Five years ago, Payton Thorne and Sam Jackson were connecting for touchdowns at Naperville Central. On Saturday night, 2,000 miles away from Naperville, the quarterbacks will once again play on the same field, but this time, they square off as opponents.
Best friends for life
“Sam’s one of my best friends,” said Thorne. “You know, we don’t talk a ton, but every time we do talk, It’s like old times as always. You know, he’s one of those guys that I think we’ll be friends for life, honestly.”
“He’s been one of those guys who’s always been there for me and somebody I can call, and I’m pretty sure he feels the same way about me,” said Jackson.
The two friends will meet up in Berkeley, California for an ESPN primetime matchup between Throne’s Auburn Tigers and Jackson’s Cal Golden Bears on Saturday, September 9th.
Payton Thorne and Sam Jackson’s chemistry on the field
During their lone season together at Naperville Central in 2018, Thorne had already locked up the starting quarterback job before Jackson transferred in from Bolingbrook High School.
Wanting to ensure the athletic sophomore saw time on the field, Jackson played wide receiver for Central that fall and it’s safe to say that he could have gone on to play D1 at that position. He caught 50 passes for 847 yards and 14 touchdowns from Thorne as the team advanced to the second round of the IHSA playoffs.
“So I ended up playing receiver. I had a pretty decent year, but me and Payton kind of became friends, like the summer of going into my sophomore year, and after every single game, I would go spend the night at his house every Friday and we would just talk ball all the time, always throw the ball around and things like that,” said Jackson.
Once Thorne graduated in the spring of 2019 and headed off to play at Michigan State, it was Jackson’s turn to be the lead signal caller for the Redhawks. After a dynamic season leading the red and white, Jackson signed to play collegiately at TCU, where he spent his first two seasons.
New beginnings for both quarterbacks in 2023
Thorne is locked down to start after leading Auburn to a dominant week one victory over UMass. In his first career start, Jackson suffered an injury during Cal’s win over North Texas, but says he expects to play this Saturday.
As any friend would do, Thorne reached out to Jackson last weekend, asking if he was okay.
“I tried to call him yesterday (Sunday) to see how he was doing because I did hear he got knocked out of the game,” said Thorne. “So I wanted to see if he was okay or not, but he didn’t answer me. I don’t think he’s going to talk to me this week, so I’ll talk to him on Saturday.”
Jackson’s reasoning for the silent treatment?
“It’s game week! I mean, we’re best friends, but it’s not a rival game, because this is the first time (Cal ever plays) Auburn. But like I don’t think there should be any communication between me and you, bro. There will definitely be love after the game, like there’s love regardless. But once it gets to that point, it’s game time, it’s time to roll.”
Oddly enough, this is not the first time Payton Thorne has gone head-to-head with someone close to him. While playing for Michigan State last year, the Spartans opened the 2022 season against Western Michigan where his father, Jeff Thorne was the offensive coordinator. The son got the best of the father in that matchup with MSU winning 35-13.
A highly anticipated matchup between the former Redhawks
While every game is important with only 12 regular season contests on the schedule this matchup certainly caught the attention of the former Redhawks.
“He kind of called me at the end of when he was making his decision to go somewhere, and Auburn was one of the places. Obviously, he didn’t tell me before he did it, but once he did, I was like, ‘Wow, we play Auburn week two,’ so I had this game marked as soon as he transferred, to be honest,” said Jackson
“I remember when I first committed here, one of the first things that I noticed on the schedule was, ‘Hey, I’m playing against Sam week two.’ And so we talked about it. We’ve talked about it over the summer,” added Thorne.
It’s rare to see former high school teammates, let alone two quarterbacks who played together, starting against each other at the Power 5 level. With longtime Naperville Central head coach Mike Stine making the trip to California to watch the game in person, the significance is not lost on the matchup. Thorne’s excited to see his former top receiver in action at QB.
“You know, Sam can sling it around. He’s got a great arm on him. I know he works incredibly hard at his craft. He’s extremely fast, also extremely quick. He has that rare combination of speed and quickness. So, you know, luckily I’m not going to be playing directly against him,” said Thorne. “So I’ll definitely be off the bench this game and watching him and obviously watching and supporting our defense.”
Naperville residents will be watching and supporting the two quarterbacks, but only one will walk away with the victory and bragging rights to last a lifetime.
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