EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Mathias Kiwanuka has spent most of his football life carefully planning out his moves as a pass-rusher trying to beat an offensive lineman.
So when his playing career was suddenly put in doubt due to a neck injury last fall, Kiwanuka naturally started the preliminary process of planning for his life after football.
"I sat down and made a list of what I would and wouldn't do and was trying to figure it out," Kiwanuka said. "It was a long list; it included school and some different things. I didn't get to the point of narrowing it down because I figured I'd give it a little more time. I didn't want to rush anything."
Fortunately for Kiwanuka, his career wasn't over, but rather on a temporary break. Diagnosed with a cervical disc herniation, Kiwanuka played in just three games before sitting out the rest of the season.
While there was initial doubt whether he'd be able to play again, Kiwanuka began to receive positive reports by the end of the year before being cleared to resume his career in February.
Now Kiwanuka is back with the Giants as Perry Fewell's Swiss Army knife. When his season ended last year, Kiwanuka had four sacks in three games and was on his way to a potentially big season.
He's looking to pick up where he left off. Even though he will be starting at linebacker, Kiwanuka says there's the potential for plenty of sacks for him and the other Giants pass-rushers.
"In this defense, anybody can get double-digit sacks," Kiwanuka said.
For a short period, the 6-foot-5 linebacker wondered if he would be able to sack a quarterback again. Even though he didn't feel any serious pain in his neck, Kiwanuka did experience enough discomfort to seek medical attention.
Doctors discovered the herniated cervical disc early enough that it didn't require surgery. Kiwanuka said he had an injection to reduce the inflammation and from there just let everything heal with inactivity.
"The problem that a lot of guys have, you feel a little bit of pain and you don't think anything of it because you are always taught to push through injuries," said Kiwanuka, who felt he easily could have played with the injury. "But the one thing that stuck out in my head as a young guy was don't mess with your neck."
"It would have gotten worse had I continued to play on it."
Kiwanuka visited with five doctors around the country and made more than 20 doctor visits. He didn't want to take any risks with his life at stake and often made these visits back-to-back.
He started receiving positive reports that he may be able to play again in December. By February, he went to seek clearance from all five doctors even though the Giants medical staff had given him the green light.
"Knowing that there wasn't one doctor that I saw that wasn't shaky about it gives me the confidence to come out here and play a little harder," Kiwanuka said. "Playing football you are always at an increased risk, but I am at no greater risk than I was at in years past and I've been playing since I was in fifth grade. So to have one [neck injury] during that time period is not bad."
Kiwanuka had one tackle in a quarter during the Giants' preseason opener against Carolina on Saturday.
"He hasn't played a whole lot in a long time so it was good to get him out there and get him going and back with the defensive team," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. "It allowed us to see, once he gets his feet wet and comfortable during the game, what we can expect out of him [and] the ability to move Mathias around."
During the spring of 2010, Kiwanuka made it clear that he wanted to remain a defensive end and that it was important to him to be a starter at that position once he became a free agent in the summer of 2011.
A first-round pick in 2006, Kiwanuka came into the league as a defensive end. But with so many defensive ends already on the team in 2007, he was moved to linebacker. He was moved back to defensive end in 2008 when Osi Umenyiora suffered a season-ending knee injury, giving Kiwanuka hopes of remaining at his original position.
Perhaps his perspective changed a bit after he watched his brother narrowly avoid death during a horrific motorcycle accident last summer. Kiwanuka avoided injury himself during that accident.
Then came his own neck injury and another lost season. Kiwanuka had previously suffered a broken leg that ended his 2007 season after 10 games.
"You take things for granted," Kiwanuka said when asked how the neck injury and his brother's accident affected his outlook. "And you learn not to, not just with the game but with life. You have to be able to see every day for what it is and that's a blessing.
"I enjoy every minute of it."
Kiwanuka had interest from other teams but re-signed with the Giants for two years knowing he would start at linebacker.
The plan is to have him at linebacker on first and second downs and then possibly move to defensive end on third downs as well.
It's a plan Kiwanuka is excited about and a better alternative right now than the options he had written on that piece of paper, which is stored away for now.
"It is in there somewhere back at home," Kiwanuka said of the list. "I know, at some point, I am going to have to go back to it and I will have to revisit it."
"It will be interesting whenever I end my career to go back and look at the things I was considering at that point and compare them to wherever I will be later on."