ATLANTA – Michael Thomas is literally brought to tears when he reflects on the last year of his life.
Twelve months ago, Thomas was a free agent uncertain if he would find another job in the NFL. He was a solid safety and a special teams standout. But Thomas had also been one of the first players to kneel during the national anthem, which he did before every game of the 2016 season as a member of the Miami Dolphins. He stood for the anthem in 2017, believing the original intent was lost because of the controversy created by President Donald Trump. But he didn't know how it would impact his future.
The Giants signed him on March 26. At the end of training camp, his new teammates and coaches selected him one of the team's six captains. Thomas played in every game, starting six, and last Sunday he played in his first Pro Bowl as the NFC's special teamer.
Thomas is also the Giants' nominee for the 2018 NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, presented by Nationwide. Considered the league's most prestigious honor, it recognizes a player for outstanding community service activities off the field as well as excellence on the field. The winner will be announced Saturday at NFL Honors.
Today, Thomas was one of 22 Man of the Year nominees who participated in a community service endeavor at the Warren Boys & Girls Club in Southeast Atlanta. The players spoke with students about their academic progress and goals, participated in fun athletic competitions, helped build a new playground, and worked on beautification projects.
It was there that Thomas became weepy when asked about the upward arc of his fortunes since joining the Giants.
"I get emotional thinking about," Thomas said. "Really just give it to God and his plan. It is greater than anything we could ever think of. It is real. I really didn't know if I would ever get a chance to play again. He blessed me. I am glad I got a chance to play for an organization like the Giants and give everything back to the community. It has never been about me."
Was Thomas concerned that his football career might be finished after five seasons with the Dolphins?
"Real possibility," he said. "I saw what happened to my brother Kaep (Colin Kaepernick). Me and (Carolina safety) Eric Reed call each other every morning and pray with each other. At the same time you couldn't worry about it. I am giving it to God. If I played again, cool. If I didn't, I knew in my heart for what I stood for was right. It was not about me. It was about the people I serve in the community. Their future and my future. If I had to do it again, I would. I am just blessed a team took a chance on me like the Giants. Ended up having a blessed year and the best year of my career. I can only thank God for that."
This week has been particularly enjoyable. In the Pro Bowl, he had one special teams tackle, played several series at safety, and even lined at wide receiver (Thomas was targeted once, but didn't catch a pass). He arrived here at the site of Super Bowl LIII on Wednesday and has cherished the opportunity to interact with his fellow Man of the Year finalists.
"Since I got here, it has been a whirlwind, but it has been fun," Thomas said. "I had a few receptions with NFLPA and the NFL Man of the Year committee. Myself and the rest of the nominees were all in the same room for the first time sharing our stories and what everyone was doing in the community. That was pretty cool. At the Boys and Girls were able to be with a group of kids and personally connect and really see what they are going through. Just got a chance to share my story. Let them know that it is okay to not know what you want to do in life at this point. They are in high school, juniors and seniors. They have time to figure it out. I shared my story and told them everything I have been involved with from social justice to being one of the players that gets involved in the NFL. Just always trying to give back to the community."
Professional athletes are usually obsessed with winning. But regarding the Hall of Fame Award, most of the players seemed content to share the camaraderie with their fellow nominees.
"It is really cool," said San Francisco 49ers kicker Ronnie Gould, who played for the Giants in 2016. "First of all, the platform Nationwide, the NFL and the Payton family have put together allowing the guys to come down here, it is really unique to be able to hang out. You hear what they are doing in their communities. Maybe just take some of those scenarios and events and put them in your communities. It is also neat to hear these guys' stories about how they grew up, where they are from and how they got to the NFL. Everyone has a unique story and I think it is really cool to be able to tell those kids when you go to other events. Usually at these events, you have a lot of friendships that can last forever. It is pretty cool to be out of uniform and not playing against them, that is for sure."
"The fact that I was nominated is a blessing," Thomas said. "To be one of these 32 guys is a huge honor. It is humbling, because there are so many guys that are doing amazing work. You can literally nominate over half the team and it would be justified. Everyone is doing amazing work. It is not about winning. No one is out here lobbying to win and to sway votes. That is not what it is about. It is great to be out here and seeing what these guys are involved in."
For Thomas, it's a fitting cap to the most rewarding season of his career.