Welcome back, Terrell Thomas

Giants cornerback Terrell Thomas practices during team training Giants cornerback Terrell Thomas practices during team training camp at Quest Diagnostics Training Center. (Aug. 6, 2013) Photo Credit: James Escher

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Terrell Thomas looked quite dapper wearing a burgundy tie with white flecks that matched his dress shirt, all of which was pulled together beneath a tight navy blue blazer. But something was not complete as the Giants cornerback sat in the visiting locker room at Lincoln Financial Field on Sunday. Something was missing.

Behind him, his pants hung in the locker. While Thomas was polished to a shine from the waist up -- where the television cameras focused during his interviews -- he was still virtually bottomless. His right leg extended onto a nearby stool and his knee was wrapped heavily in bulky ice packs and bandages.

Part of the suit?

"Nope," said the always fashion-conscious Thomas. "It's part of the game."

For Thomas, it certainly is. After each of them this year, he's had to ice his knee down to reduce the swelling. As one of only two players known to have returned to play in the NFL after having a third ACL reconstruction, ice and treatment and a near constant monitoring of the joint have become part of his game. So have reduced practice snaps and sometimes decisions about which games to play in. But on Sunday, for the first time since he returned to the field in training camp, the only game on Thomas' mind was football.

He led the Giants with 11 tackles, 10 of them solo, and had a sack and a key forced fumble in the 15-7 win over the Eagles. On Monday, Tom Coughlin awarded him a game ball. On Wednesday, he was named the NFC Defensive Player of the Week.

Perhaps most significantly, he had virtually no swelling in the days after the game despite playing all 61 defensive snaps.

"Welcome back, Terrell!" is what Coughlin said when the team reviewed his forced fumble in meetings on Monday. For Thomas, it felt good to be back.

"I think I'm at a turning point with my knee that it's adjusting, kind of getting my legs underneath me and knowing what to expect week in and week out," Thomas said. "I think that was a good game to say 'welcome back.' I felt good."

On a team that hasn't had much to feel good about this season, Thomas has stood out as an inspiring storyline no matter whether the Giants won or lost. He missed the entire 2011 and 2012 seasons with back-to-back ACL reconstructions (he had his first in college) and slowly has eased back onto the field as a nickelback.

Since early in the season, the Giants started holding Thomas out one practice per week to give his knee a rest. He played a lot against the Chiefs in Week 4, and his knee had significant swelling. The medical staff was able to get it under control for the Eagles game the following week, but with the Bears looming the following Thursday, the Giants decided to hold Thomas back. He played just one snap in the loss to the Eagles in Week 5.

"We knew that we needed him because of the bigger receivers against Chicago," cornerbacks coach Peter Giunta said. "We just kind of played him very sparingly just to save him for Thursday night."

The Giants had another short week leading up to the second Eagles game this past weekend, but this time Thomas was able to respond. He also had the bye week on the other side of it, but he played two full games in a six-day span.

"Mentally and emotionally he's getting over that, 'Can I do it?'" Giunta said. "Now it's like, 'Hey, my knee is fine, I can do this.' "

Not everybody thinks that Sunday's game was a welcome- back performance for the cornerback who seemed to be ready to break out on a Pro Bowl level before he injured his knee for the first time in the NFL in the 2011 preseason.

"It was an outstanding game for Terrell, it definitely was," safety Antrel Rolle said. "But I think Terrell has been back. I think he's been back ever since the day after he tore his ACL, he's been back. He's a guy who has never ever left."

Rolle, who often is credited with being the heart of the Giants, said that it is actually Thomas' journey that most accurately reflects the team and its desire to rebound from a 0-6 start.

"I really can't even imagine being in his situation or what his mind-set was or all the ups and downs that I'm sure he's faced throughout this time," Rolle said. "But that just lets you know what we have on this team. These are helluva fighters, these guys are going to fight to the end."

Thomas isn't at the end. It's just a new beginning for him.

Earlier this month Thomas Davis, the Panthers linebacker who served as a mentor for Thomas and returned to the NFL after his third ACL surgery a year before Thomas did, also was named NFC Defensive Player of the Week. Now Thomas can enjoy his award while he's at home in California during the Giants' bye week.

Even if the Giants were playing this weekend, Thomas said he thinks he would have been ready to go.

"I'm feeling better every day, every week," he said. "It's not getting as sore. I'm a lot looser during the week and my recovery aspect after the game is becoming faster."

Still, while he's away from the team and taking his daughter to school each morning this week -- the highlight of the bye, he said -- he'll continue to work his knee.

"I'm going to stick to the schedule," he said. "I'm going to rehab in California. I'm going to rest as well, but I am going to rehab because I am still catching up. It's just something I have to do."

It's part of the game.

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