Mathias Kiwanuka reminisces about Giants career
Leading up to this year's NFL Draft, a lot of the buzz surrounding the Giants was about the fact that GM Dave Gettleman had never traded back before.
As we know, Gettleman surprised many last month when he not only traded back in the first round, but also in Round 2 when he acquired three extra picks in the first four rounds of the 2022 draft.
When the Giants made this trade, it represented the first time in 15 years that the franchise traded back in the first round. In 2006, GM Ernie Accorsi moved from No. 25 to No. 32 in a trade with the Pittsburgh Steelers, acquiring third and fourth-round picks in the deal. The Giants then selected Boston College defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka with the No. 32 pick, and the rest is history.
Kiwanuka went on to play nine seasons with the Giants and was a member of both the Super Bowl Champion XLII and XLVI teams. His 38.5 career sacks ranks ninth in team annals since the sack became official in 1982.
Kiwi recently appeared on the Giants Huddle Podcast, where he explained he could not have been more shocked to end up with Big Blue on draft night.
"I just knew they weren't going to pick me, to be honest with you," Kiwanuka said about the night he was drafted. "I met with them maybe the shortest of any of the teams that were interested at the combine. I knew they had Osi (Umenyiora), they had (Justin) Tuck, they had (Michael) Strahan. There were just a lot of guys on that team already…
"What I do remember is picking up the phone when the Giants were on the clock, right before the Giants got on the clock, I got a phone call, picked up the phone and they said, 'Hey, we're going to pick you with the next pick. Here, talk to Coach Coughlin.' I was so excited, I think I hung up on Coughlin. He had to call me back the second time. But I just remember being in my living room with my entire family and some friends, and just feeling like it was a culmination of all of the hard work that I put into high school and college."
As Kiwanuka mentioned, the Giants had some legendary pass rushers in the room with him when he entered the NFL. Strahan is the franchise's all-time sacks leader with 141.5, which also ranks sixth in NFL history. Meanwhile, Umenyiora's 75 sacks ranks No. 4 on the franchise's all-time list, while Tuck's 60.5 sacks comes in at No. 6.
Walking into any position room as a rookie can be a tough transition, but especially one with some of the franchise's greatest players. However, Kiwanuka spoke about how tight-knit the defensive line room was at the time, which played a crucial role in the success of the Giants' pass rush.
"You have to keep in mind, I was a first-round pick so I walked in there with a boatload of confidence," Kiwanuka said about when he first arrived at the Giants' facility. "But yeah, when you walk in and you see the great Michael Strahan and all these other guys that have been really successful in their careers, it's jaw-dropping…
"Throughout my career, the guys, we had a really close locker room, a really close meeting room. We all did tend to help each other out, and I couldn't have asked for a better group of guys. We're still in contact now, we still joke and laugh about things that happened back then. I think everything worked out for me just the way God intended."
Kiwanuka took an interesting path throughout his nine years with the Giants. He was drafted as a defensive end and played all 16 games at that position during his rookie season. But heading into his second season, Kiwanuka spent the entire offseason learning the strongside linebacker position. He would go on to win a spot at his new position and started 10 games before suffering a broken leg, which ended his season and forced him to miss the run to the Super Bowl XLII title.
He entered the 2008 training camp as the starting strongside linebacker, but returned to defensive end following Umenyiora's season-ending injury during the preseason. For the remainder of his NFL career, Kiwanuka seemed to bounce back and forth between linebacker and defensive end, where he found success at both positions.
When talking about the transition from defensive end to linebacker, Kiwanuka gave a ton of credit to one of the team's veterans who truly helped the young player make the switch successfully.
"One of the biggest helps during my career, especially as I was making the transition from D-lineman to linebacker, one person that I think never got enough credit was Antonio Pierce," Kiwanuka said about the veteran leader. "He was way more than just a middle linebacker. He was a friend, he was a teacher, and he was very confident in his skills. I used to say, 'this guy, you could give him two seconds of a play to run and stop anywhere in the NFC East and he could probably tell you what play they're running, which direction they're going and everything.' He just had it, had it.
"He was a guy that taught you, you can go out and you can have fun and hang out, but he was always the first one back in the sauna. He was always in the weight room, he was always sitting there with his notebook out ready to ask questions. He would help guide me along."
Pierce spent his final five NFL seasons (including a Pro Bowl season) with the Giants, helping lead the team to its historic Super Bowl XLII win over the Patriots during the 2007 campaign.
