For most Giants' veterans still basking in the glow of last season's Super Bowl victory, Wednesday's start to their offseason practice regimen represented a sense of closure on their remarkable run and a renewal for the coming season.
For Terrell Thomas, the emotions were a bit more complicated.
The Giants' 27-year-old cornerback never did enjoy the team's unlikely championship run; he suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in the preseason. But the sense of renewal Wednesday was palpable, even if he just took part in individual drills and still needs a few more weeks to resume full-scale workouts.
"I'm happy just to be able to play football again, to hang out with the guys and work out with them," Thomas said after the workout, the first of the Giants' organized team activity sessions of the offseason. "It's hard to work out by yourself every day, so I'm just blessed to be back and ready to contribute when I can."
But it didn't take long for Thomas to get another sobering reminder of just how fleeting things can be in a sport where injuries are so prevalent. Early in Wednesday's practice, teammate Brian Witherspoon went down and according to coach Tom Coughlin reinjured the torn ACL he suffered last year. Thomas was only a few feet away from Witherspoon when he was hurt.
"It was tough to see him go down," Thomas said. "He's one of my teammates that had the same injury, so that hit home."
Same injury, same game. Both Thomas and Witherspoon suffered their injuries in a preseason game against the Bears last Aug. 22. At the time, the position was severely weakened because the Giants had lost four of their top six cornerbacks to injury and the mere notion of a Super Bowl season seemed almost absurd that night.
But the Giants barely made it into the playoffs with a 9-7 record, and then went on a remarkable postseason run in which they beat the Falcons, Packers and 49ers before defeating the Patriots in a rematch of Super Bowl XLII.
Mixed emotions for Thomas, to be sure. On the one hand, he missed the chance to contribute to a championship run. But in retrospect, there were some good things that happened, too.
"It was tough, but when you look at it in hindsight, it was a blessing," he said. "I learned a lot as a father, as a young man and as a football player."
While his teammates were grinding through a difficult regular season, Thomas spent quality time with his 2-year-old daughter, an experience he grew to cherish.
"I learned about my family, and just being a father," he said. And even though he didn't play, he said he got better as a player.
"I learned what I needed to do to get over the hump and be a great player and help this team get to the playoffs," he said.
Thomas noticed how differently his teammates played last year, compared with 2010, when they melted down during December and missed the playoffs altogether.
"It was all about doing the little things, and that's where I had lapses," he said. "It's all about trusting the coaches and trusting in each other. That's what made the difference: doing the easy things great, and letting athletic ability take over with the hard things."
Now it's time to put that knowledge to good use on the field, where Thomas finally has returned.