Terrell Thomas and the long road back

"I think I'm the same player," Terrell Thomas said after enduring two ACL tears the past two seasons. Brad Penner/USA TODAY Sports

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Two years ago, when Terrell Thomas' year-old daughter was learning how to walk, so was he. The New York Giants' cornerback had torn the ACL in his right knee in a preseason game, and the rehab from the surgery that repaired it began with the most painfully basic of tasks.

"You have to re-teach yourself how to walk," Thomas recalled in an interview Tuesday morning at the Giants' team facility here. "How to go down the stairs. That's actually part of rehab -- how to go down the stairs, to make sure that you're using your glutes and your hamstrings and not just your quads and putting too much stress on them, because naturally you do that. It's second-nature stuff that has to be rebuilt and bring that muscle memory back.

"I remember, the first week of rehab is stepping over a cone. Literally, just picking your leg up and stepping over it. Getting your mind and body to realize that it needs to step over something, because sometimes it would drag or get caught."

But he did it. Thomas worked all the way back from that point only to tear that same ACL again during training camp a year ago. Surgery again, and back to re-learning how to walk down stairs, back to trying to convince his right leg to step over a cone. All of this for the chance to play football again, which it appears he'll finally get to do Saturday for the first time in two years.

Thomas is on track to play in the Giants' preseason game against the Jets. And while there's still no way for him or the Giants to know whether he can return to full strength or be anything like the productive cornerback he was back in 2010, Thomas is taking this all very slowly. And he's drawing a lot of inspiration from the idea that his daughter, Tatum, now three years old, will be able to watch him play in a football game.

"That's the biggest thing, I think, just that life lesson that I'll be teaching her," Thomas said. "She remembers. She knows why I was in Florida. She knew why I went down there. Daddy's knee was hurt. She tells everybody that. She tells her teacher, 'My dad can play football again.' So when she saw me doing a couple of interviews over the summer, she got real excited to see her dad on TV. So I'm pretty sure she's going to be real excited once she sees me playing football on TV."

People who've been through it will tell you that the reason you don't see a lot of people come back from second or third ACL surgeries is that they don't want to endure the rehab all over again. But Thomas said it never occurred to him to give up. He's still just 28 years old, after all, and he was always convinced he could play again if he could just keep that pesky ligament intact. He calls last year's re-injury "a freak incident" and wasn't worried about the same thing happening again this camp. He says the randomness of what happened last summer provided more motivation to rehab again, rather than less.

"It's more just the patience," Thomas said. "Just waiting through everything. Having to sit out here through the meetings and OTAs and minicamp and knowing you can't participate. And knowing, when you come to training camp, you're going to be limited and have to build up and just keep working and keep getting stronger and keep building confidence. That's the hardest part."

If he can stay patient through it all and recover fully, he's a player the Giants could use. They need depth behind starting cornerbacks Corey Webster and Prince Amukamara. Thomas has been working in a nickel corner role this camp, along with Aaron Ross, and he says he's been studying safety as well, in order to broaden his understanding of the defense and make himself a "utility type of player." What they don't know yet is how good he can be playing on a knee that's been rebuilt so many times. But Thomas retains a strong confidence that that's not the issue.

"I think I'm the same player," Thomas said. "Obviously, I've got to stay healthy, but I think it's just being comfortable about there because I haven't played football in two years. I've done all the drills on the side, but guarding somebody, going against someone and having that confidence, that's big. The hardest thing for me this last week has been my eyes -- getting my eyes to stay low when I'm playing man-to-man coverage. I know my responsibilities, but until you're out there and you're actually doing it, you're not fully comfortable."

Re-learning, just like with the cone and the stairs, but at a much higher athletic level now. Reaching a place that seemed so far away when Tatum would insist that he pick her up, even though he was on crutches, and walk her around in whatever way he could manage. That's what Terrell Thomas is up to these days, and if you're wondering who the happiest guy on the field is Saturday night, the guy wearing No. 24 in blue is going to be a pretty good guess.

"You never know," Thomas said. "The NFL stands for 'Not For Long,' and it's a high-performance business. Everybody had high hopes for me last year, and I felt like I let everybody down. But they gave me the opportunity to come back, and I'm ecstatic to have the opportunity to continue my career here in the fashion that I am."