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Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux is more than the next potential No. 1 NFL draft pick



KAYVON THIBODEAUX SAT in Mario Cristobal’s office on a recruiting visit, searching for answers.

As the No. 1 prospect in the country, he was trying to wade through the thousands of text messages and recruiting pitches from coaches hoping to persuade him to attend their schools.

But Thibodeaux was tired of coaches telling him how they could win a championship together, or how they could help him reach the NFL. He told Cristobal he wanted to go in a different direction. What can Oregon do for Thibodeaux off the field? How can he make a difference in the community? How supportive would Cristobal be in Thibodeaux exploring his interests outside of football?

“I remember looking at him thinking, he’s got to wake up to 450,000 text messages with the same redundant recruiting blah,” Cristobal said. “And I sat there with him and had a really good conversation about the plan for him and how he wanted to prove his best to Oregon. It was about betterment, it was about working at the craft, and I thought that was huge.”

Cristobal answered his questions openly and honestly, saying the star recruit would have every opportunity to explore his dreams as long as he gave everything he had on the field.

Some college coaches questioned Thibodeaux’s love of football because of how much he spoke about his other interests and ambitions. He loves football, but he knows he has an opportunity to be a positive example for the youth in his neighborhood. He wants to have the financial stability to start a charter school for young kids, design his own shoe and be a role model for children who come from a similar background as he did in Los Angeles.

Thibodeaux led the Pac-12 in quarterback pressures (34) and quarterback hurries (27) a year ago. Though he has battled an ankle sprain as a junior this year for ninth-ranked Oregon, which hosts Cal on Friday (10:30 ET, ESPN/ESPN App), he has solidified himself as one of the top projected picks in next year’s NFL draft.

But Thibodeaux doesn’t define himself by his sport, and he hasn’t scratched the surface of what he wants to accomplish on — and especially off — the field.

“The only reason people care about this story is because of football, and the only way I’ll be able to open a school and do anything I want to do is through football,” Thibodeaux said. “I’ll never lose sight that football is what got me here and that football is the platform.”

ANTONIO PATTERSON WAS teaching at Angeles Mesa Elementary School when he saw Thibodeaux for the first time. Patterson saw him towering over all the other children and thought he was a teacher’s aide.

Thibodeaux was in the third grade.

Once he realized he was actually a student, Patterson wrote his name and number on a Little Caesar’s napkin because he ran a youth football program and thought this adult-sized child should play. He greeted Thibodeaux and his mother, and after introducing Thibodeaux to football at 8 years old, he became somewhat of a mentor on and off the field.

Patterson knew Thibodeaux was special early on. He remembers watching Thibodeaux, at nearly 6-feet tall in fifth grade, prancing out onto his elementary school’s stage, wearing a reindeer costume as Rudolph, guiding his classmates and Santa Claus in a school play.

As if he needed anything else to make him stand out among his peers, his personality and confidence shined as bright as his red nose. Even at a young age, there was always more to Thibodeaux than his size.

“I always tell him that he’s going to be the president one day, because he has the gift of gab,” Patterson said. “Growing up, I always reminded him that he was going to be the biggest person in the room, he was going to be the loudest, the most charismatic, but just make sure that the things that come out of your mouth are trustworthy. Kayvon is before his time, he understands the umbrella he has and all the people who are under him that rely on him and that umbrella.”

“The only reason people care about this story is because of football, and the only way I’ll be able to open a school and do anything I want to do is through football. I’ll never lose sight that football is what got me here and that football is the platform.”

Oregon defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux

Part of why he understands that is because he hasn’t forgotten where he came from.

Thibodeaux grew up with his mom, who was a cosmetologist who worked from home, in South Central Los Angeles, “a place where children are susceptible to negative influences,” Thibodeaux said. His dad lived across town and helped when he could. Money was tight and everyone around him was trying to get by.

Patterson used to take his son, Justin, and Thibodeaux to McDonald’s when Thibodeaux was young. Not having much money, Patterson would get each kid a salad and one chicken sandwich to split up among the three of them.

He’d go into Little Caesar’s, order a pizza and ask for the pizza to get cut twice as many times as it normally would so the kids thought they were each getting two pieces of pizza. It wasn’t until Thibodeaux got to middle school that he realized what was happening.

“He knows that if he had access to some of the things he would be able to provide, the kids around here will be fast-tracked,” Patterson said. “There was no blueprint, there was no one that came before him that reached back and gave back. But he sees the difference and what help could do, and whenever you see a difference, it brings light to the situation.”

Patterson and the coaches around him figured out very early that Thibodeaux was gifted on the field. High school coaches from Dorsey, Crenshaw and Junipero Serra were all in packed stands to see him in his under-14 league.

Thibodeaux started out at Dorsey High School, playing as a tight end and defensive end on the freshman team until the playoffs, when he played in three games on varsity. In those three games, he recorded nine sacks.

He had 17 sacks as a sophomore at Dorsey, but transferred to Oaks Christian in Westlake Village, California, to play football in 2017. He knew transferring would give him a better opportunity to achieve his goals. He grew into his position and into his body, and as he worked his way to the No. 1 ranking, his recruitment took off.

The differences between the schools and surrounding areas were night and day, as some of the students at Oak Christian drove more expensive cars than the teachers.

The annual tuition at Oaks Christian runs $37,225, and the average home price in Westlake Village is $1.2 million, according to Zillow.

“Going from [South Central] to [Oaks Christian] will show you the slated opportunities and resources available,” Thibodeaux said.

THIBODEAUX KNEW THERE was a target on his back once he got to Oregon, coming in as a five-star, all-everything, top-ranked recruit.

“He didn’t think of himself as being special and he didn’t want special treatment, nothing like that from the coaches,” Oregon offensive line coach Alex Mirabal said. “I thought that was very refreshing, and I think that’s why he’s been able to establish himself and become a heck of a football player because he’s always constantly yearning to learn.”

