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The Twelve Labors of Clayton Thorson

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Could Hercules have accomplished this?

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

The football gods expected too much of Clayton Thorson, that much is certain. On the heels of back-to-back 5-7 seasons, they demanded Thorson complete a series of great tasks in order to win his shot at an NFL Draft pick. They would not settle for Thorson cruising through college with a high-powered offensive line and plenty of highly-touted receivers. They would not grant him the clemency offered to C.J. Beathard, Christian Hackenberg, or other Big Ten quarterbacks who were mediocre and made the NFL anyway. He would have to earn an NFL spot the hard way, like Northwestern quarterbacks before him. He would have to complete a series of challenges, becoming the winningest quarterback in Northwestern history along the way. With the events of yesterday, he has completed the TWELVE LABORS OF CLAYTON THORSON.

We know why the Olympian gods were cruel to Hercules. Hercules needed to atone for, uh, murdering his family after being driven crazy by Hera. To atone for his crimes, Hercules served his cousin King Eurystheus. Just for kicks, Eurystheus conspired with Hera to make Hercules complete the most difficult tasks imaginable.

No one is sure why the football gods were so cruel to the Wheaton, Ill. native. In hindsight, it is not fate itself, but Northwestern that exhibited the most cruelty. Let’s start with the fans. Knowing the true talent on the roster, we demanded something extraordinary from Thorson, despite the obvious limitations on the offensive side of the ball. We demanded much and often did not receive much in return. Next, there was Northwestern’s power/spread offensive scheme, which demanded an extremely high level of quarterback play to create explosiveness and escape Northwestern’s offensive line issues.

And yet Thorson completed his Labors anyway. Could Hercules himself have survived? Could he have come back from an ACL/MCL/everything else in the knee tear? Or would he have transferred to Alabama or Oklahoma long before, where he could pile himself with glory and gaudy passing statistics. Thorson’s Labors, in my mind, are far more human and, dare I say grittier, than a Greek demigod with unparalleled strength.

First labor: The Stanford Cardinal

Hercules’ First Labor was a difficult task. Eurystheus ordered him to slay the Nemean Lion, a monster with golden fur unbreakable by human weapons.

But could Hercules win a game as a double-digit underdog in his first game ever? That was the situation for Clayton Thorson, who was thrown against a No. 21 Stanford team in his debut. There were no expectations. Northwestern was supposed to be bad and starting a redshirt freshman quarterback against a team that would eventually make a New Year’s Six Bowl. Everything could go wrong, but Northwestern emerged with a massive win. As with many Thorson wins, a ton of credit went to Northwestern’s brilliant defensive effort, but you can’t argue with the W. And thus, the first labor was completed.

Second labor: Penn State and Wisconsin

After the impressive Stanford win, Northwestern completely cratered against Michigan and Iowa, leaving many unimpressed. Just as Eurystheus told Hercules in myth, the tasks would get harder for Thorson. Hercules next fought the Lernaean Hydra, a nine-headed monster that, like Penn State and Wisconsin, would regenerate two heads (or competent football teams) for each head that Hercules chopped off. Penn State was in the midst of a rebuilding process, but the Nittany Lions very nearly defeated Northwestern in 2015.

But just as Hercules required help from his cousin Iolaus to cauterize the heads of the Hydra, Thorson would require help to defeat Wisconsin. Zack Oliver provided the game-winning drive against Penn State. Against Wisconsin, Northwestern called on the referees and blind luck to overturn two potential game-winning touchdowns from the Badgers.

Third labor: Rescue a disastrous 2016 season

Despite making the Outback Bowl, the cruel and arbitrary Northwestern fans demanded something more. A Big Ten West title or a New Year’s Six Bowl had to be on the cards for 2016. Instead, Northwestern imploded on itself. Losses to Western Michigan, Illinois State and Nebraska left the Wildcats at 1-3. Instead of defeating a specific opponent, fans now demanded Thorson rescue a listless football team to something resembling respectability. He did just that, producing two brilliant performances at Iowa and Michigan State. Along with Justin Jackson the Ball Carrier, Northwestern’s best running back of the decade, the season was saved, somewhat.

Fourth labor: Defeat Ohio State on the road (incomplete)

That still was not enough for some. The next Labor would be scoring a massive upset over Ohio State in Columbus. Many thought it was impossible. Thorson led Northwestern to first-and-goal from the five with a chance to score and take a decisive lead. But Mick McCall decided to run a running back pass and another unsuccessful rollout, allowing Ohio State to escape. So, were his labors over? Would Thorson be consigned to irrelevancy?

Not so fast. In Greek legend, Hercules’ fifth task was to clean out the Augean Stables. He did this by re-routing two rivers to wash out the mess, but Eurystheus invalidated the task because he didn’t actually clean them and received payment for his work. Obviously, receiving payment would’ve also violated NCAA rules and ended the labors for good. However, we can’t pin this loss on Thorson, so we can also invalidate this labor. And besides, could you imagine Hercules coming back after losing to Ohio State?

