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Kiwanuka Q&A: 'If my peers respect me, that's enough'

Mathias Kiwanuka celebrates a sack of Green Bay

Mathias Kiwanuka celebrates a sack of Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers during the second half of a game at MetLife Stadium. (Nov. 25, 2012) Credit: AP

Mathias Kiwanuka is the longest-tenured Giants player behind Eli Manning and one of the last links to the 2007 Super Bowl team. In this extensive Q&A with Newsday's Tom Rock, Kiwanuka talks about his past (that 2007 team and the 2008 one), the present (the pay cut he took to stay with the Giants this season) and his future (could he really play nine more years?):

NEWSDAY: You walk around this building and you see all of these signs and murals from the 2007 Super Bowl team and now there are only three guys left: you, Eli and Zak DeOssie. What goes through your head when you think about that number and see things that other players here didn't experience and consider history?

KIWANUKA: I think that's the main thing is that there are a lot of guys here who have never experienced a championship. And so we need to get back to that level. In terms of how often I think about it, I think somebody brings it up every day, so I'm reminded of it. But other than that, it's just about moving forward and taking the talent we have with this team and getting another one.

 

ND: Do the three of you maybe look across the room at each other and just know it?

KIWANUKA: Every now and again, I think when it's brought up amongst us, yeah, it's something special. But there are a number of guys from even that first team who are still in the league. The turnover in the league from team to team is so high that after that first year, a lot of guys were gone and then the second year a lot more guys were gone. But the guys who are still around and still playing, you'll always share those memories together.

 

ND: Even the players from the 2011 Super Bowl team, a lot of them already are gone. So going back seven years, that's a long time in the NFL, right?

KIWANUKA: Yup. That's a very long time in league terms. This was a much different year in terms of the mass exodus of players out of here. It's something that we're not accustomed to. But the bottom line is, we gotta win. We win, we stay together as a group, as a team, and everybody is happy.

 

ND: Were those changes necessary?

KIWANUKA: I don't know that all of them were necessary, but as a player, you never want to see one of your teammates leave. If we produce more on the field, then I guess that will be the telling sign.

 

ND: You could have been one of those changes. You had your salary cut this offseason [from $4.375 million to $1.5 million]. You were given a choice, take the pay cut or leave, and you stayed. Why?

KIWANUKA: The main thing was the situation I was in at the time. We were eight months pregnant, my wife was expecting, the choice to stay here with the team had a lot to do with it, but to be honest, I just wasn't ready to pick up and move in the middle of everything that was going on. I chose to stay. I was frustrated by it, obviously, but once I made that decision, I was ready to come back and work. It's a reminder that even if you are under contract, every game is an audition for 31 other teams and you have to play with that same intensity and that same fire because you never know how long you're going to be here or be in the league in general. It renewed my enthusiasm. I hate that it had to happen that way, but whatever happens next year, I'm ready for it.

 

ND: So it lit a fire under you a little bit?

KIWANUKA: Yeah. A big fire. That's tough. I'm not going to mince words about it. I didn't like it. Didn't enjoy it one bit. I felt like I had done everything that was asked of me and that was a step too far. But this is a business, and if you start thinking like that, then it's easier to get by.

 

ND: A few weeks ago, you were part of the ice bucket challenge here and you got to dump a bucket on Jerry Reese. I would imagine some of those conversations were going through your mind when you did that.

KIWANUKA: (Laughs) There was a little extra something.

 

ND: A few extra ice cubes?

KIWANUKA: Yeah, a couple. But there really isn't and I don't think that there will be any hard feelings when it's time for me to leave. It's just one of those things where when you're in the middle of it you are very hurt and very upset about it. But at the end of the day you are reminded on a constant basis that this is a business and we're here to win games. If that happens, everything is ok. If that doesn't happen, it's not. I've come to terms with what happened and going forward I'll make sure I do everything I can on the field to make sure that it never happens again.

 

ND: How much longer do you want to play?

