Prince Amukamara was the perpetual little brother during his five years with the Giants.
From the time he arrived as a first-round pick in 2011 to the time he left as a free agent after the 2015 season, the cornerback always seemed like a tagalong for the secondary. Oh, he started games and he contributed on the field. It wasn’t as if he was the mascot or the pity case. But there were always more established veterans around to sprinkle him with advice and explain to him how things ought to be done.
For many, Amukamara’s most memorable moment as a Giant was when he was dunked in the tub by Jason Pierre-Paul in his second season, an episode taped and shared by Steve Weatherford. Amukamara never seemed to shake the wide-eyed naivete and earnestness that was unique in the hypercompetitive, ultra-macho world of the NFL.
Amukamara’s whole personality shouted hazed and confused.
He started thinking about all of that a few weeks ago when former Giants teammate Victor Cruz posted a picture of Amukamara on social media after he’d made a big play. That photo turned into a kind of virtual reunion for the Giants.
“Ahmad [Bradshaw] commented on it,” Amukamara told Newsday this past week. “And then JPP did. They were like, ‘Remember this? Remember that?’ It’s crazy. Those were my vets, those were my guys. T2 [Terrell Thomas] and ’Trel [Antrel Rolle], Aaron Ross and Webby [Corey Webster]. Those were my guys.”
And then it hit him.
“Now,” he said he realized, “I’m actually where they were.”
Yes, Amukamara has grown up. The Prince may not have become a full-fledged King, but on a defense that is propelling the Bears to the postseason, he is the oldest player on the starting unit at 29 and one of its most respected pieces. In his eighth year in the NFL, with his third team in four years, he’s become someone it seemed he would never evolve into when he was with the Giants:
A wise old veteran. A leader. A big brother.
When the Bears played the Cardinals in Week 3, Amukamara got to chat with former Giants defensive backs coach Dave Merritt, now on the Arizona staff.
“I was telling Merritt: ‘You know what’s funny? Those things you guys were teaching me and grooming in me, all that stuff I’m starting to get now,’ ” Amukamara said. “And it’s crazy. He was ecstatic to hear that, but it showed how much growth I’ve had since I left New York. I’m married with two kids now. Eight years in the league. It’s been a long time.”
COMING FULL CIRCLE
On Sunday, Amukamara will make his first return to MetLife Stadium. He and the Bears will face the Giants at 1 p.m.
Two weeks ago, another former Giant came thundering into such a circumstance. Pierre-Paul, traded to the Bucs in the offseason, promised to “bring the house down” and griped about how he was treated by ownership at the time of his departure.
Amukamara, predictably, plans to arrive with far less noise.
“I’m excited,” he said. “I’m trying to take my personal feelings out of it. I’m trying to make it not be about me because we’re having a great season. And to be honest, I don’t feel like it’s about me anyway because it’s been three years. I played there for five years, so it’s like I’ve been away almost as long as I was there.”
That’s not to say he won’t be swimming in memories when the bus pulls up to the stadium or when he trots onto the field to warm up Sunday morning. When he rattled off his list of memories from his time with the Giants, it sounded like one of those NFL Films clips shows that are put together: “Top 10 Giants Moments in the Past Decade.”
Amukamara was a rookie on the Super Bowl XLVI team. Beyond that, he said, his favorite moments include his first career interception against the Eagles (covering DeSean Jackson), but also many accomplishments by others.
“I remember when I was injured but I got to see Eli [Manning] throw for like five TDs in a comeback against Tampa Bay [in 2012] and Hakeem [Nicks] went off,” he said. “Then I think about the 99-yarder that Cruz got against the Jets. Then I think about what Odell did that Sunday night against the Cowboys with the one-handed catch. JPP’s block [of a field-goal attempt] against the Cowboys in Dallas. Those are all great, great moments, and I’ll for sure cherish them.”
On Sunday, though, there won’t be many he can share them with. Only four players remain on the Giants who were teammates of Amukamara’s: Manning, Beckham, Landon Collins and Zak DeOssie. There are no coaches who were with the team when he played for the Giants. Even the general manager who drafted him, Jerry Reese, is gone.
