When the Giants first started kicking around the idea of introducing their individual starters from one unit before home games this season, letting them run onto the field through the tunnel and under the pyrotechnics as their names screamed over the loudspeakers, everyone was excited.
For most of the past two decades, the Giants had simply been introduced as a team and swarmed out together. The old way was a sign of unity, sure, with roots going back to the Super Bowl XLII team, but it also brought all the juice and buzz of a bottle-necked traffic jam on Route 3.
“I saw it last year when a couple of teams did it [at Giants road games] and I always wanted to do it,” Giants safety Xavier McKinney said after the “practice” run at the team’s only home preseason game last month on Aug. 21. “We never did it in college. I’ve never done it. I know a lot of guys on the team have never done it. It was super fun. We were excited about it when we heard about it.”
But McKinney wasn’t just interested in hearing his name called and dashing out. He had a very specific vision for how it would go down and a stipulation of sorts as he spoke with head coach Brian Daboll about the concept.
“I wanted to come out last,” he told Newsday.
That’s a pretty coveted spot for a third-year player who has achieved few tangible accolades in his career, other than some Pro Bowl buzz last season, and boasts only one year as a regular starter on his resume. He'll have trouble finding 29 fans in the stands wearing his 29 jersey at Giants home games, amid the sea of 26s and 8s and the growing number of 5s (not to mention the 10s, 11s and 56s that have long had the run of the place).
Yet there he was, the final player to enter the field for the exhibition game against the Bengals, in the punctuation spot normally reserved for quarterbacks when the offense is introduced (as the Giants will do for every other home game) and the likes of Ray Lewis when the defense gets its turn.
He followed everyone else this one time … because that’s what leaders do.
The Giants defense underwent a significant overhaul this offseason with the departure of a number of good players with very big personalities, particularly in the secondary. Logan Ryan, Jabrill Peppers and James Bradberry were all dispatched in one way or another. But McKinney remained to take their place, and to take over as the voice, heart and spirit of the defense.
It has very quickly become his unit. Just as he always envisioned it would.
“I always wanted to be that guy, to be the vocal one, to lead by my actions and my voice,” McKinney said. “You want to lead by example, obviously, and do things the right way. But I always demand greatness out of everybody. I don’t care where you came from, I don’t care where you are now, I always want the best version of you. I’m always going to push whoever is around me to be even better than I am. That’s how I’ve always been. I carry that with me.
“This is just who I am.”
It can be a burden at times. Everyone has bad days throughout a football season.
“If I’m in a bad mood, I have to switch it,” he said. “That’s how I go about it because I know it’s bigger than just myself. I know everybody else feeds off the energy I bring so every time I step in the building I check myself and I say, ‘Let’s go. I have a job to do. I have to make sure these guys are on each and every day.’ ”
So far it’s working.
“I think for a younger player, he has no problem speaking up,” Daboll said of McKinney. “He’s a good communicator. He knows the defensive system very well. I think he does a great job with, not just defense backs, but communication with the linebackers, the front guys, the offense. He’s really been a pleasure to be around.”
And while this version of McKinney is finally coming to the forefront for the Giants, it’s really nothing new from the day he first arrived as a second-round draft pick from Alabama.
“He’s always been a guy that’s outspoken about how he feels about things and, you know, just a natural leader,” defensive lineman Dexter Lawrence said. “Nothing’s really changed from what I’ve seen with him. I guess you all are kind of seeing [something] different with that, but within the locker room he’s always been a guy to hold everybody accountable no matter what, no matter how he tells you. You’ve got to respect a guy like that.”
McKinney says he is always trying to learn more about leading, tapping into resources and watching how others go about it. When Michael Strahan showed up at a training camp practice this summer, McKinney introduced himself and they talked about what it takes to steer an organization. They exchanged numbers and McKinney hopes to rely on Strahan for advice throughout this season.
He's also drawn from his own teammates, Ryan and Peppers with the Giants, and Anthony Averett and Ronnie Harrison when he arrived at Alabama.
“You learn what you want to do and you learn what you don’t want to do,” he said of absorbing the various styles.
The best leader he has ever been around? The one who he tries to emulate the most?
“I’d probably have to say Jalen Hurts,” he said of the quarterback on his old Alabama teams and the current one for the rival Philadelphia Eagles. “I’ve had a whole bunch of conversations with him about leadership and how he carries himself. I saw him encounter the craziest situations going through college [Hurts was benched at halftime of a national championship game] and now in the league where there is so much stuff, to see him so poised and still be able to be himself and lead has always been pretty amazing to me. I always try to pick his brain on how he goes about certain things.”
The biggest difference between leading at Alabama and leading the Giants isn’t just college vs. pro atmospheres.
He arrived in Tuscaloosa to become part of an established winning program. He was drafted by a Giants team that had been to the postseason just once in the previous eight seasons at that time, a trend that is now once in the previous 10. In his two years with the Giants he has been on the field with more than minimal playing time for just five wins; in his three seasons at Alabama he lost only four times and played for two national titles.
If he can lead the Giants out of this funk, it will mean more to him.
“I think it’s going to happen,” he said. “I don’t think it’s an ‘if.’ I see it as it’s gonna get done. And it’s definitely going to be great when it happens. It’s going to be fun. We’re going to enjoy it. I know the fans will, I know everybody rooting for us definitely will.”
In a way it is kind of like being at the back of the line in the tunnel, about to emerge from the darkness into the bright lights, getting antsy and amped with anticipation.
Said McKinney, “We’re just waiting on that moment.”