BEREA, OHIO — As the Giants took the field for practice with the Browns on Friday and began the process of stretching and warming up, Niko Lalos received a tap on the shoulder. His family was in the VIP section of the stands, among the few dozen who had wrangled passes to view the workout.
"Nah," the second-year linebacker said. "You’ve got the wrong guy. They definitely would have told me to look out for them."
Lalos put the exchange out of his mind for the next two hours of drills and reps, focusing on his job of trying to make the team’s 53-man roster. But after the final whistle blew, Lalos decided to do some investigating.
"I was like ‘OK, I’ll mosey over and check it out,’" he said. "Then I saw two blue Giants jerseys in the stands and thought ‘Oh, that’s got to be them!’ "
It was. The native of nearby Akron — who attended the same St. Vincent-St. Mary High School as LeBron James — got to spend a few valuable minutes with his mother Leslie Lalos, his uncle Chris Megyes, his aunt Christina Miller and his father Tim Witkowski.
"They surprised me," he said.
Lalos was a bit of a surprise himself for the Giants last year. An undrafted rookie from Dartmouth he began the 2020 season as a defensive end on the practice squad. When the Giants started to lose edge rushers to injury they tried him at outside linebacker. He was a gameday activation from that unit who made his NFL debut on Nov. 29 and eventually was promoted to the 53-man roster. He played only 72 defensive snaps on the season but made the most of them, recording a sack, a fumble recovery and an interception with his six tackles. He became a fan favorite for his intense play and uncanny ability to be around the football. A coach favorite, too.
"I think if you’re a guy who follows your keys and plays with a high effort and hustles to the ball, that puts you in a good position to make plays like he’s made," Joe Judge said. "I wanted to give him an opportunity. He went in there, he made plays, he earned himself more plays, then he earned himself a spot on the roster."
Through all of that late-season whirlwind, though, there was something missing. Because of the pandemic last year’s training camp was closed to outsiders and the games were played in mostly empty stadiums.
"No one I know has ever gotten to watch me play in the NFL yet," he said.
That will change on Sunday when the Giants face the Browns in their second preseason game. Too many family and friends for Lalos to count will be in the stands — some of them, as they were on Friday, sticking out wearing blue Giants jerseys — when he takes the field. "Anyone you can think of, they’ll probably be there," Lalos said.
And for the first time since high school, that will include his father. Because his parents were never married he lived with them together for only a short period in his childhood. Witkowski was in and out of his life at various points. He never made a trip to New Hampshire to see his son play at Dartmouth, nor did he attend any road games in college. But last summer, as Lalos was training in Ohio during the pandemic, his father was very much back in. He met Lalos at local fields in northern Ohio early in the mornings to help him run drills and prepare for the challenge of achieving his dream of an NFL career.
He got a glimpse of that on Friday at practice against a Browns team they all grew up footing for. Maybe one day he’ll get to New Jersey or some other city to see Lalos play in a regular season game. On Sunday, though, he’ll finally be on hand to watch his son on an NFL field.
"It’s exciting to see he’ll be here for this one," Lalos said. "It kind of makes all of the college ones he had to miss worth it. And to do it in my hometown, it’s a nice way to check that box."