While Pierce played a pivotal role in Kiwanuka's success at linebacker, he was not the only player who was more than happy to take some of the younger guys under his wing.
Cornerback Corey Webster went out of his way to help his teammates, even the ones outside of the secondary.
"Guys like that who are just willing to help everybody, Corey Webster is another one," Kiwanuka said. "Corey Webster would have meetings at his house down in his basement and he would teach guys how to watch film. I'm not even talking about teaching them what the play is. He was just teaching them how to watch film.
"He bought one of the big computers that they had at the Giants at the time and downloaded all of the practice and all of the game film onto it, and he would say, 'Come over. Grab some food, grab some drinks and we're just going to sit here and I'm going to teach you guys how to watch film…' Looking back at it, I remember being like 'that was a really valuable experience.' So, it wasn't just in that D-line meeting room."
View photos of the career of former Giants two-time Super Bowl Champion Mathias Kiwanuka.
Similar to Kiwanuka, Webster was drafted by the Giants and spent all nine seasons of his career with the franchise. The Giants used a second-round pick on him in 2005, and the corner would go on to play a crucial role in both Super Bowl runs. He registered two interceptions during the 2007 playoffs, and in 2011, he picked off six passes during the season before shutting down the opponents' No. 1 receivers in the postseason.
The Giants had a long list of veteran leaders on both of their most recent Super Bowl teams. But it was the man standing in front of the entire roster on a daily basis who earned the most respect of everyone for his leadership abilities.
Tom Coughlin's 102 victories as the Giants' head coach ranks second in franchise history, trailing only Steve Owen (153), while his two championships match Owen and Bill Parcells. Coughlin was known for his toughness in the locker room. He treated every player the same way, whether he was dealing with one of the team's stars or one of the last guys on the roster. It is because of this that Coughlin was able to command the respect of every single person in the Giants locker room.
"Coughlin was great, I'll never say anything bad about him," Kiwanuka said about his former head coach. "He's one of the guys that I respect the most in terms of leadership and what it takes to lead a group of men. You have to remember, these are big men with big egos and big pockets. It's not easy to command respect in a room like that. But when you get up there every day, day in and day out, and your message is consistent and you hold everybody accountable… 'I don't care if you're Michael Strahan pulling in five minutes late, or if you're the second team guy pulling in 10 minutes late, the punishment is the same. You guys are treated the same.' I think that had a lot to do with our success.
"I heard stories from other teams around the league. Guys would show up halfway through practice or halfway through meetings. I was like 'man, that would never fly in New York.' Not one time would a guy… first of all, if you show up that late, you're not practicing and you probably won't play. There was just always a level of confidence, accountability, and a teaching mentality that permeated the entire room."
It would not be a stretch to say that both of the Giants' Super Bowl runs during the 2007 and 2011 seasons surprised a lot of people outside of the team's facility. But inside of the building? The Giants knew that once the postseason began, it was essentially a brand-new season where anything could happen. The team took each game one play at a time and did not allow previous mistakes to weigh down on them.
"When you get to the playoffs, it's a fresh start, it's a fresh season," Kiwanuka said in reference to the 2011 Super Bowl run. "You have to get your mind right. If you had veteran guys who had been in those tough situations before, they can put their arm around the young guys and just tell them 'hey, shake it off. Shake it off. Let's go. Don't let the last play beat you on the next play.' That's what I always used to say."
With his playing career in the rearview mirror, Kiwanuka is now dedicating his time to Smile Train. Smile Train is the world's largest cleft-focused organization, with a sustainable and local model of supporting surgery and other forms of essential care.
As of last month, Kiwanuka became Smile Train's newest board member, an achievement the two-time Super Bowl Champion is incredibly proud of.
"I'm just very proud to be a part [of Smile Train], very humbled and very appreciative of the opportunity to go back, not just to Uganda, but to go to every country pretty much," Kiwanuka said about his new venture. "We're in 70 different countries, over 1.5 million clefts have been fixed due to the Smile Train's activity. It just continues to grow."
Joint Statement from the Giants and Jets
On Monday, the Giants and Jets released a joint statement regarding stadium capacity at MetLife Stadium for the 2021 season.
The statement reads, "We are thrilled by Governor Murphy's announcement today to have MetLife Stadium operate at full capacity for the 2021 season. We can't wait to welcome our fans back, creating the gameday atmosphere we have all been missing. We will continue to work to ensure the return of fans is accomplished in a safe and responsible way."
View photos of the Giants' roster as it currently stands.
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