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Kaleb Thornhill: Beyond the Player Engagement title

By Vince Agnew

Kaleb Thornhill is not a player in the NFL, but the seven-year league veteran has served as a crucial teammate to hundreds of players who have come through the Miami Dolphins’ Davie, Florida practice complex. He does not make any tackles or score touchdowns but his impact changes the game and lives.

As the Director of Player Engagement, Thornhill is the first touch point for players after they sign with the Dolphins and the last to see them on their final day with the team.

He knows the pulse of the organization, understanding the ebb and flow of day-to-day operations and personnel changes. Thornhill’s job title is DPE but anyone that knows him can add confidant, motivational speaker, manager, psychologist, marketer, academic counselor and travel agent. He encourages players to make social deposits like setting up internships, business opportunities, continuing education and more.

Thornhill is an integral part of the organization’s culture and to understand why he goes so far beyond his job title you must look beyond the position into the events that awakened him to a life of serving others.

He never had to look hard for a driving force to live a life with purpose. He first credited the quality as a gift from God, and also stated that it was a product of his environment.

His father worked at a juvenile detention center and was a man who treated others with the utmost respect, learned everyone’s names and lived to be generous to all whom he encountered. However, he would pass away before Thornhill’s senior football season at Michigan State University where he was a standout linebacker.

After graduating from MSU and working under their athletic director, Thornhill looked at players who tried to go to NFL put all their eggs in one basket and did not make it. This is where he could carry on his father’s legacy in putting others first.

“I saw the need for development in preparing these guys for the real world once the game was no longer a part of their life,” he said. “I wanted to make sure that they weren’t tied solely to their football identity and understand that the game afforded them the opportunity to open doors beyond the gridiron.”

Chasing a passion to help collegiate athletes led to a crossroads where an educated gamble was necessary. After completing an internship with the Detroit Lions, helping with their Senior Director of Player Development Galen Duncan, Thornhill took an ultimate leap of faith.

At 25, he drove to the NFL combine with no invitation and sought out Jeff Ireland, the general manager of the Dolphins. It was a tall task that took three days to accomplish, yet he was fortunate enough to have a conversation with Ireland and secure an interview there at Lucas Oil Stadium.

“I didn’t even have a reliable car, a hotel room, a shirt or tie at the time. My mom let me borrow her credit card to buy a shirt and tie to get ready,” he said.

He spoke to Ireland and then-head coach Tony Sparano and consequently they flew Thornhill back to Miami three days later to interview again. They offered him the job on the spot and within four days he was moving from Detroit to Miami to begin his dream job as the director of player development.

Seven years after accepting the position, Thornhill is even more motivated to stimulate growth with each unique game plan that he sets in place.

Success on the field is directly correlated to off-field decisions and self-discipline, so he works to establish a relationship and a high level of accountability with each player.

As a firm believer that if the man is not right, then the player will not be right, Thornhill’s focus is first developing the man. He lives to help players win in life because they will be doing that longer than playing football. A large portion of what he does to ensure this is not listed on a timesheet or done within the confines of his office.

He attends the graduations of players like offensive lineman Mike Pouncey, who was the first in his family to earn a degree and spark a generational change. Thornhill is also present for players’ surgeries and recently visited the home of free safety Reshad Jones during his post-op shoulder surgery recovery, spending time with his family.

With a desire to spark change and spread it like wildfire, Thornhill moderated a town hall meeting to improve race relations, using sports as the vehicle. Several Dolphins players and the club’s community affairs department put on the meeting featuring police officers, leaders in the communities, and school board members.

The result of the town hall meeting was the launch of the RISE Community Tailgate, which takes place before every Dolphins home game. The tailgate brings several areas of the community together, inspires unity and has been successful in getting new initiatives started around South Florida.

Thornhill also spends his time reaching out to colleges, providing social media knowledge and showing them how to use their network and university to land a dream job and create a brand around their name. During the Dolphins eleven-day road trip last week, he spoke with University of San Diego’s student-athletes, and at the University of Miami prior to that.

“Its fun getting around teaching and leaving people in a better position than they were when they walked in that room,” he said.

With a full plate, Thornill piled on more and began a company called Apex Academy. Apex utilizes football as the carrot to draw rising sophomores for a week-long camp that teaches football skills, but more importantly offers ACT prep, college prep and personal development coaching. He targets kids from the inner city, single parent households and first generation college attendees. The camp is held at Michigan State, in the community he was raised and works to establish a firmness of character and teach gratitude, respect, integrity and trust.

In leveraging the game of football to teach kids about life, Thornhill collaborated with the Promise Scholarship of Lansing, Michigan. If kids stick with his program for three years and meet the testing requirements during camp, MSU, Olivet College or Lansing Community College will front the cost of their college tuition.

Genuine relationships and sound advice are the common denominator and Thornhill strives to have a strong bond with everyone from the first man on the roster to the last, the high school standouts, college student-athletes and more importantly, his family.

During the hectic season schedule, Thornhill’s first love is dedicating every free moment to his blooming family with his wife Tara, their two-year-old daughter Charlee and newborn son Maddox.

“My glass is full,” he said. “Not in the sense that I know everything, but I just want to pour into others’ glasses and have theirs be full too and hopefully they do the same thing when they get to a certain level in their career.”

DPE’s carry a massive role as the key holder of information and being the glue between the front office and the players. Thornhill’s sole mission is to engage, educate and empower individuals to reach their full potential in life as he aspires to do the same in his own.

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