EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – The first NFL game Kayvon Thibodeaux ever saw in person was the Giants' season opener in Tennessee.
The second was their home opener against the Carolina Panthers.
"I made a joke to, I think it was to Leo (defensive lineman Leonard Williams), that we get to watch an NFL game every week for free," Thibodeaux said today. "The two weeks I wasn't playing, I was like, 'Wow, I'm really watching an NFL game, and these are guys who have been doing it at a high level.'"
Thibodeaux's first live game experience was even better. He wore the Giants' white color rush uniform and made his debut Monday night against the Dallas Cowboys. The Giants lost, 23-16, but Thibodeaux took away memories he'll cherish long after his career ends. He said he made sure to appreciate the evening and remember every detail possible.
"I think the best moment was on the way to the game, getting to see kids, getting to see people out there with my jersey on and seeing all the barbeques," he said. "It was a crazy feeling knowing the stage you're at. And even talking to my mom after the game; when she went to buy another one of my jerseys, and there was a little kid that walked up in front of her, and he asked for the Thibodeaux – the number five – jersey. It was surreal for her and even me hearing the story. But it's a great moment knowing people appreciate what we do."
Like most NFL players, Thibodeaux has worked for and dreamed about the chance to play pro football since he put on a helmet as a youngster. He's learning this is one of those instances were reality tops fantasy.
"It's almost funny, because I think the fans really help me realize, and seeing people in a Thibodeaux jersey makes me realize, we actually made it," he said. "For me, it's like I've been doing it. I've been playing football. It's just another level. It's just another group of guys. It's another locker room. But when you're really out there and you get to see the impact it has on other people, it's unbelievable."
Thibodeaux is the Giants' most prominent rookie. The ferocious edge rusher the Giants have long sought, he was selected fifth overall in the 2022 NFL Draft after recording 19.0 sacks in three seasons at the University of Oregon.
But Thibodeaux's much-anticipated debut was delayed after he sprained his right MCL in a preseason game against Cincinnati on Aug. 21. Though he was unable to play, coach Brian Daboll permitted him to travel to Nashville for the opener vs. the Titans.
"It was amazing to me seeing (Tennessee wide receiver) Robert Woods and (running back) Derrick Henry and all these people," Thibodeaux said. "I looked and I was like, 'Wow. That's really them.' It was dope."
Thibodeaux was also inactive for the victory against the Panthers a week later. On Monday, he was on the field for 37 snaps. Defensive end Azeez Ojulari, the teams' sack leader as a rookie in 2021 with 8.0, also made his season debut with 30 snaps. Each player started and was credited with one tackle as their participation was limited by the medical staff and coaches, who didn't want to overtax them in their first game back from injury.
"I would say as far as my health, it was a win, being able to go through a whole game and execute," Thibodeaux said. "I was okay with the circumstances because it's about getting you back in, making sure I'm healthy. But I definitely wanted to go out there and contribute a little."
"(Thibodeaux) really hasn't practiced that much since the injury," defensive coordinator Wink Martindale said. "He's done a lot of rehabbing and all that stuff, but he hasn't done a lot of 11 on 11 work. With Kayvon, as you know, and I think Brian noted, they were on a pitch count. Zeez drew two holding calls, so that tells me that he's doing things right. I think it's nowhere to go but up with those two and I'm excited to see it."
Thibodeaux said he "definitely" hopes to play more snaps on Sunday when the Giants host the Chicago Bears in a battle of 2-1 teams.
"You always want to hope that you're available to be in the game," Thibodeaux said. "So, I hope that I'm able to be ready when it's time."
Thibodeaux said he took one important piece of knowledge away from his first NFL action.
"I would say that you're not Superman," he said. "There are times where you want to be the reason we win, there are times where you want to be the guy and you've got to realize that the game isn't played like that. There are 11 people for a reason, it's a team sport for a reason. So, just making sure that you contribute as much as you can and to the best of your ability given the circumstances."
Was Thibodeaux humbled by his low-key debut?
"I think Kayvon's Kayvon," Martindale said. "That's one of the reasons why I love him, because he's a confident young man, has some ambition to him and has goals and he's going to go after them. I'd take 11 of guys like that. You better stay humble in this game, period, win or lose because that's the way this league is. As soon as you lose your humility, it will come up and slap you right upside the head, the league will."
Thibodeaux expects to be the one doing the proverbial slapping, at just 21 years old, but he can analyze the game beyond his own role.
"l still feel like I can make every play on the field," he said. "But it's more of an understanding of how the game is played. You're not just going against the other players on the field, you're going against a coordinator, you're going against a team, you're going against people who do this and have been doing this for a living. It's understandable that there are schemes and ways to isolate players or take them out, to do whatever. So, just me understanding that it's a lot bigger than it was before and it's a lot more detailed and it's a lot more time taken within the schemes of offenses and things like that."
View photos from practice as the New York Giants gear up for their Week 4 matchup against the Chicago Bears.