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Nice Kiwanuka Article

Mr. P

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Giants' Kiwanuka Masters Adversity


When New York Giants defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka was drafted in the first round in the 2006 NFL Draft, his was a selection that left many people scratching their heads.


The Giants, you will recall, had an abundance of defensive ends that included future Hall of Famer Michael Strahan, Pro Bowler Osi Umenyiora, and future Pro Bowler Justin Tuck. So then why would they “waste” a first round draft pick on a position where there was clearly no need?


“You can never have too many pass rushers,” was then GM Ernie Accorsi’s response to questions about why the Giants took a player at a position they didn’t need.


Turns out that Accorsi was definitely onto something, as in Kiwanuka, the Giants got much more than a pass rusher. They acquired a highly intelligent, talented young man, who like many rookies before him and like many rookies still to come, prided himself on his numerous personal goals as he planned how his NFL career unfold.


During his four-year career at Boston College, Kiwanuka excelled at defensive end. He played in 49 games with 38 starts, racked up 245 tackles (155 solo) and set a school record for quarterback sacks with 37.5 drops for minus 215 yards.


He was “the man” on the Eagles’ defense; the guy his teammates could count on. When he was taken with the 32nd overall pick in the draft, Kiwanuka saw no reason why he couldn’t eventually become “the man” for the Giants as well.



Fate, however, had a different plan for the Indianapolis native. After a fairly successful rookie season as a defensive end in which he made nine starts – the most by any Giants rookie defensive end since Fred Dryer in 1969 (14 games), Kiwanuka finished his rookie season with 55 tackles (41 solo), 23 quarterback hurries (second on the team), 16 quarterback hits (1st on the team), four sacks, two interceptions and two forced fumbles.


On any other team, that type of production might have been good enough to ensure a guy like Kiwanuka a chance at a starting position the next season. Only problem is that the Giants weren’t like any other team in that they had their Pro Bowl bookends – Strahan and Umenyiora – standing in Kiwanuka’s way.


Still the coaches weren’t blind to the production or the potential that this young pass rusher brought to the table, so in the spring of 2007, new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo decided to reach back – way back – into the Giants’ history books and dust off an old trick to ensure that they could get their best players, of whom they considered Kiwanuka a part, on the field as much as possible.


The plan, as it turned out, was to convert Kiwanuka to strong side linebacker, a plan that was very similar to what the defensive staff of yesteryear did for another former first round draft pick -- some guy by the name of Lawrence Taylor, who also made the switch from defensive end to outside linebacker.



Unfortunately, history didn’t quite repeat itself for the 6-5, 265 lbs. Kiwanuka, who struggled with the move. So tough was the move in fact, that he admitted that there were times when he questioned his role – and his future – in the NFL landscape.


“There was definitely as lot of emotion and a lot of ups and downs,” he recalled about making the position switch. “I think when you’re used to performing a certain way and you have all the accolades coming out of college, it is tough.”


While the decision was met by mixed reactions from Kiwanuka, who on one hand understood that it was for the good of the team, but who on the other hand had some private concerns about how he’s respond to the position, he swallowed his pride and committed himself to making the move work.


It wasn’t easy though. “I had to go back to the basics and learn everything almost from scratch as far as dropping and reading routes and the offensive formations, and that kind of stuff,” he recalled. There were moments when I definitely questioned myself and wondered if this was the right move for me. I always felt like I was setting myself back in terms of playing in the NFL and getting to the personal goals I had for myself.”


Not one to back away from any challenge involving his vocation, Kiwanuka said he enthusiastically threw himself into his playbook and spent extra time (“a lot of extra time”) studying film and working on his techniques. “I was determined that by the time opening day came, I looked like I had played linebacker before,” he said.


Despite the extra work he put in, he still couldn’t find the level he was searching for. In his first two games, he clearly looked lost, as opponents repeatedly exposed him as the weak link on the defense. And the more he was abused, the stronger his self-doubts became and the bigger his struggles in terms of not losing faith in himself.


“I was taking a lot of heat because I wasn’t playing well; there is no doubt about that,” he said. “In those first couple of games, I really took my lumps. I was determined not to let it eat me alive. I knew that if I kept working at it, if I sat here watching countless hours of myself on film, I would find a way to get to the level that I knew I was capable of performing at.”


As the 2007 season unfolded, Kiwanuka eventually found his comfort level. “I definitely started to get more comfortable at linebacker,” he said proudly. “I was at a point where I could start making plays as opposed to sitting back and hoping not to make mistakes, and I think that was the pivot point for me.”



As Kiwanuka settled into his new role at SAM, tragedy struck on November 18, 2007. In a road game against Detroit, he saw his season come crashing to a halt when he suffered a broken leg.


Any season-ending injury is tough, but what made this one particularly difficult for Kiwanuka -- who since fifth grade only missed one game in his life -- was seeing his teammates go on without him en route to a magical season that cumulated with the Giants’ 17-14 win over the previously undefeated New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.


Watching his teammates win without hurt Kiwanuka more than the broken leg itself. “To be hurt and have to watch your team go on without you is something I wouldn’t wish on anyone,” he said quietly. “To know that I’m part of a group of special guys and to not be able to contribute was really tough.”


