To become an NFL football player, you have to defy the odds. But New York Giants cornerback Terrell Thomas has beaten much longer odds to keep his career alive. The 28-year-old has torn the ACL in his right knee three times but has somehow persevered, becoming only the second player in NFL history to successfully return from three reconstructive knee procedures.
Few expected Thomas to make the Giants roster this year, let alone return to form. But he has somehow reemerged as one of the best defensive players on the team. Thomas has rediscovered the play-making prowess that made him one of the league's most respected corners three years ago, and that's a big reason why the Giants are somehow still alive in the NFC East playoff race as we near the home stretch of the 2013 regular season.
Let's look at the wild ride Thomas has experienced since his football career began to take off nearly a decade ago.
Knee catastrophe No. 1—Sept. 17, 2005: In the second game of his sophomore year at USC, a 20-year-old Thomas tears his ACL against Arkansas. His first ACL surgery takes place soon thereafter, with doctors using a graft from his patellar tendon to reconstruct the ligament.
He'd miss the rest of the year but would return to intercept six passes as a junior and senior, playing a key role as the Trojans won back-to-back Rose Bowls. That was enough to convince the defending Super Bowl-champion Giants to select him 63rd overall in the 2008 NFL Draft.
And from there, it was easy to forget there was ever a knee issue. Thomas played rather sparingly as a rookie, which is the norm under head coach Tom Coughlin, but he excelled while missing zero games in his second and third season.
In 2009, Pro Football Focus (subscription required) graded him as the eighth-best cornerback in the NFL. That year, he was penalized zero times despite being thrown at on 71 occasions. Not bad for a 24-year-old.
And in 2010, he continued to emerge as a true No. 1 corner while also leading the Giants with 101 tackles. He had 10 interceptions in '09 and '10, which ranked tied for sixth in the NFL during that span, and most of his picks came in clutch moments.
|Most interceptions, NFC, 2009-2010|
|1. Asante Samuel||Philadelphia Eagles||16|
|2. Brent Grimes||Atlanta Falcons||11|
|2. Aqib Talib||Tampa Bay Buccaneers||11|
|2. Charles Woodson||Green Bay Packers||11|
|5. Terrell Thomas||New York Giants||10|
|Pro Football Reference|
This one, for example, came on picture-perfect coverage as the Giants were trying to protect a slim fourth-quarter lead against San Diego in 2009:
Thomas seemed to always be in the right place at the right time. But that all changed in the summer of 2011.
Knee catastrophe No. 2—Aug. 22, 2011: Almost six full years after his original tear, the graft between his right tibia and right femur once again snapped when Thomas had an awkward collision with teammate Jason Pierre-Paul on a blitz in a preseason game against Chicago.
Soon thereafter, Thomas underwent revision surgery on the same knee, this time receiving an allograft from a donor, since his own patellar tendon was already used the first time.
The odds of coming back from that revision surgery are much lower, according to, well, pretty much any medical expert you speak to, including Dr. David Geier, an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist based in Charleston, S.C.
"The chances of getting back to play at the same level drop every time," Geier told Bleacher Report Monday. "And there's thought to be a lot of different reasons for that. Either it's in the different grafts that you have to use, and what it takes to overcome more tissue used in grafts. There's bone loss issues. And then there's the damage to the knee overall with multiple injuries like that."
"It's not to say that people can't come back to play at the same level," added Geier, noting that the re-tear rates for primary ACL surgery patients are only about 11 percent. "It's just not as likely."
But Thomas was part of that unlucky 11 percent, and although his second graft came from outside of his body, limiting the collateral damage, so to speak, he became a real aberration when lightning struck a third time less than 11 months later.
Knee catastrophe No. 3—July 29, 2012: Days into his very next training camp, Thomas reportedly slips in coverage during a one-on-one drill in practice, aggravating the same injury.
This time, they'd wait about six weeks before finally facing the reality that Thomas needed another repair. The third surgery, performed by the world-renowned Dr. James Andrews, used another allograft, this time with bone reinforcing both sides of the new ligament. Three different strategies on three different occasions.
He'd miss his second straight full season, but maybe the third operation was a charm. Because in 2013, Thomas has begun to look like his old self.
He's been given a manageable workload and has excelled. And now he's starting to make his trademark big plays. In Week 8, he chased down Matt Barkley for a game-changing strip sack inside the red zone:
And this past Sunday against Oakland, with the Giants trailing by six late in the third quarter and the Raiders driving inside New York territory, he broke off his man after reading Terrelle Pryor like a book, taking a pick back 67 yards to set up the go-ahead touchdown.
In both cases, the now-savvy veteran used his head to compensate for what he might lack inside his right knee, which Thomas admits still isn't 100 percent.
From Steve Serby of the New York Post:
“I’m not close to where I was. My knee still hurts, it’s still swollen, I’m still battling. Probably about 80, 90 percent. … It’s tough, but I definitely feel like I’m turning the corner. I’m about 14 months post-surgery, so that’s when your knee starts feeling better. I think the game’s slowing down to me more than anything.”
There's a decent chance the Giants lose both of those games without Thomas forcing those turnovers. He's finally become a difference-maker again despite the fact he might never be the same. And there's a chance his luck will run out again, as UCLA Medical Center orthopedic surgeon David McCallister frankly pointed out to us in a phone conversation on Monday.
"That would be unusual to be playing at that level after a third ACL reconstruction," McAllister said, "What tends to happen is players like this one who keep re-injuring it, they seem to be prone to re-injury for reasons that we don't fully understand. He certainly has a high risk of re-injuring this knee again despite the fact that he's playing well now."
Still, Bleacher Report sports medicine lead writer Will Carroll isn't completely surprised.
"You can do this infinitely," Carroll told the B/R NFC East blog Monday when asked how many times a player can handle reconstructive knee surgery. "Structurally, it doesn't matter how many times you do it. Is there some sort of loss of structural integrity? Or is there an advantage to having a guy who's been through it? He knows what the rehab process is like, and he's done it successfully. It's unusual, but physically it's not significantly different the third time anymore than it is the second time. First time's the toughest."
So there's no consensus here. But why do so few players make it back from multiple ACL tears? It could be that very few suffer three of them in the first place—"It's just so unusual that it would happen that many times," said Carroll, adding that "there are a lot of twos" but not many threes—but this might also be an indication that Thomas possesses superior mental toughness. I mean, how many of us can handle that grueling rehab three times? Even Thomas dealt with depression during his darkest days of recovery, according to Ralph Vacchiano of the New York Daily News.
"Whenever you do an ACL surgery," Geier told us, "one of the things that we're really starting to hone in on over the last year or two is we're figuring out that the fear of re-injury is a very real phenomenon, even in high-level athletes."
"I think it's a testament to his mental fortitude," Geier added, "but I'd imagine that's not just him. That's the whole medical team working with him."
That's an important point. You really get a feel for how far Thomas and his supporters have come when you listen to team doctor Ronnie Barnes, via Serby:
"Terrell Thomas going through three ACLs is as difficult as anything we’ve ever had. … We stuck with him, worked with him, rehabbed him, we spent time in California … and he had to persevere … he is amazing, because most people would have given up. He had two allografts, and the last one he had a tendon bone graft, and I think he’s gonna play for a long time."
Coughlin gets grief sometimes for hanging onto certain players for too long, especially those the team has invested deeply in. But sometimes patience is rewarded in extra-satisfying fashion. Right now, both Thomas and the Giants are seeing that.