EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Michael Thomas, who brought with him a longtime and fierce commitment to helping his community when he joined the Giants this year, is the team's 2018 NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year Award nominee.
The Man of the Year Award is presented by Nationwide. It is named for Pro Football Hall of Fame Chicago Bears running back Walter Payton, who died in 1999.
The award recognizes an NFL player for outstanding community service activities off the field as well as excellence on the field.
"It's humbling, it's a blessing, especially in my first year with the organization and for them to think that highly of me," Thomas said. "To have that respect from people throughout the league, and my peers, it's humbling. I just want to obviously thank God, and thank everybody else who nominated me and thought highly of me to be in this positon. It's almost overwhelming."
Each of the 32 teams has a Man of the Year who is eligible to win the league award. Last year, Houston Texans defensive end J. J. Watt received the award after his online fundraiser to aid those affected by Hurricane Harvey raised more than $41 million. In 2016, Giants quarterback Eli Manning was named a co-winner – with Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald - of the Man of the Year Award. Manning was the first Giants player to receive the award in its 48-year history.
The Giants' nominee last year was linebacker Mark Herzlich.
The 2018 finalists will be announced next month. The winner will be announced during NFL Honors, a two-hour primetime awards special to air nationally on February 2, the eve of Super Bowl LIII, on CBS. NFL Honors will be at Fox Theatre in Atlanta.
The five current players who have won the award – Drew Brees, Thomas Davis, Manning, Fitzgerald and Watt - wear a Man of the Year patch on their jerseys to recognize their outstanding contributions to the game and to their communities. All 2018 nominees will wear a Man of the Year helmet decal beginning this week, and continuing through the end of the season in recognition of their accomplishments on and off the field.
"They're good in football, too, but they hold themselves to a higher standard of high morals and integrity," said Thomas of the players named above. "They're always doing what we would consider the right things, especially when no one is looking. They're selfless, they're leaders – leaders in their community, leaders on their teams. That's the type of character guys you have year in and year out who are nominated for the award, who have won the award. Like I said, it's humbling for my name to be amongst those type of men. It's a blessing. I feel like I represent the Giants organization well, and I try to live up to those high standards as well."
Thomas joined the Giants this season after five seasons with the Miami Dolphins. Just prior to the season, his teammates elected him one of the Giants' six captains. Thomas has played in all 12 games with two starts, and has 20 tackles (14 solo) on defense and 10 stops (eight solo) on special teams.
"I could tell right away in the spring that this was a high-quality guy from my interaction with him," coach Pat Shurmur said. "He's elected captain, and I spend a lot of time with the captains, just them and me, and I've gained a real strong appreciation for him as a man. He's got social awareness, he's very thoughtful about all things and he develops strong opinions about things, but it's not willy-nilly because he's got core values he believes in. I admire him as much as a man as a player, and I think that's a credit to him."
Thomas is involved with a wide range of community and charitable endeavors. Perhaps his favorite is the annual "Camp Mike T" in his hometown of Houston, which focuses on leadership, academics and athletics. The weekend event includes discussions on SAT/ACT prep, financial literacy, and athlete activism. This year, he gave away his first $10,000 college scholarship to a camp participant.
"The camp is back where I grew up, and it's everything that I've believed in," Thomas said. "That's everything under one roof. It's a youth football program by design, but it does way more for those young individuals back in Houston and the city by introducing them to different resources, or providing different resources that they otherwise wouldn't have access to. It's a unique opportunity to give them different educational resources for SAT, ACT prep. We learn about financial literacy. We touched on social topics and being an athlete and activism. I tried to take it up a notch, another level, and I just gave out a full academic scholarship this past year. It's to give back to my community, especially through football, but also letting them know I want to reach them in every other aspect of life, too."
The inaugural camp was funded by another endeavor close to Thomas' heart, the Michael Thomas Dream Builders Foundation.
Thomas has been a leader in the Giants' locker room on social justice issues since the day he arrived. Last offseason, he interned for three weeks with Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, learning about the duties of government and the responsibilities of serving in Congress. Thomas partnered with the New Jersey Secretary General's Office to honor the state's colleges and universities that registered the most students to vote during the 2018 "Ballot Bowl" competition, encouraging everyone in attendance to be aware and engaged in their community and to participate in the upcoming election.
He joined several teammates and the Newark Bronze Shields, the African-American police officers association within the Newark Police Department, to host a discussion with local high school student-athletes about the importance of academics, selecting college majors, academic demands of a college athlete, sports-related occupations, and life after sports.
Last spring, Thomas partnered with Americares and traveled with his wife Gloria and several teammates to Puerto Rico on a three-day trip to deliver aid and medical supplies to areas affected by Hurricane Maria, and attended their annual Airlift Benefit in October. He attended the My Sisters' Place annual spring benefit to raise funds for thousands of victims of domestic abuse and human trafficking in the United States. Thomas serves as the spokesperson for the Giants' Character Playbook program with the United Way of New York City and EverFi. He joined 15 of his teammates to help the Giants host approximately 80 people experiencing homelessness in Newark for a day of pampering (haircuts, facials, manicures and chair massages) and services (guest speakers and social service agencies), followed by a tour of MetLife Stadium.
And that's just a partial list of his community involvement. So why, exactly, is Thomas so active in good causes?
"It's just a foundation I grew up with, with my parents," he said. "Both of my parents were always active in the community. My siblings and I have been active in the community, just trying to give back. As much as we were blessed with, we're trying to give blessings to others. Even when we don't have, we can still share knowledge and share love with others. For me, it's always been a dream when I made it to the NFL, I wanted to give back as much as I could, especially to those looking for hope, looking for something to love, so they can feel that even though they're not in a great situation right now, they can have something to work towards. I want to be a leader in my community, someone who has been where I've been, who has made it out. I'm just trying to be that example, and doing it through education, through all the difference causes like with cancer, with all the different social justice causes that have been a hot topic as of late.
"I've always been the one that just wants to be in the thick of it because people look at us as NFL players, as leaders, and leaders in our communities. So, if they look at us as leaders, then we need to be at the forefront of all these positive discussions. That's pretty much where the passion comes from."