EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. –** On Dec. 29, 2013, Terrell Thomas was the Giants' starting nickel back in their season finale against the Washington Redskins. It was his seventh start in a season in which he played all 16 games. Thomas had five tackles and knocked down three passes in the Giants' 20-6 victory.
As he walked off the field that afternoon, Thomas never imagined he had just played his last NFL game.
"I had no idea," Thomas said today. "I thought I had two more years. I thought I was about to be a top free agent and continue my career for two more years and show God's grace. But He had a different plan for me."
That plan came into sharper focus today when Thomas announced his retirement, a bit more than a month past his 30th birthday.
"Terrell was smart and tough and a very good player," Giants general manager Jerry Reese said. "He quickly became a 'pro's pro' during his time with the Giants."
Thomas was forced from the game by his thrice-torn right anterior cruciate ligament. He first suffered the injury at the University of Southern California and then twice more with the Giants, costing him the 2011 and 2012 seasons. When he played in 2013, Thomas joined Carolina Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis as the only NFL players believed to have returned to the field after three ACL reconstruction surgeries. Thomas hoped to play last year, but except for a brief training camp stint with the Seattle Seahawks – and his former college coach, Pete Carroll – he found no takers.
"I thought I was going to have an active free agency," Thomas said. "The number one thing was the doctors would not approve my knee. Every team, G.M., coaches, they loved me and wanted me, and thought I had a great year after coming back from all the ACL injuries. They thought that I would be better last year. But the doctors wouldn't approve me.
"Knowing the game of football, being 29 with three ACL (injuries), I just figured my time is short. I can keep chasing a dream, but I was blessed to be able to come back and play that one year. To be able to show my family and fans, my daughter and myself that I worked hard enough to overcome some significant injuries and I became the second player in NFL history to come back from three ACLs. I didn't play with a brace. I am proud of my accomplishments. I have been through a lot and I overcame it. I am a smart dude and I am not going to chase football. Football is not chasing me. I feel like my time is over. I was blessed enough to play six years in the NFL. I lived my dream, and now it is time for the next chapter of my life."
What exactly that chapter includes is unclear. Thomas, who lives in Los Angeles, hasn't decided on his next occupational venture. He is doting on his daughter, Tatum, who will turn five in April, about the time he will marry his fiancé, Ashley Sells.
And though he is at peace with his decision to retire, Thomas conceded he has "should've, would've and could've" thoughts about his career because of the knee injuries. He suffered the first in a preseason game on Aug. 22, 2011 and re-tore the ligament in a training camp practice on July 29, 2012.
"That is hopefully not going to haunt me til my days end, but that is just life," Thomas said. "That is probably the hardest part that I had to deal with, that I was on the verge of being a very great player. The Giants, coach (former cornerbacks coach Peter) Giunta, coach (safeties coach David) Merritt, (former defensive coordinator) Perry Fewell and Tom Coughlin really instilled confidence in me and made me believe in myself and really brought out the best of me as a football player. I just felt like I left something out there. I felt that I had a lot to prove for myself and the organization. I am so thankful for the opportunity that they gave me. When I realized the time was over, I always wanted to retire a Giant. Once you are a Giant, you are always a Giant. I was just so grateful for the organization, for one, drafting me and for two, sticking with and believing in me all those years. Because if I was with any other organization, I don't think I would have had the chance to come back in 2013."
Thomas was the Giants' second-round draft choice in 2008. In his four seasons on the field (2008-10 and 2013), he played in 60 regular-season games with 41 starts. His career totals included 300 tackles (232 solo) and 12 interceptions, including one he returned 14 yards for a touchdown at Washington on Dec. 21, 2009.
In 2009-10, Thomas started every game at right cornerback and led the Giants in tackles, interceptions and passes defensed each season. He has a ring from the Giants' victory over New England in Super Bowl XLVI.
"Terrell was a very unique defensive corner," Giants head coach Tom Coughlin said. "He had outstanding cover skills, he was physical and would tackle and you could blitz him from the outside. He was a very smart player and devoted to the game. He took great pride in being a physical corner, and frankly, before the injuries, we thought we had a very good corner for a long time."
Although he leaves the game far sooner than he anticipated, Thomas has memories and lessons he will carry with him forever.
"What means the most to me about my time with the Giants is the man I became," Thomas said. "Growing up a California kid and moving all the way to New York, 3,000 miles away, and coming to an organization with so much class and integrity and having a head coach who really taught me about morals and values and being a man of your word, I will never forget that. Being five minutes early and how important it is, and how you come to work and the preparation that you put in is what you get out. We had some great coaches there, some great years. I won a Super Bowl. My first year, I was an NFC East champion. I led the team in tackles. I had some really great years in New York. I learned a lot about myself. Just being a Giant. I had some great teammates.
"The biggest thing is what the organization taught me. Coach Coughlin taught me about integrity and doing what you say you are going to do. It goes a long way in life, and I think that has really prepared me for my next chapter in life. That is why I am so honored to retire a Giant, more importantly, why I wanted to. I felt like I owed them something, and I am just thankful for the opportunity they allowed me. It was a tough decision that I had to make, but I just feel that it was the right one. I realized that I was lucky enough to play six years and lucky enough to come back after two ACLs and a micro-fracture when everyone doubted me, and even when I doubted myself. I am thankful for the opportunity the Giants gave me. I am thankful that I can walk away healthy and say I accomplished some things. I feel like God has something else for me that is way more important than football, and I am really looking forward to that."
View photos from CB Terrell Thomas' career as a Giant