EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – The Big Apple offers its share of distractions. But nowadays, playing for the New York Giants seems like a distraction in itself.
A year after Tiki Barber made his midseason announcement that he would be retiring at season's end, Michael Strahan's absence from training camp has become a big headache. It's getting to the point that Giants players are wondering: Who really wants it?
"Everybody gets the deal with (Strahan)," a Giants player said. "He's not doing anything wrong, we all get that. But it's like, can't we get through training camp without a problem? Last year was stupid with all the Tiki stuff and now we have this. It's like, we need total focus. We could be something really good if we had that."
In short, the Giants have the look of a team looking for leadership, a good player who makes sacrifices for the benefit of the team.
Enter Mathias Kiwanuka, the team's first-round pick in 2006 and a unique individual. Kiwanuka, remembered most during his rookie season for wrapping up but not sacking Vince Young in a loss to the Titans, is providing a big boost to the defense by moving from end to strong-side linebacker. And while the transition has been a struggle early thus far, the organization is sold that the move will work.
"He's getting there because he's a good football player, but it takes time to learn the instincts of playing linebacker," said former Pro Bowl linebacker Jessie Armstead, who is working with the Giants as an assistant in training camp. "It's not always going to look pretty."
Ugly would be a more apt description. On the opening drive of last Saturday's preseason game against Carolina, the Panthers went 81 yards, including 60 on the ground. The Giants were gashed for runs of 9, 15 and 21 yards. In each case, Kiwanuka was out of position.
"He should have been a little quicker to get lined up," said coach Tom Coughlin, who called the effort "typical" of a young player at a new position. "All those things are correctible."
While the muscles in Kiwanuka's face tightened with every question about the game, he admitted that the performance was subpar.
"You just have to not get frustrated and stay focused and that's where I'm at," said Kiwanuka, who registered four sacks last season. "I'm still focused and I know that I'll have all the adjustments done by the time we get to the regular season."
If Kiwanuka can learn that, perhaps he can become the type of leader the Giants need.
"He's quiet right now, but I see it in him," Armstead said. "As he gets confident in playing his position, he'll get stronger in his personality. He's a young guy still and needs to prove it, but it's there."
If family history is any indication, it's only a matter of time before Kiwanuka emerges as a leader. His grandfather, Benedicto Kiwanuka, was the first prime minister of Uganda and protested dictator Idi Amin's disregard for the rule of law before being murdered by Amin's regime in 1972.
This summer, the younger Kiwanuka visited Uganda for the first time since childhood. He came away with uncommon perspective.
"It was a great experience to be back there with my family, to actually see where my mother and father grew up and see lots of close relatives," said Kiwanuka, who spent approximately three weeks there. "It was humbling … when you see the simplicity of life and the things that we take for granted as necessities of life, fundamental and then you realize that they aren't necessarily essential to life, that's the humbling part."
Kiwanuka's time in Uganda piqued his interest in the country. In his locker at Giants Stadium is a book titled "Uganda Since Independence: A Story of Unfulfilled Hopes."
The Giants are hoping that Kiwanuka's development will keep the same subtitle from being used to describe their season.
- Benedicto Kiwanuka