With the 2018 NFL Kickoff Weekend underway, dreams are coming true for rookies all around the NFL. Among them are future Pro Bowlers, Super Bowl champions, and even a Hall of Famer or two. But it all starts with that first game. With that in mind, here are stories from veterans about their NFL debuts – the good, the bad, and even the downright ugly ones. Speaking of…
QB Eli Manning
It was the 2004 season opener after a franchise-changing offseason, which included the hiring of head coach Tom Coughlin and acquiring Manning, the No. 1 pick, in a draft day trade with San Diego. The Giants kicked off the year in Philadelphia with future Hall of Famer Kurt Warner under center, but they found themselves down 31-10 with 2:37 left in the game thanks to three touchdown catches by Terrell Owens in his Eagles debut. So Coughlin put in the 23-year-old from Ole Miss to get his first taste of the NFL. On the very first snap, Manning handed the ball off to Tiki Barber, who ran it 72 yards for a touchdown.
"This is easy," Manning said to himself.
Not so fast.
"Then I took the biggest hit of my life on the last play," Manning said. "That was my 'Welcome to the NFL' hit for sure."
Unseen by Manning, Eagles defensive end Jerome McDougle caught the quarterback scrambling to the right side and delivered a hit that pinballed Manning off fellow defenders Darwin Walker and Keith Adams. Manning fumbled the ball as the clock expired to end the game.
"He was behind me, I kind of spun back into it, I went horizontal," Manning said. "So, it wasn't good."
"I thought he was dead," his father, Archie, said after the game.
WR Odell Beckham Jr.
A hamstring injury delayed the debut of the 12thoverall draft pick out of LSU in 2014, but the wait ended in Week 5 against the Falcons. Beckham's first catch came in the red zone during a touchdown drive midway through the first quarter. He finished with four receptions for 44 yards, including the first of his 12 touchdowns in 12 games as a rookie. The Giants won the game, 30-20, in front of the home crowd.
"I think my first catch [this Sunday against Jacksonville] will feel like that first catch. I remember catching that first pass on the right side. It was just a little eight-yard catch or whatever and the crowd just went crazy. And that feeling of knowing that these people had your back, they were waiting on you, and I remember being hurt, they were waiting on you again. So I think this will be a special game for me."
Advice to rookie self: "After you see everything flash in front of you [with a season-ending injury], your whole career, you're thinking about everything. Will you ever get back to where you're at? Will you ever be the same? You have a different perspective on life. I remember the first time being able to get out that boot, just walking, and just being thankful for those moments. I was crawling up steps so I don't want to say I'm a different person, but I have different outlooks and perspectives on things. I've had a lot happen. You have to take that, learn, and you grow from it."
OT Nate Solder (with New England)
The 17thoverall pick by the Patriots in 2011 started Week 1 as a rookie at right tackle. He made his debut on Monday Night Football against the Miami Dolphins at Sun Life Stadium. The Patriots won, 38-24, putting them on a course that eventually ended with a loss in Super Bowl XLVI to the Giants.
"Karlos Danby was their inside linebacker. I pulled on one play and I hit him and I felt like I hit him as hard as I had ever hit anyone in the whole college experience, and he knocked me back into the line of scrimmage. I came off and felt like my shoulder was separated and that was like the first or second series. I remember a lot about that game. Another time we were coming at like the 10-yard line and we run this play, I miss my first guy, miss the second guy, I think I miss a third guy, and the running back makes them all miss and scores a touchdown. And I'm like, 'Yeah!' [Offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia] is like, 'What are you celebrating about? You didn't block anyone.' I'm like, 'I don't know, we scored.'
"What else happened? It was a Monday night game and Miami had been talking a lot of trash about how they were the best corners and the best backfield in the NFL. We went and put 500-something yards (622 to be exact) on them, a bunch of points, just kind of beat them down on a hot Monday night in Miami. I was playing against Cameron Wake the whole time. I did OK, I had never played right tackle, but I did OK for my first game and everything. My coach sat me down and he said something like, 'The media is going to hype you up and say you did a great job and all this stuff, but don't listen. Just keep working, keep getting better.' It was a good message I thought. It was definitely true. Wes Welker also had this 99-yard touchdown. It was a blitz-zero, we were backed up on our own goal line, and Tom [Brady] just flicked it out there. I'll never forget, it was a gap protection where we all just slide down. You can't screw it up really, and the coach is screaming at me, 'You've just got to block down.' I was like, 'I think that's what I did.' Even in the film the next day, he's like, 'Why wouldn't you just block down?' 'I think I did.' I still to this day don't know what he was yelling at me about. We scored a touchdown. There were plenty of other plays he could have yelled at me about."