KIWANUKA: They're going to have to kick me out of the league. I always say that I can go out there every Sunday and play. It's practicing that is the beast. Everybody who knows me knows that I've been here, this is my ninth camp, and I can count on one hand how many practices I've sat out. I take a lot of pride in that. If I'm not on IR, I'm out there on the practice field every day and I don't miss games. I do that not just because it's a paycheck, I do it because I really genuinely love to play. Even on my hardest, worst day, I still, believe it or not, I still enjoy going out there and playing. For me, going into year nine, if I had to choose, I'd play nine more years.

 

ND: Here?

KIWANUKA: We'll see. It depends on the circumstances. I also have to keep in mind that this was a very special opportunity. Every team had an opportunity to draft me and this is the organization that decided to. As tough as it is to have your contract cut down, you also have to remember that the Tisches and the Maras and coach Coughlin were the ones who believed in me from the beginning and stuck with me for this long. So yeah, I would love for it to be here.

 

ND: David Wilson's career came to a premature end this year. Was that a reminder for you of how close you were to having your career end [with a neck injury in 2010]?

KIWANUKA: Every day I think about it. Not just him but there have been a number of guys who have had neck issues. It's not something to mess around with . . . It sets you back a little bit when you think of how important your body is and how little time you have to achieve your goals on the field. But in reality, you also have to think about your second career, your second life, your life outside of football. I think he did the right thing. It's really tough to watch somebody go out. I wish he could have had another chance, another three or four or 10 years, however many, but it's very important to take care of your body and he'll be fine.

 

ND: There were doctors who told you that you shouldn't play football again.

KIWANUKA: Yes. In the beginning. I think every doctor we saw started to prepare me for a new career path. They didn't want to say right away that I would come back or that I wouldn't, but I should prepare myself. The main thing was we had to take time away from football, we had to go through the treatment, the therapy, and then re-evaluate it. So for six or eight months, I was just kind of in limbo waiting to find out. That's a really tough situation to be in, especially as a young player. But after I got the clear from all the doctors -- it wasn't just one group, we went around to all of the main specialists around the country and I got the thumbs up from every single doctor -- I felt confident about coming back to play.

 

ND: How special would it be to be the first players [along with Manning and DeOssie] to win three Super Bowls with the Giants?

KIWANUKA: Whew. That would be a tremendous accomplishment, and that's what my goal and my focus is. I look at it like we have one year, right now, to get it done. We have the talent, we have the staff in place, and we have enough people around who have done in and have the confidence in themselves and our team to get it done. It would be something that I'd be really proud of.

ND: Do you ever look back at the 2008 season and say, 'Man, things would have worked out differently if not for that one night' (when Plaxico Burress accidentally shot himself in the leg with an illegal handgun in a New York City nightclub in November)?

KIWANUKA: I don't know that I blame the season on that one night. I know how it can be perceived like that, but I think that it was a combination of things. There was a lot of stuff going on that led up to that and we didn't handle ourselves the right way. When I do look back on it, it's a reminder that we're a team and we function as a team and we cannot be as successful as we want to be with one or two of our members not thinking the right way. I don't want to ever blame one individual for a team's loss or a team's collapse. I don't think that was the reason.

 

ND: But you would agree that was probably the best team?

KIWANUKA: Ooh, we were rolling. It takes talent but it also takes confidence and it takes a lot of things. When you put everything together, I think hands down that was one of the best groups that we've had since I've been here.

 

ND: Let me ask you about a few of your current teammates and what they'll be able to bring this year. Jason Pierre-Paul is obviously coming off a disappointing season. How has he looked so far?

KIWANUKA: I think he looks ready. I think he's ready to have another career season. He's doing the right things. He's working hard, eating right, studying more than he's ever done, and he looks like he's ready to go. His mind is focused on being the best player he can be. I'm hoping for the best from him.

 

ND: Were you surprised at the change that Jon Beason brought to this team last year from Day One?

