Andrew Thomas remembers his first start as a true freshman at Georgia. He remembers it was against Appalachian State in the 2017 opener. He remembers that he played "pretty well" in the 31-10 victory. And he remembers running through the tunnel to see and hear the packed stadium for the first time.
But it wasn’t the 92,000 or so fans at Sanford Stadium in Athens, Georgia that he was so excited to play in front of. There were just two in particular that he needed to know were on hand.
Belinda and Andre Thomas, his mother and his father.
"They’ve been to so many of my games," Thomas said. "A big reason why I went to Georgia was because it was only an hour away and my parents could come and watch me play."
Back as far as Thomas can remember playing football, his parents were there. His father coached him as a youngster, they attended his games throughout high school, and even made many road trips around the SEC to watch him in road games in college.
For Thomas, it was always a comfort to know that no matter what was happening on the field, no matter how nasty or ugly or violent things were getting on the line of scrimmage, there were two fans in the stands who would have his back no matter what.
On Monday night, Thomas will play in the biggest game of his life. He’ll start at left tackle for the Giants in his NFL debut against the Steelers as the rookie first-round pick in whom the franchise has placed its hopes for resurrecting the offensive line play that has faltered so much in recent years.
But he’ll be doing it in an empty stadium. There won’t be any fans at MetLife when this regular season begins, by order of New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy to help thwart the spread of coronavirus, and that’s OK with Thomas since he said he hardly notices the atmosphere once the ball is snapped and the pads start popping.
That there won’t be any parents there, though, makes it difficult.
"It’s going to be sad with them not being there," he said.
Thomas said his mother calls just about every day to check on him, but also to check on the status of large gatherings in New Jersey.
"My mom asks me every day, ‘Have they changed anything with allowing fans and family members?’ Things like that," Thomas said. "I know they’re disappointed not being able to come up here, but they’re excited. They want to see my debut and I’m excited to play."
The Giants are excited to have him play, too. They finally get to see what they bought with the fourth overall pick.
"The rookies still don’t know what to fully expect," Joe Judge said. "They’ve been taught, they’ve been told, they’ve seen examples, they’ve felt the speed of practice. The reality is, you can’t truly simulate the full speed of a game until they have played in a game. Because they haven’t tasted that yet, they don’t know yet.
"Until they get out there and get hit in the mouth for the very first time, they really don’t know."
Nor will the Giants.
Of course, Thomas recognizes how much he means to this organization, not only Monday night but moving forward.
"There is definitely pressure, but it is more so from myself," he said. "I try to not to focus too much on everything outside of my control, but I understand how much work I have put in and the level that I want to play at. That’s the pressure that I have."
Thomas also knows that he will not receive any grace period. There will be no easing into things. He’s being dropped right into an NFL game without so much as a preseason snap, against the Steelers and one of the top defenses in the league at that.
"For me, it’s just trying to catch on as fast as I can," he said. "Obviously you are behind being a rookie, you are going against veterans who have been playing the game a long time . . . It’s all an urgency. Every day you step on the field there has to be an urgency that you have because there is not much wiggle room. You have to be ready as soon as the ball is snapped on the first play."
One of the things the Giants liked about Thomas was his ability to win one-on-one battles against top-ranked defenders. He said that there are two components to that.
"Definitely understanding your opponent, knowing what they are good at, understanding what you are good at and how you can use that to your advantage," he said. "Then the second thing is just competitive nature. Playing this game, you want to go against the best. You want to go against people who are very good at what they do. Being in the NFL, that’s every week because you are playing against a top pass rusher at my position."
The whole world will see that, including two very anxious parents who will be tuned in on their television in Lithonia, Georgia.
"They’ll be watching and rooting me on back at home," Thomas said of his parents. "I’ll try to do my best for them."