Advice to rookie self: "As hard as camp is and all the preparation you put into it, it's only given you a chance to be successful. I was really thankful that I had a lot of veteran guys – Matt Light and Logan Mankins and Tom. Boy, I had some guys around me that knew what it was all about. When you're a rookie, you don't know what you don't know. So I think just keep putting one foot in front of the other. Don't take anything the media says certainly. You've got to keep pushing forward. Listen to your coaches, and every day has got to be an improvement because whatever you are at that point, the first game of the season, you're going to far improve on that if you keep working. And you have to improve on that because even if you're a good rookie, you're still a rookie and the next year you've got to be better. By the end of the season you've got to be better, the next week you've got to be better because you don't know where the season is going to go based off of one game – good or bad. Each game is different. Each opponent is different."
K Aldrick Rosas
A few days before the Giants flew to Dallas for their 2017 season opener, Rosas told the team that he was expecting the birth of his daughter any day back in his home state of California. She was born the morning of the game.
"I was like, 'Oh, I know, I'm not [missing the game], but after the game I'd like to fly back.' They're like, 'All right, well yeah, that sounds good.' And then a couple minutes later, 'Well, Mr. Tisch [chairman and executive vice president Steve Tisch] is flying back to California. You can just hop on with him.' That was one of the most amazing moments of my life. That was pretty cool. I'm so grateful they'd do that for the kicker. It was a lot of emotions. It was my first NFL game. I just had a kid. Oh my gosh. But it was fun. It all worked out. That's one of the days I'm going to remember forever. I barely got any sleep that night. It's been great. This organization has done a lot for me, and I'm truly grateful to be here and just keep it going now."
Advice to rookie self: "I think just after last year, I guess the biggest thing for a kicker is just staying out of your own head. So if I can just go out and pretend I'm in my backyard just kicking, that's when I feel I'm most comfortable and a sense of relief to go out there and do it and have fun with it."
WR Sterling Shepard
The 2016 second-round draft choice started Week 1 on the road against Dallas and caught the second of Manning's three touchdown passes, a nine-yarder in the second quarter of a 20-19 victory. He was the first Giants player to catch a touchdown pass in his first game since Beckham on Oct. 5, 2014.
"I just remember I was itching for a touchdown all preseason, and it really didn't come my way. I had a couple of shots in the end zone, about two times, but never really got my hands on it or it wasn't a catchable ball. So I was looking forward to getting in the end zone. Odell was saying, 'It's going to come this game.' I'm like, 'If they call it, I'm going to go get it.' They called it, so I went up and went to go get it. Yeah, it was the best feeling in the world."
Advice to rookie self: "Just play the game you've been playing all your life. Don't think the moment is too big. Don't overthink anything. Just settle down and play the game you've been playing since you were five."
LS Zak DeOssie
Like many Giants, the eight-time special teams captain and two-time Super Bowl champion began his career on the road against the Dallas Cowboys. His came after the Giants selected him in the fourth round of the 2007 NFL Draft, the year they won Super Bowl XLII.
"I was nervous as all hell. I was on the front line of kickoff return, and I know exactly who I was blocking: No. 25 [Patrick] Watkins. I knew he was super-fast, but little did I know. So I sprinted back as fast as I could, knew where he was going to be, turned around, and never saw him because he had already passed me. So I ran over to the wedge and tried to get in other people's way, but I ended up getting in my own teammates' way. So they yelled and screamed a little bit and went off to the sideline and it was all downhill from there. It was a big moment. I remember being nervous but also very, very excited for the opportunity to start something I've always dreamt about."
Advice to rookie self: "If you miss your guy, go hit somebody else as hard as you can."
S Michael Thomas (with Miami)
Undrafted out of Stanford in 2012, Thomas had to wait all the way until Week 15 of the following year to make his NFL debut. He spent nearly two seasons on the 49ers' practice squad before the Dolphins signed him to their active roster on Dec. 10, 2013, five days before they played Bill Belichick and the Patriots. Thomas won the game for the Dolphins on an interception in the end zone with two seconds left in the home game.