KIWANUKA: Yeah. It was a noticeable difference. That's a hard position to be in, to come in as a middle linebacker, being responsible for the defense, making the calls, making the checks, being confident enough to assert your knowledge and whatever and then also being humble enough to ask questions and to figure out how he fits in. He did a tremendous job. I can see why he's been one of the best players in the league for a while.

 

ND: And how about Antrel Rolle?

KIWANUKA: That guy doesn't age. I don't know what else you can say about him. He came in from day one and he established himself as a performer but he's not just a gamer. He goes out there every single day in practice -- I don't know how many practices he's missed but it can't be a whole lot either. Somebody said it today, I don't remember who, something like: 'Production gets you paid but effort gets you respect.' I think he's got both.

ND: You mentioned a second career. What's down the line for you when you walk away?

KIWANUKA: I've been going over a lot of things. We'll be in Florida, we have a house down there that we go to during the offseason, and that's where we'll be whenever everything is said and done. I think about a lot of things. Going back to school is a big possibility. I'll definitely take six months to a year off to figure out what I want to do, then I'll probably try to get an MBA or go into some kind of continuing education program.

 

ND: You would like to go into business?

KIWANUKA: I think I would, but I want to educate myself on it before I do it. I don't want to just jump into it. I'm in a position where I won't have to look for something immediately. I think I would like to spend time. . . I have a two-year-old and a four-month-old at home and they're running around looking for me all day long. I would rather spend a little time with them and then figure out what my next step would be.

ND: Do you think about going into politics? That's in your family history.

KIWANUKA: Yeah. I thought about it. If the right opportunity came along that's something I would explore but I haven't really focused a lot of attention on that yet.

ND: When you walk out this door for the last time, what do you want your legacy to be?

KIWANUKA: First of all, I want to win a championship this year, so I want to be remembered as a member of one of the great teams in Giants history. I also want to be remembered as somebody who worked extremely hard, loved the game, loved his teammates and was in it for the daily grind. Be respected. If my peers respect me, that's enough.

 

ND: Do you think what you've done throughout your career in terms of moving positions and things like that, does that add to the respect that you get from your peers?

KIWANUKA: I never really did that for the respect. I did that because I felt it was the right thing to do at the time. Now if a young kid was coming up and asked me for advice, I would advise him against it. But at the same time, I feel like me making those moves helped us as a team, so I wouldn't go back and change anything.

ND: But it was probably to your detriment?

KIWANUKA: Absolutely. I mean, financially, all kinds of stuff. You're playing linebacker under a d-line contract with sack incentives. It made sense at the time. Looking back on it, it doesn't really, but it was what was best for the team and if I was put in the same position I would probably make the same decision again.

 

ND: How hard is it to put those off-season conversations and thoughts and priorities aside when you show up for a season?

KIWANUKA: It's really hard.

 

ND: Yet you seem to be able to do it.

KIWANUKA: I do it. A lot of it is just, as a man you're taught that you signed up for a job, you agreed to do the job, you do it to the best of your ability. That's how I was taught. So coming in here and complaining about it every day is just going to bring you down and I chose not to focus on it. Does it run through my mind? Of course. It runs through my mind at the most random of times. But as long as I can focus on the task at hand I feel like I'll respect myself for it.

 

ND: What's the most random of times?

KIWANUKA: Like today when we were about to run out and do two-minute (drill), somebody said one thing not in a conversation to me but in passing about something else and I'm like 'Oh, yeah.' But you have to change your mind and focus. There's always going to be things. Some of them are work-related, some of them are family-related, some of them are whatever. But the thing about football and sports in general is it gives you an opportunity for however long you're doing it to block everything out of your mind. It takes 100 percent of your physical, mental and emotional focus and there's not a lot of space left for anything else. It can be a safe haven when you're going through something really difficult. That's one of the best things about it. So even if I'm going through something, I know for this amount of hours during practice I'm free to just focus on my job. I've always kind of had that time during practice or during the game where there is nothing outside than can affect me.

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