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Kayvon Thibodeaux's journey is just beginning
Thibodeaux, the player, doesn’t look back. The person, however, never forgets his past. 
By Dan Salomone Aug 20, 2023
Photographs By Matt Swensen/New York Football Giants

Kayvon Thibodeaux was destined for the NFL. It was fate that Brian Daboll became his head coach.

During his official interview at the NFL Scouting Combine, roughly two months before the draft and six months before their first game as members of the Giants, Thibodeaux was grilled in an Indianapolis hotel.

"Dabs was chewing me out," Thibodeaux recalled in the latest episode of the new "Giants Profiles" series, which is now streaming.

Playing the part of the New York media, Daboll wanted to test the prospect and posed a question: "You're a five-star recruit, right? You're one of the best recruits coming out. You've got all these accolades. You've always had success. So, if you don't have success immediately, how do you deal with it?"

Thibodeaux, sitting in a room that also included Joe Schoen and Wink Martindale, his future general manager and defensive coordinator, answered without missing a beat.

"You've got a rear-view mirror this big," said Thibodeaux, raising his hand with his thumb and index finger a few inches apart. "And you've got a windshield as big as can be."

Thibodeaux, the player, doesn't look back. The person, however, never forgets his past.

That's why the outside linebacker this off-season welcomed the Giants' production team to travel across the continent to where he grew up in South Central Los Angeles. Thibodeaux, embarking on what many people believe will be a breakout sophomore campaign, hosted his first annual youth football and cheer camp to benefit The Jream Foundation, which he founded. It is an acronym for "Journey to Readiness and Enrichment through Academic Mentorship."

"The goal is just to help kids accomplish their dreams," Thibodeaux said, "and help parents help their kids accomplish their dreams."

The Jream Foundation's core values are youth development, alternative career opportunities, healthy living, and community connections.

"Growing up in L.A. was amazing, South Central specifically," Thibodeaux said. "It was a melting pot. Although the city is segregated because of the way the communities are built, it's still really diverse. Gangs started in L.A. You talk about Crips and Bloods, you talk about things like that from the 90s all the way to the early 2000s, this was an area for all the negativity. But I think the amazing part is the evolution, the Black and Brown people in the community understanding that our culture is more than that, our people are more than that. So now, if you see the city, this is a place where families and friends and the children can come and rejoice."

"It makes me a little emotional because I'm so proud of my son in him bringing the community together," said Shawnta Smith, his mother. "This is big, and then being here where he actually played high school football. I think it's amazing to see him and how he flourishes and is living out his dreams."

Thibodeaux was born on Dec. 15, 2000, weighing in at 10 pounds and 4 ounces. He was 5-foot-10 by fifth grade. In sixth grade, it just became unfair.

"Once I stopped letting the game be fun for the other kids," Thibodeaux said, "that's kind of when they said – it was a referee actually – he said, you know what, hey, give him a break for the rest of the day."

He was 6-foot-3 and earned the nickname of "Diesel" like another larger-than-life athlete in Los Angeles in the 2000s, Shaquille O'Neal.

It was clear then that Thibodeaux would be hard to contain.

Thibodeaux entered Susan Miller Dorsey High School, the site of his football camp, where he played at Jackie Robinson Stadium in the nearby Rancho Cienega Sports Complex. He was named the Los Angeles City Division I Defensive Lineman of the Year as a sophomore, launching him on a trajectory to becoming the No. 1 recruit in the nation, according to the ESPN 300 for the Class of 2019.

Always outgrowing his surroundings, Thibodeaux transferred to Oaks Christian School, a private day and boarding school, located 40 miles northwest in Westlake Village.

"Man, it was a dream if I'm being honest," Thibodeaux said. "It was like 'High School Musical' almost. My mom just wanted a better education for me, and I also was rated the No. 1 player in the country at the time. A lot of people started to give her that idea that I could make it to the NFL. That's always been my goal, but just moving out of the inner city of Los Angeles and being with the people that I started with, the pressure of going out there and not succeeding was something that I had to overcome. Once I found my footing, it was now like, I don't want to just be accepted or worthy. I want to be the greatest. I want to be remembered."

Thibodeaux led Oaks Christian to a California Interscholastic Federation Division 2 title, finishing with four sacks and six tackles in the title game against Valencia. USA Today named him the High School Defensive Player of the Year, all while he was being recruited by 60 colleges.

He took the parade of head coaches as an educational opportunity, turning the tables in the process.

"I'm going to ask the questions because just as much as they're interviewing me, I'm interviewing them," Thibodeaux said. "A lot of colleges like to talk about who they had and who went here and who did this and all this kind of stuff, but it's like, I'm not those guys. What are you going to do with me to help me get there? I feel like Oregon had the best plan. … They knew I wanted to be a guy outside of football. Knowing that they had a plan for me and I had a plan for myself, they aligned."

Thibodeaux enrolled and enjoyed the "immediate" success that Daboll would refer to years later.

He set the program freshman record with a team-high 9.0 sacks and led the way with 14.0 tackles for loss. Thibodeaux then closed out the Pac-12 Championship Game with a record 2.5 sacks in the win over Utah. But perhaps the most important stat of the season was he led the nation with seven fourth-quarter sacks.

It was a sign of things to come.


Daboll proved to be clairvoyant in that fateful combine interview in the winter of 2022. The head coach took his questioning a step further and said, "Let's say we selected you at the New York Giants. You've got more eyes on you. When you're in a bigger place, you have more eyes on you. So then, we start out the season, five games into it, you ain't got a sack. How do you handle that, when immediate success does not come?"

Thibodeaux responded, "At the end of the day, I've just got to keep going forward. So, if I'm five weeks in and I ain't got a sack, we're going to figure out how next week we're going to take advantage of whoever we play and we're going to get three sacks."

That "whoever" turned out to be former NFL MVP Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens, who came into MetLife Stadium in Week 6 of Thibodeaux's rookie season. The fifth overall pick had yet to record a sack.

With 1:40 remaining, Thibodeaux delivered the game-winning strip-sack for a 24-20 victory. The Giants improved to 5-1 en route to their first postseason appearance since 2016.

"It was just a crazy coincidence that he asked me that," Thibodeaux said of Daboll. "It was a closing moment. When you can make plays when they count the most, that's the difference between good and great. … I think I've always wanted to be a Giant. God has a plan for me, and I think that New York is where that plan starts."

View the best photos of Giants rookie outside linebacker Kayvon Thibodeaux.


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