"Good first impression. To this day, I still get hit up by fans and ex-Dolphin players. That was a very memorable moment for not just me but for them, also. It was crazy going from practice squad Sunday to getting that call Monday. I had been waiting my whole career for that call to try to get picked up. And then to get there, what, on a Tuesday night or Wednesday morning, practice on scout team the whole week, not even supposed to play. Coach Lou (current Giants defensive backs coach Lou Anarumo previously held the same position in Miami for six years) was there. He's like, 'All right, 3-1' – nobody knew my name – '3-1, just get in where you can fit in.' I was playing on special teams, but two guys (cornerbacks Brent Grimes and Nolan Carroll) got hurt in the fourth quarter and they're like, 'We need you because we didn't dress too many DB's.' They knew I played nickel in the slot in college and in the preseason, so they put me in there. Tom Brady sees me like, 'What are you going to do?' It's a practice squad guy in there and he's picking on me the whole time. We're up and they're on the game-winning drive, and I think it's first down at like the 20-yard line or something and I get a PBU. The crowd goes crazy. It was just electric. I'm like, 'Oh s*, I'm really here, I'm really playing in the league.' Incompletion, incompletion, so now it's fourth down and coach calls a coverage that gives me help, me and Reshad Jones. Set, hut, [Julian] Edelman goes inside, so I free up, next thing I know the ball is coming. It's like a movie in slow motion. I pick it off, land in the end zone, I'm like, 'Wait, hold up, I just caught my first interception. No, I just caught a pick to win the game. No, that's Tom Brady.' Everybody just went crazy. The crowd is screaming. Teammates are jumping up and down. They still don't know my name – '31!' I cried afterwards and everything. It's just like you're on practice squad for two years and you finally get your opportunity."
Advice to rookie self: "Just thank God you prepared the way you prepared when you were on practice squad. Continue to have that same drive, that same energy. Don't lose that focus. Don't lose that hunger to play the game."
CB Eli Apple
Just like Shepard, the rookie 10thoverall draft pick from Ohio State debuted against the Cowboys in the 2016 season opener. The Giants won by one point en route to their first playoff appearance since winning Super Bowl XLVI.
"It was a wild experience just playing in Jerry's World. It was just a great game, went back and forth, and at the end, Terrance Williams forgot to run out of bounds and we tackled him in bounds and it was right at the end of regulation before they could get into field goal range. I was on the opposite side for that play. It was a back and forth game, and it was just great playing against [Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott], my former teammate [at Ohio State], for the first time. We won the national championship in that stadium."
Advice to rookie self: "Just stay the course and understand it's a long 16-game season. Just find a great, solid routine that you can just be confident in. I think that's what I'm doing now."
P Riley Dixon (with Denver)
Dixon had big shoes to fill after the defending Super Bowl champion Broncos used a draft pick on him in 2016, putting him into a competition with a seasoned veteran. Dixon eventually won the job and made his debut against the Panthers in the opener.
"It was the Super Bowl repeat game. The Broncos had just beat the Panthers in Super Bowl 50, and I got drafted to the team. I was a young kid and I had just taken over there for Britton Colquitt, who in my opinion is one of the better punters in the NFL, a guy I've always looked up to. So to be able to work with him for my first handful of months I was there was amazing and I learned so much from him and he was just an unbelievable guy. So it was kind of a weird position for me playing with the guys you've always looked up to. It was kind of interesting for me. That first game, I could feel the pressure. I don't normally feel pressure in most situations, but I'm in new grounds, I'm on the reigning Super Bowl champ's team. I didn't have the best game. I had a couple sub-par punts, and I remember my last punt, I think it was the fourth punt of the game, out of the end zone. Time was running down. We were up by one, so field position is of the essence there because a field goal will win it. And I didn't have the best punt. Their kicker went on to miss the game-winning field goal and we ended up winning."
Advice to rookie self: "Just trust yourself. Punting is 99 percent mental. I mean, how many punts have you hit in your life? You get on the field – and it's like any position – you start to doubt yourself and your abilities. Just talk to yourself in your head, talk yourself up and know you're more than capable. And have fun really because I think that's the most important part of this game."