So Amukamara will get a homecoming, but with almost no one home to greet him.
Which is just fine with him.
“There are a lot of great memories in the stadium,” he said. “But I’m really excited about us trying to get our ninth win.”
Amukamara may not have many personal relationships with current Giants, but one in particular could work to his advantage in a potential matchup.
“I honestly can say I love Prince,” Beckham said, laughing. “I have to try to stay focused while I’m in the game with him lined up across from me. He’s always been a good corner, but it’s just Prince. I don’t know how else to explain it. It’s Prince, and he’s there, and he’s just a goofy guy . . . I’m going to have to take all the joking aside when we get out there and just go out and play.”
Some defenders try to get in Beckham’s head by talking trash. Amukamara may be able to do it by just talking.
It took a while for Amukamara to find a new home. After the Giants did not re-sign him following the 2015 season — they drafted Eli Apple and signed free agent Janoris Jenkins in an attempt to solidify their cornerback needs — Amukamara signed a one-year deal with the Jaguars. The next season, he signed a one-year deal with the Bears. He was being offered longer terms on his contracts, but not for the money he thought he was worth. Then, after last season, the Bears came to him with what he wanted: a three-year, $27-million offer that he signed.
“I’m a starter on this team,” he said. “I feel like I’m a big part of our success story that we’re having. The one-year deals, I mean, those are tough because you’re betting on yourself and you are taking a chance. I was really fortunate that I didn’t take a lesser deal than I did, and I’m thankful to my agents for that.”
What he did not know when he signed was how good the Bears and their defense would be. They had a second-year quarterback, a rookie head coach and a lot that could have gone wrong. Instead, almost everything has gone right. The Bears are 8-3 and in first place in the NFC North.
Amukamara hasn’t been to the playoffs since his rookie year. In fact, he was starting to think he was the reason his teams didn’t go. He left the Giants, and the next season, they went 10-6 and reached the postseason. He left the Jaguars, and the next season they went 10-6 and reached the postseason (and got within a win of the Super Bowl).
Now, though, he’s on a Bears team that is ready to pounce toward the playoffs.
“Record-wise, this has been by far the best record team that I’ve been on,” he said. “Even when we won the Super Bowl, we were never 8-3. So this is kind of new to me, too. Instead of hunting, you’re being the hunted. People want to give us their best shots.”
Nor did he know how much fun he would have with these Bears. Last week, after a takeaway against the Lions on Thanksgiving, Amukamara led an end-zone celebration with the defense that mimicked a Motown musical performance.
“That’s what’s been making this season so fun, being able to be ourselves,” Amukamara said. “Our coach really encourages that a lot. But in order to do that, we have to make plays, because we’re not just going to celebrate for no reason, and that’s a motivating factor.”
FROM PUPIL TO ELDER STATESMAN
The Bears are as happy to have Amukamara as he is to have roots with the Bears.
“He’s done a good job,” coach Matt Nagy said. “First of all, he’s a student of the game. He has experience, which is good, I like that. I think that at that position, it can be such an up-and-down position in regards to you get beat one play, you’ve got to bounce right back and have a next-play mentality. He’s done a great job all year long being a leader and playing his solid game, and we like where he’s at.”
He also provides an example of something to shoot for to the younger players on the defense and on the team. He is one of only four players on the roster with a Super Bowl ring, along with Chase Daniel, Danny Trevathan and Trey Burton.
“I don’t flash it around the locker room,” Amukamara said. “But we get to bring that experience to the team and share what it looks like to work toward something like that.”
When Amukamara came to the Giants in 2011 as their first-round pick, there were plenty of guys who had that kind of experience. The Giants were just three years removed from their last Super Bowl title. There were plenty of examples for him to follow, both in the locker room and on the coaching staff.
Now, seven years later, Amukamara is doing what those veterans did for him. Showing guys the ropes. Explaining how the NFL works. Hazed and confused has given way to esteemed and astute.
Amukamara chuckled at the thought.
“Can you believe that?”