Faith has several definitions in the dictionary. “Allegiance to duty or a person” is one. Another is listed as “belief and trust in and loyalty to God.” A third entry defines faith as “something that is believed especially with strong conviction.” By all definitions, Terrell Thomas is a man of faith.
After surviving three surgeries in college (including one to mend an ACL tear) to complete a standout career at USC, Thomas was drafted in the second round of the 2008 NFL Draft by the New York Giants. In 2009 and 2010, Thomas became a starter at cornerback with an intuition for the ball, capturing five interceptions in back-to-back seasons. Coming into the 2011 season, he was ready to take a great leap forward.
“I had put in the work in the offseason,” Thomas remembers. “It was all coming together. I was having my best camp ever.” In a preseason game against the Chicago Bears, Thomas got the call to go back out to play defense for one more defensive stand before halftime. “In your mind,” he says, “as a starter you have a pretty good idea of how many plays you’re going to play. I remember thinking ‘I don’t want to go back out there.’ But I’m a football player. When it’s time to play, you play.”
Just before the end of the first half, the play, a simple blitz, didn’t go as planned. Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul was thrown off balance and rolled into the side of Thomas. And in just a split second, an ACL tear ended Thomas’ season. “I remember being disappointed because of all the work I had put in. I was so ready and no one was going to get to see it.”
Thomas brought that same work ethic to rehabbing the injury. By the time 2012 training camp rolled around, he was lifting weights with the linebackers because of the strength he developed during his time away from the team. During training camp, in a simple set of drills, disaster struck a second time. “I fell down so gingerly, I never would have thought I had torn my ACL again,” Thomas says. “My knee didn’t shift or buckle. It just wasn’t meant to be.”
This time, the rehab process was even lonelier for Thomas. He says it was by design. “I wasn’t a happy camper. I wasn’t fun to be around. To have to have another surgery, another rehab. Guys like Thomas Davis of the Carolina Panthers helped me through the process. He’s had three ACL surgeries. He said to me, ‘We can change the game if we come back stronger than ever.’ Some guys give up because they know the statistics about the injury reoccurring. I almost fell victim to that. But I’m putting my faith in God.”
Thomas went down to Pensacola, FL to train, far away from the comforts of his home in Southern California or close to the team in New York. “Training in familiar places, there was always something to remind me of the injury,” he said. “There was a lot of negativity in my head. Being in Pensacola, it’s quiet and on the water. It’s peaceful. It forced me to grow up and be accountable, to prioritize my life. I only have football for a few more years. I had to look past that.”
The New York Giants are familiar with the statistics of players with ACL injuries as well. That’s why it speaks volumes about what they think of Thomas as a player and a person when they signed him to a contract for the 2013 season.
“I can’t say enough about the Giants,” Thomas says. “The GM, Jerry Reese, my coach, Tom Coughlin, they’ve been a class organization through everything.” Thomas has also relied on his personal support system to help him through difficult times, including his mother, his brother and especially his young daughter. “My daughter has motivated me to be a role model and a man of faith,” he says.
Thomas has taken the challenge of being a role model to heart. Now in its fifth season, his offseason football camp in Fontana, CA continues to grow. He’s especially taken to two young brothers who are beginning to receive interest in their football skills from schools. “The next step for my football camp is to have a mentorship role off the field. I try to help these kids understand. Only 1% of them will make it past high school to play in the pros. That means you have to work that much harder than everyone else around you to realize that dream.”
The dream still lives in Thomas’ heart this year as he attempts to rewrite history by completing coming back from his recurring injury. “I’ve put in the work to come back stronger,” he says. “Now it’s in God’s hands. But I’m blessed just to be here.”