Brad Thiltgen was all smiles as a long-awaited celebration commenced at Bulldog Stadium.
Forsyth Central, his alma mater, had just defeated South Forsyth for the first time in 18 years to secure a spot in the state playoffs. It was a feeling of euphoria he never felt during his senior year with the Bulldogs – a very unlucky 0-10 season that felt undeserved. He was ecstatic, especially for his younger brother Chris, a junior defensive back.
“I was like, ‘Hey, you'll have something I'll never have – a state patch on the back of your letterman jacket.’” Thiltgen said.
Since trudging through his senior year with Central, Thiltgen spent his freshman year of college proving what he already knew about himself – that 0-10 doesn’t define him. In earning the Massachusetts State Collegiate Athletic Conference’s offensive rookie of the year award at Bridgewater State, the former Bulldog quarterback feels like he’s done that, but he’s certainly not ready to stop.
Thiltgen’s recruiting process was arduous. He didn’t have many offers, with small Division III schools being the only ones remotely interested. He traveled around the country to attend 24 different recruitment camps, but in the back of his mind, the doubts were there.
“I tried to get my name out there, but obviously going 0-10, in my head I was like, ‘Who wants a quarterback that couldn't even lead their team to one win?’” Thiltgen said. “I knew that kind of hurt my recruiting process a lot.”
Ultimately, Bridgewater State emerged as his best option, and Thiltgen made the long move to Massachusetts. In the middle of the Bears’ season opener against Buffalo State, he got his first chance to step on the field and show what he could do.
His first college football play was a disaster. Bridgewater called a quarterback sweep, and Thiltgen picked up four yards before bumping into one of his own linemen and losing the football. It was his only play of the game, with the coaches pulling him after the turnover.
“Just seeing my color jersey around me, you're a little bit more relaxed, you're not as tensed up holding the ball as tight,” Thiltgen said. “I just bumped my lineman and I fumbled. I laid on the ground and was like, ‘Man, I just blew my only opportunity.’ I didn't know if I'd ever see the field again.”
Thankfully, his fears were not realized. Two weeks later, Thiltgen replaced starter Stefano D'Emilia and began to split time with him throughout the rest of the season. His best single-game performance came against Westfield State, going 11-of-15 for 170 yards with two touchdowns and rushing for 42 yards on 11 carries. For the year, he threw for 611 yards, five touchdowns and three interceptions.
It was a historic year for Bridgewater State, as they rebounded from a 2-8 finish in 2017 with an 8-3 overall record. The Bears hosted and won a bowl game against Salve Regina, marking the first home bowl victory in program history. For Thiltgen, his tumultuous senior year at Central served as motivation throughout his entire season in Massachusetts.
I tried to get my name out there, but obviously going 0-10, in my head I was like, ‘Who wants a quarterback that couldn't even lead their team to one win?’ I knew that kind of hurt my recruiting process a lot.Brad Thiltgen
“I actually set a reminder on my phone to repeat every day at a certain time,” he said. “It just said (to) remember the feeling of going 0-10 – losing all those games that meant so much to you. I wanted to beat every team in county and I didn't do that, so every day that just popped up on my phone. I was like, ‘Alright, this is my motivation. This is why I get out of bed every day and go to work.’”
And it was that motivation that he spread to his teammates at Central before he left. It was an attitude that head coach Frank Hepler saw taking shape among his players, one that eventually culminated in the Bulldogs’ best season in almost two decades.
“Brad was a leader among all his teammates,” Hepler said. “He kept everyone focused and said, ‘Hey, it's going to be good. Just keep working.’ Even though we didn't get any of the victories, he kept a great attitude and that really carried over into this year.
“We would've liked to have one more year with him because I think he was getting ready to really take off and do some great things.”
Bridgewater will be getting the fruits of Thiltgen’s labor for the next few years. His next goal is to show his coaches that he’s the sole man for the starting job. During his sophomore year and beyond, he hopes to experience even more of the now-familiar feeling of victory.
“I'm glad to be back on the winning track,” he said. “0-10 to 8-3, that's not a bad turnaround.”