Jeff Thorne was ready to drive 13½ hours from Illinois to New Jersey in January to see a friend, until his son, Payton, took the wheel.
Riding shotgun, Jeff, a successful Division III coach at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois, was weighing two potential leaps to the Division I level: a head-coaching position at Eastern Illinois, his alma mater, and an assistant coaching offer from Western Michigan.
Five years prior, he turned down Western Michigan because he didn’t want to uproot his family, especially with Payton and his two younger sisters still in school. During the drive to New Jersey, Jeff leaned on his then-20-year-old son for guidance.
“Payton weighed in heavily with me,” Jeff said.
Football has always been easy for Payton and his father to discuss, but this was more than the game. This was about family, legacy and opportunity.
“Dad,” he told him, “you need to do this.”
Jeff took the offensive coordinator job at Western Michigan, reuniting with longtime friend Tim Lester and also, coincidentally, setting up a matchup between father and son when the Broncos take on No. 15 Michigan State on Friday (7 pm ET, ESPN/ESPN App) in East Lansing.
“For me, it really won’t be awkward because I’m the one actually playing,” said Payton, entering his second season as the Spartans’ starting quarterback. “For me, it’s just going to be going out there and executing our offense and executing the game plan that we put together and just trying to go win with my teammates and in front of our fans.
“For him, I’m sure it’s going to be a little bit weird having to go from cheering for me for all my life to now he doesn’t really want us to score. But I know deep down it’s going to be a weird pull from dad to coach.”
For the Thornes, football has always been the family business. Payton’s grandfather, John, won four state high school titles in the 1990s as part of a 22-year tenure at Wheaton Warrenville South before transitioning to North Central in 2002.
John guided North Central for 13 years, winning eight straight conference titles between 2006 and 2013, with Jeff at his side. Then in 2015, Jeff took the reins and brought the Cardinals to new heights, eventually winning the 2019 Division III national title, the program’s first.
His success caught the eye of a couple of FBS schools, and for Jeff, becoming Lester’s offensive coordinator at Western Michigan was years in the making.
Lester’s father, Fred, and John Thorne were fraternity brothers at Illinois Wesleyan. Lester himself eventually quarterbacked under John in high school, starting for the Tigers for two years after they won the 1992 state championship.
“He’s my favorite coach I’ve ever played for,” Lester said. “I learned more about life and about how to be a man from him, like my second dad. And I would say there’s probably thousands of people that would say the same thing.”
Fifteen years later, he served as an assistant for John and Jeff at North Central. Lester then led Division III Elmhurst College for five years before taking on assistant roles at Syracuse and Purdue, then becoming head coach at Western Michigan in 2017.
Jeff (left), Payton (center) and John Thorne celebrate after Jeff coached North Central College to the 2019 Division III national championship. Courtesy of the Thorne family
Lester wanted to bring Jeff on board after Western Michigan initially hired him, but Jeff opted to keep building upon his father’s success at North Central. John’s best finish was a national semifinal appearance in 2013. After winning the 2019 championship and reaching the 2021 title game, Lester called his friend again. Once Jeff talked about it with his son, he thought the timing was right.
“It just wasn’t something I was going to pass up a second time,” said Jeff, 50, who trails only fellow quarterbacks Jimmy Garoppolo, Sean Payton and Tony Romo in the Eastern Illinois record books in total offense. “Something I’ve always wanted to do. Tim and I have talked about it for years and years and years.”
Friday will be Jeff’s first game as offensive coordinator, and he’ll have a tall task: keeping up with his son and Jayden Reed, Michigan State’s star wide receiver whom Payton has known since they were in middle school.
Though Reed was a year older than Payton, they played together as teenagers, from Pop Warner to Metea Valley High School, eventually transferring together to Naperville Central High School in 2017. Even in the Thorne house, the two of them would learn coverages under Jeff’s tutelage.
“He taught me, and he educated me about the game,” Reed said. “So, I look up to him as really another father figure, another mentor.”
Added Payton: “My family has always said, and will always say, that his home is our home. And he’s a part of our family, just as I feel like I’m a part of his family as well.”
Their connection goes beyond the field and the basketball court, where Reed once crossed Payton up so badly in practice that Payton gave his coach a “why are you doing this to me?” look.
It strengthened after Reed’s father, Sabian, died in September 2015 from kidney and heart failure, during Reed’s sophomore year. Reed has a picture of Sabian on his chain, and his father’s spirit motivates him each day.
“He may have wanted [my success] more than I want it for myself,” Reed said. “So I wake up every day and think about that, and that’s what keeps me going.”
Western Michigan was one of four FBS teams to offer Reed a scholarship, and he signed with Lester as a recruit in 2018. He earned FWAA Freshman All-American honors after hauling in 56 passes for 797 yards and eight touchdowns.
“If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be in the position I am in today,” Reed said of Lester. “He took a chance on me. He believed in me.”
Afterward, Reed wanted a bigger challenge, so he transferred to Michigan State. That decision came months after Payton flipped his commitment from Western Michigan to Michigan State in the 2018 early signing period.
They helped turn a team that went 2-5 in the COVID-19-shortened 2020 season to an 11-2 squad that won the Peach Bowl in 2021. Payton threw for 3,240 yards and set the single-season program record for touchdown passes ( 27), getting significant help from Reed, who caught 59 passes for 1,026 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Quarterback Payton Thorne and wide receiver Jayden Reed helped turn a Michigan State team that went 2-5 in the COVID-shortened 2020 season to an 11-2 squad that won the Peach Bowl in 2021. Adam Ruff/Icon Sportswire
That chemistry was evident with timely fourth-down conversions in wins over Michigan and Penn State, as well the go-ahead touchdown over Pittsburgh in the Peach Bowl.
“That’s a game that I always look back on and have pride in what we did as a team,” said Payton, who threw two of his three scores to Reed, the Peach Bowl offensive MVP.
Expectations for coach Mel Tucker and the Spartans are high entering the 2022 season, and Thorne and Reed believe they have some unfinished business.
It’s a familiar feeling to them.
During their last high school season together, Reed, who had 1,179 receiving yards and 18 total touchdowns as a senior, injured his ankle during Naperville Central’s eventual loss in the state quarterfinals. Both he and Payton maintain that if he was healthy, they could have won it all.
“I didn’t finish it up in high school,” Reed said. “Why can’t I finish it off in college?”
Payton and Reed realize this is likely the final year they have together as teammates, so they want to have the strongest year possible and keep the program driving in the right direction.
“We definitely have goals that we want to accomplish as a duo,” Reed said. “Get a ring and have success on the field.”
That begins with Western Michigan and a family affair: Payton and Reed on one sideline, Jeff and Lester on the other, and John and the rest of the family in the Spartan Stadium crowd.
“It’s exciting to see that, but you’re torn,” Jeff said. “We both want to win, but we always both want what’s best for each other, too. … When it’s all said and done and that game is over, I’ll be really excited to get back to planning for a new opponent and being able to root for Payton and be a Michigan State fan again.”