Fifth labor: Win the Pinstripe Bowl

Next, Hera raised the ever-mysterious Pat Narduzzi to oppose Thorson. Just like the Stymphalian birds of all, the dung of the Pittsburgh Panthers and the Vegas betting lines were toxic. Northwestern won the Pinstripe Bowl with a stunning performance from Justin Jackson the Ball Carrier.

Sixth Labor: Kenosha

It’s really fascinating that King Pat Fitzgerald of Corinth used to trap his disobedient subjects in the Greek village of Kenosha and make them do Oklahoma drills until their ears came off. This is not what happens in Kenosha, Wisc. in the modern day, but it’s probably just as bad. In any case, Clayton Thorson survived Kenosha five times. Could Hercules have survived Kenosha five times?

Seventh labor: The three overtimes

Ah shucks, we missed a Labor, so the numbering is off. Anyway, Hercules had to kill a Boar and then capture the Cretan Bull, or something, but I highly doubt any of the Greek heroes could win THREE consecutive overtime games like Clayton did in 2017. Let’s just forget about that Duke debacle. Hercules didn’t even kill all of the Symphalian birds, our heroes can get by with a 75 percent success rate.

Eighth labor: The Music City Bowl - incomplete

Then the cruel Northwestern sports apparatus invoked yet another labor. Is there any end to these? No, college football is an endless morass of tasks. Someone decided, just for fun, to split Thorson out as a wide receiver in a fairly meaningless bowl game against Kentucky. Thorson tore his ACL and MCL on the play, leaving this challenge incomplete. Matt Alviti somehow led Northwestern to a win anyway.

Ninth labor: Recover from a torn ACL in time for the season

Hercules never had to rehab from a structurally compromised knee, that is for certain. The Ninth Labor of Hercules centers around capturing and taming a group of man-eating horses. That’s impressive and all, but Thorson was ready to play quarterback again after just nine months. That’s crazy. That takes some serious guts and medical science. Clayton Thorson is no demigod, but who needs divinity when you have physical therapy. I rest my case.

Tenth labor: Survive the early season curse again

Northwestern’s inability to start seasons well in the last three years has been well documented. After losing to Akron, one might have thought that the Labors of Thorson would finally end and he would become as nameless and aimless as Connor Cook. Maybe should give some credit back to Hercules here, as he didn’t lose to the Akron Zips. But man, despite tearing his entire knee open less than a year ago, this Northwestern team managed to turn around a terrible start to the season for a third time. Now, Thorson was not even playing that well during the win stretch, but now he’s transformed into a good luck talisman defying the misanthropy of thousands of Northwestern fans. Truly remarkable.

We also need to talk about the Golden Railroad Spikes of West Lafayette. You see, in West Lafayette, there is someone named Purdue Pete, who happened to be holding all of college football’s stored chaos on his shoulders. His burdens were shared by the entire miserable Purdue fanbase, which finally had some hope with the arrival of Jeff Brohm, a minor son of Hephaestus. But just when Purdue had a team capable of making the Big Ten Championship Game, Thorson stole a game from them in West Lafayette. Thorson asked Purdue Pete to steal a Railroad Spike while he held up the world’s chaos, allowing Northwestern to beat Michigan State. He then convinced Purdue Pete to take briefly back the burdens of being the carrier of all college football chaos for five minutes and then ran out the door. Purdue was stuck with chaos, just long enough to upset Ohio State and Iowa and then completely implode against Minnesota.

Eleventh labor: Defeat Wisconsin, again

Oh dang, the Midwestern Hydra is back for more. Ah, so Northwestern fans are saying beating Wisconsin in Camp Randall last time didn’t count because we didn’t win the division. Alright, we’ll pummel them in Ryan Field...again. We’ll do it with Isaiah Bowser instead of Justin Jackson. Check that Labor off. They did it again.

Twelfth labor: Make the Big Ten Championship Game

Finally, Northwestern could heap no more labors upon the shoulders of Clayton Thorson. He woke up on the morning of the Iowa game feeling ill. He threw up right before it started. He threw two interceptions. The offense looked stagnant. Things looked bleak. The final Labor of Hercules was a descent into the Underworld to capture Cerberus, Hades’ three-headed guard dog. But what is the Underworld compared to driving through Iowa? Iowa is worse than that. Also, everyone knows Kirk Ferentz is the guardian of college football hell. And yet, with the help of Bennett Skowronek’s outstretched arms, Thorson finally, at long last, did something that no Northwestern fan or coach or unbelieving pundit could ever take away. He won the Big Ten West Championship.

He had emulated the legendary Hercules, the demigod who completed Twelve Labors to earn his immortality. But unlike Hercules, Clayton Thorson has flaws. He’s the first to admit them in press conferences. He makes mistakes. He struggles. That is why his feats are so impressive, when looking back. Have you read Inside NU’s comment sections, even after a win? Northwestern fans expect the world from him and his teammates, and he did something that seemed utterly impossible when Northwestern lost to the Akrons and Illinois States of the world. You become a Greek myth by following the whims of divine beings who care not for you. You become a college football myth by spiting your doubters. Clayton Thorson, congratulations. You just became a Northwestern myth.