Kiwanuka paused and then spoke about former teammate Jeremy Shockey, who also had to watch the Super Bowl run from the sidelines thanks to a season-ending injury.


“I understood what Shockey meant when he said all those things because I felt the same way,” Kiwanuka confessed. “As much as I wanted to be a part of that, in any capacity, I understood why I couldn’t. But I won’t lie to you. It hurt me deeply.”


Unlike Shockey, who let his bitterness erode his relationship with the Giants, Kiwanuka stayed in control of his emotions. “I probably had more self doubt than I ever had at any point during my career,” he admitted. “Deep down, I felt like I wasn’t ready to leave yet because there’s so much more that I need to accomplish here in New York.”


So he kept his mouth closed and came back for the start of the 2008 off-season program, ready to roll up his sleeves and get to work.



Within a week after starting the 2008 off-season program, Kiwanuka knew that he was going to stay at linebacker, a decision that while probably not the one he wanted to hear, was met with relief.


“This time I had a better understanding of what I was getting into,” he said, noting that he could spend time building on what he learned the previous year. “Before I even made it to training camp, I knew my role within the defense much better, and I understood how much preparation I was going to need as a linebacker. I hit the books and the film room, and I knew it was going to be up to me. I felt like I could do everything I wanted to do at linebacker that I couldn’t accomplish the previous year.


Once again, however, fate intervened. With DE Michael Strahan having announced his retirement that off-season, Tuck moved into Strahan’s spot, opposite of Umenyiora. But then fate dealt the Giants and Kiwanuka another cruel hand as Umenyiora was lost for the season after tearing up his knee in an exhibition game.


Suddenly “thin” at the defensive end spot, the coaches had no choice but to move Kiwanuka back to defensive end, his natural spot. While the call elated Kiwanuka, the circumstances left him torn.


“You never want to see your teammate hurt, even if it means you benefit from it,” Kiwanuka said.


Then there were the feelings Kiwanuka experienced in which he began to wonder if all the work he had put in during the off-season and at up until that point in summer camp was all for nothing.


“I knew my team needed me, but at the same time, I had spent so much time preparing to be a linebacker, and I felt good about my preparation. Then suddenly I felt like I was being shortchanged because here I had put in all this work and I never got the change to show how much I improved at linebacker.”


His worries were soon calmed as Kiwanuka quickly learned that returning to his natural position at defensive end was like riding a bicycle after years of driving a car. “I think what really helped was knowing that no matter what happened, no matter whom they brought in, I was going to stay at defensive end for the entire year.”


The move also brought added motivation for Kiwanuka, who had to replace a Pro Bowl defensive end. “I was definitely focused on not being a letdown to the team. I wanted to be able to show that no matter where you put me, that I would be able to do a damn good job.”



Back at “home” in his natural defensive end spot and looking forward to having a solid season, Kiwanuka again found himself in unfavorable conditions. Against the Washington Redskins on opening night, on the final play of a game the Giants had locked up, Kiwanuka (who received the defensive game ball for his performance in that game) suffered a high ankle sprain.


Kiwanuka, who said he doesn’t look for excuses, admitted that the injury bothered him for most of the 2008 season. “I played the first four games at less than full speed,” he said. “I had so much tape on my ankle that sometimes I found it hard to lift my foot up, and that affected my initial burst.”


Despite the injury, Kiwanuka reached deep down inside to find motivation to work through the problem, just as he had done so many times before in his NFL career.


“I think just the fact that I had my old spot back and that I knew what it was like to miss time made me more determined than ever to not sit out.”


He smiled. “In some ways, I felt vindicated because up until that point, I was a man who really didn’t have a home and then here I was, back home again. And while I wasn’t crisp in the beginning, I wanted it badly enough to where nothing mattered. Opponents could have triple teamed me and I was not going to let that stop me from finding a way to get to the quarterback.”



Kiwanuka is thankful that he stuck with his desire to play pro football despite the constant adversity he’s had to face so far in his career. As he looks forward to an “event-free” 2009 season at defensive end, he said he’s looking forward to having a breakout year.


“A lot this is still a dream,” he said about his NFL career. “Playing in the NFL is definitely a privilege that has to be earned. If you’re committed to working hard, doing what the coaches tell you, and focus on your job, which I am, there’s no reason why anyone can’t be successful.”


In addition to the skills he’s acquiring, Kiwanuka said he learned a lot about his inner strength and feels confident that he has the maturity and experience to handle adversity.


“I’ll be honest with you. When I came out of college, I was one of the most arrogant players ever when it came to having my hand in the dirt,” he said. “While I still feel like there is no one that can beat me, I’ve learned how to convert that arrogance into confidence and accountability. Call my number, and if I mess it up, it’s not what my opponent did. It’s all on me.


“I used to think that being out there in front of 100,000 people is tough,” he continued. “But when your livelihood is taken away from you, you see things a little differently. I definitely think my situation helped me grow as both a person and as a player. It’s a lesson that I didn’t expect to learn and one I didn’t think I needed to learn, but one I’m glad I did learn.”





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