The first touchdown of Tyquan Thornton's NFL came on a two-yard slant up the middle in a Week 6 against the Cleveland Browns.
The Patriots receiver was playing in his second game back since surgery for a fractured collarbone that placed him on New England's injured reserve. After the win, tight end Jonnu Smith praised his rookie teammate's performance, vaguely insinuating what Thornton was dealing with off the field. Until that point, few realized the significance in Thornton's first touchdown celebration, where he instantaneously sprung up from the turf at FirstEnergy Stadium and pointed up to something in the sky. They weren't privy to the devastating phone call that rocked his world a few days earlier.
Even if only spiritually, his childhood friend, Cedric Walker Jr., was there with him during the NFL milestone. And when Thornton takes the field this week, with a pair of customized cleats benefiting a cause against gun violence for My Cause My Cleats, his friend will be there too.
"Growing up in Miami, it's not a secret what was going on down there," Thornton said of why he chose to benefit March For Our Lives for the NFL initiative. "There's a lot of violence going on. I'm the hope of the city -- not just me, but a couple of other guys. There's a lot of guys that have talent, but don't make it out. I feel like this is my chance to speak and play for the ones who don't get that opportunity."
Thornton and Walker grew up together in Miami, fast friends in little league who kept going strong through high school football at Booker T. Washington and beyond.
For the now-Patriots receiver, Walker was a moral compass of sorts – the friend who would help sort right from wrong and give honest insight about any situation he found himself in.
When Thornton's football talent began to materialize into Division I offers, Walker encouraged his relentless pursuit and was as supportive as anyone. Just get out of Miami.
"I was the one that got the full ride scholarships from different schools, and I chose to go to Baylor," Thornton said. "It was to separate myself from some of the stuff that was going on back home in the city. I was the one that was able to get out of that."
While away at Baylor, Thornton was able to host Walker in Texas for a handful of games. As their realities strayed further apart, the two remained very close. In a text message exchange Thornton shared to his Instagram profile, Walker urged him to treat his opportunity in the NFL like "Baylor times 100."
As far as he could control, Thornton was doing just that. He underwent a procedure for the broken collarbone he sustained in a preseason game against the Carolina Panthers and was activated to the Patriots 53-man roster on Oct. 8 before a bout with the Detroit Lions.
If his rookie debut was a memorable one, Thornton's second game as an NFL pro was monumental.
"I was packing my bag getting ready for the game when I got the call," Thornton said of the moment he learned his friend was killed. "It was a lot."
Thornton fielded a ton of calls from family and friends in the immediate aftermath. All of them encouraged him to play against Cleveland. It's what his friend would want. The 22-year-old knew it was what he had to do, and credits pushing through the pain to making him a stronger person.
"I feel like the coaches and my teammates opened up their arms, listened to me, and tried their best to keep a smile on my face," Thornton said of the experience playing that week. "I feel like I'm doing a pretty good job handling it, but I'm still mourning to this day."
Against the Browns, Thornton's first touchdown came in the third quarter from fellow rookie Bailey Zappe. It didn't stop at the reception, though. After New England recovered a muffed punt later on in the fourth, Thornton took a jet sweep 19 yards to also score his first points rushing.
"My first touchdown, if you watched the video as I scored, I celebrated. I pointed up straight to the sky," Thornton said. "I feel like he was there at that moment, in the stands watching me. In some of the plays that happened, I feel like he had a part of that. He was playing through me is what it felt like."
Thornton will forever remember playing with a heavy heart that day. With the non-profit March For Our Lives on his cleats and Walker in his heart, Thursday's game will be similarly special.