EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Michael Thomas’ locker is at a busy, centrally located intersection in the New York Giants' locker room. Probably not an accident. It is on the far wall, smack in the middle of the oval-shaped room, right near the double doors that lead directly into the highly congested back rooms containing showers, hot and cold tubs and some more wellness equipment.
Players have to pass Thomas’ locker on their way through those doors. Most go through them multiple times each day during the season.
It’s not uncommon as part of that walk to see young players stop by the locker with Thomas’ No. 31 nameplate plastered on the wall, or receive a quick message from the team captain. Thomas, a safety, quickly became the go-to guy for much of the secondary, young defenders and special-teams players despite being in his first season with the team.
“Early on when I wasn’t playing, I’d talk to him every week to ask him some advice,” undrafted rookie Grant Haley said.
Safety Kamrin Moore said Thomas was the first guy he met after joining the team days before the start of the regular season. He described Thomas' approach as welcoming, especially for a player like him in an unfamiliar state, locker room and facility.
“He said, ‘If you ever need anything ... just follow me and I’ll show you where to go,'" Moore explained late in the season. "He took me to the meeting rooms, to the cafeteria. Still to this day, if I need anything, I ask him. Or even if I need advice, because he is a guy that has seen a lot and he has no problem sharing experiences with you.”
This is part of what made Thomas unequivocally the Giants’ best free-agent signing last offseason. He was their Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee for his outstanding community service off the field as well as excellence on the field.
Thomas was the one acquisition whom Giants general manager Dave Gettleman actually hit on in an offseason that included the signings of guard Patrick Omameh, running back Jonathan Stewart and cornerback William Gay. Thomas began the season as a reserve but finished by starting the final four games.
Thomas, who spent the first five years of his career with the Miami Dolphins, finished with a pair of interceptions, a career high. He notched the second sack of his career, a forced fumble, 59 tackles and a career-best six passes defended. His 69.2 Pro Football Focus grade put him 42nd out of 93 qualifying safeties this season, and just a few spots behind his Pro Bowl teammate Landon Collins (70.4).
More impressive was that the Giants' special teams went from one of the worst units in 2017 (32nd in weighted DVOA) to second this season, according to Football Outsiders. Thomas was a huge part of the turnaround. He led the team with nine special-teams tackles and a forced fumble.
“I’m not looking at [being the team’s best free-agent signing],” Thomas said. “I wish we could have won more.
"I love the fact that this organization values what I’ve brought to the table on the field, off the field. They love my leadership with my teammates. [Defensive coordinator James Bettcher], he values what I bring to the table on defense. First time in my career I have really been allowed to have my talents out there and help the team. It has paid off. It has probably been the best and most productive season of my career.”
It almost never happened. The Giants signed Thomas last offseason in the second wave of free agency. It came with an assist from new defensive backs coach Lou Anarumo, who had coached Thomas previously with the Dolphins. Anarumo vouched for his former player, knowing the influence he would have on the field and in the locker room.
Gettleman and the Giants signed Thomas to a two-year, $4 million deal with the intent of having him help to fill leadership voids. But even Thomas didn’t see it going quite like this. He had been a young leader before in Miami. Those were his peers, though. Most of the players either came in with him or around the same time.
This was different. He would be the cagey, established veteran this time.
“Coming here, they told me that would be my role and we need help with this locker room,” Thomas said. “We need help with these younger guys and we’re trying to turn these special teams around and change the culture.”
There were no complaints his first season. Only rave reviews.
Gettleman and new coach Pat Shurmur have been adamant in cleaning out the locker room and rebuilding the culture. That perhaps was the biggest accomplishment in their first year on the job. Thomas was among the players to help.
“There’s a reason why he has that 'C' on his chest,” special-teams coordinator Thomas McGaughey said.
It’s hardly a surprise. Thomas’ work on and off the field has always been noticeable. And his contributions this season extended beyond football.
Thomas has been working on establishing a Project Change scholarship in the New York metropolitan area. He established one in Miami and has visions of all 32 teams having a similar scholarship for graduating seniors.
It is just one of several initiatives near and dear to his heart:
He has his annual “Camp Mike T” in his hometown of Houston, which supports educational initiatives.
He has his Michael Thomas Dream Builders Foundation, working with the Newark Police Department last year.
He partnered with the New Jersey secretary of state's office.
He traveled to Puerto Rico to assist with Hurricane Maria relief.
He became part of the NFLPA’s 12-member executive committee.
He interned on Capitol Hill.
The foundation behind his passion for giving back was laid years ago. Thomas insists it’s from his parents, Bernadette and Michael Thomas, who started a charter school in Louisiana for children who were kicked out of school when he was younger. It has left an indelible mark.
“I guess it’s in my blood,” Thomas said. “I had that foundation.”
Now, he has an even larger platform to make a difference. It is why Thomas was one of four Dolphins to kneel during the national anthem a couple of seasons ago. He wanted to shed light on what he viewed as the racial, social and economic inequalities in this country.
Thomas believes that decision played a part in his free agency this past offseason, and it had him in a “dark place.” He would talk and pray daily with fellow safety Eric Reid (who also kneeled and didn’t sign until late September). They were left to wait and didn’t receive the interest one might expect from Pro Bowl-caliber players.
“I knew why I was there,” Thomas said. “I didn’t necessarily agree with it, but I accepted it. OK, because of the decision and choices I’ve made to use my voice and platform, speak out for the injustices, this was the result of it. If I never play another down, I have to live with it. That is something I accepted.”
When he finally received some nibbles in free agency, it looked as if Thomas might land in Pittsburgh. Then the Giants came calling at the 11th hour. A deal was done.
“It has been a blessing since then. Literally,” Thomas said. “This is a first-class organization. Regardless of what this record shows, this has probably been the best year of my life in the NFL.”
And with it came that Pro Bowl nod.