chance to prove he belongs in the league.
"It was a blessing," he said.
Thanks in large part to his father being a pastor and his mother eventually becoming a minister, Thornton learned at a young age to see the world that way. He is a humble person who takes nothing for granted, whether it's his career or the ability to walk.
He never forgets the dire prognosis his mother received after the accident and how she set out to prove the so-called experts wrong. He continues to draw strength and unrelenting faith from that.
"She understood that man don't have a say-so when your ending is, just like in my career," Thornton said. "That turnaround I made this year? It was nothing. Everybody's calling me (after his release from the Cowboys), apologizing. I'm like, 'What are you talking about?' The best is yet to come.
"Maybe Dallas didn't see nothing in me, but what Coach McDermott and his defensive staff see in me is potential – potential to untap, a lot more potential that I have installed in me. So I'm just trying to be here and be that asset and understand that they believe in me. And it's cool to be here and have people that believe in you."