At the time, Oregon had a veteran offensive line group with Penei Sewell, who was selected in the first round of this year’s NFL draft, Shane Lemieux, who was picked by the New York Giants in the fifth round of the draft, and a handful of other established players.

Thibodeaux treated each practice session like a series of game situations, which at first created battles and rose tempers.

“He came in right from the start, ready to take somebody’s job,” Sewell said. “I remember one practice, he got in a little scuffle with the offensive linemen. He came ready to play, wanting to play right away.”

It was a minor mix-up that didn’t escalate to anything notable, but it was the start of Thibodeaux becoming a leader on the team and pushing his teammates to compete at the highest level.

“He really doesn’t want any more hype, he just wants to go play his best football,” Cristobal said. “He’s working right now at an ungodly rate, like what he did the other day in the weight room. That guy couldn’t squat 405 [pounds] when he got here, and yesterday he was doing single leg reverse lunges with 405 reps.

“I’ve never seen that before — that’s different.”

Thibodeaux constantly asked Mirabal about what he saw on film from the opponent’s offensive line as he scouted games. He pushed his teammates — and himself — in the weight room and on the practice field.

“I never bragged and acted like I was the guy coming in, because we all know high school means nothing,” said Thibodeaux, who led the team in sacks (three) and tackles for loss (9.5) last season. “So, it was just that it was no fear. It was, I realized that I’m here now and nobody cares how old you are. If you’re on the field, you’re playing and it better be your best.”

Thibodeaux’s charisma makes others naturally gravitate toward him, and his work ethic sets the tone for what is to be expected at Oregon. He went from being a freshman learning from veterans to a leader in the stat book as a sophomore to the team leader younger players look up to.

“Some of these freshmen are like, ‘Wow, that’s Kayvon Thibodeaux,'” Cristobal said. “His legacy is going to be how he does things, because when you’re that prominent player, there’s a large percentage of guys who are going to do exactly what you do or mimic you in some way. I think he’s realizing that, and I think that’s probably the best part.”

He still has accomplishments on the field he has yet to achieve. Thibodeaux’s first goal is to win a national championship. His second goal is to win the Heisman Trophy, which would make him only the second defensive player to do so. He’s aiming for 20 sacks and perfection.

What he doesn’t want, yet, is to think of what comes after college football.

He’s being talked about as the potential No. 1 pick in the NFL draft, but similar to his recruitment, he only sees that as hype. It’s all just a distraction that could take him off of his path and away from the goals in front of him.

“[The NFL] is so far away that I have to tackle this moment. I’ve probably realized if you take it too broad, you’ll miss everything in front of you,” Thibodeaux said. “I feel like there are a lot of stories of guys who are highly rated before the season and they look too far ahead that when the season comes, they don’t perform. Social media is fake and the hype isn’t real, so I just focus my attention on what needs my focus so my coach, my school, everything that I’ve done so far has me aligned to focus and really hone in on this season.”

Football has always been what Thibodeaux did, not who he was. Holding that mentality gave him the notion that the more success he found, the bigger the platform he would have.

EDUCATION IS A big part of Thibodeaux’s focus — he believes it is the most important way he can make a difference — and he eventually wants to start a charter school for kids, similar to LeBron James‘ I Promise School. Thibodeaux wants to show kids that come from the same situation he did that they can make it too.

He wants to start by giving grants, a scholarship fund and educational opportunities to those less fortunate, and eventually grow his efforts into a full-fledged school.

“One thing I’ve realized is what we need to change the community is the education system and with our youth in the future,” Thibodeaux said. “I’ve been having people pointing me in the right direction on how to open a school. Hopefully I’ll get in touch with LeBron one day, be able to figure out how he did it and the ups and downs he had.”

He’ll likely make enough money in the NFL to donate and give back, but the opportunity to profit off his name, image and likeness have also helped. He has partnered with United Airlines, released an NFT with Nike founder Phil Knight and designer Tinker Hatfield, and started his own cryptocurrency. All of those contracts, which amount to roughly $400,000, are helping him get closer to his goal.

“I have made two major allocations towards my foundations, the first being the piece of art created by Tinker Hatfield was auctioned off and the earnings will be put toward the foundation,” Thibodeaux said. “As of now, aside from opening a charter school, which allows underprivileged children to attend expense free, we are looking to partner with Boys and Girls clubs across America to contribute to their education and mentorship programs.”

On a recruiting visit back in high school, Thibodeaux saw Knight, a prominent Oregon alum and booster, and told him he would make his shoe one day, a bold prediction since Thibodeaux plays along the defensive line.

“A couple months later, I said, ‘Uncle Phil, when are you going to make a shoe for big, fast guys like myself,'” Thibodeaux said. “Fast forward to recently and I’ve been able to have talks with my equipment team and the team at Nike and, not necessarily create a shoe, but they’re taking my opinion on the next shoe they’re going to release and how they can make it better for guys my size.”

He has also leveraged the Oregon network to negotiate internships in broadcasting. Thibodeaux knows his football career will end one day, and he’s already trying to gain experience in the booth. COVID-19 prevented some of his opportunities — he was planning to tour a few studios within the sports media industry, as well as commentate an LAFC match.

In his mind, his life won’t only be defined by how many sacks he records or what trophies he wins. It will be defined by the impact he makes off the field.

But he also knows that football is the vehicle to give him those platforms and that he hasn’t reached the pinnacle just yet. If he wants to get that shoe deal, have the resources to start a school for underprivileged children and help his community, it will depend on what he does on the field.

That high school kid who sat in Cristobal’s office asking for opportunities probably couldn’t have imagined how quickly his off-field goals could be realized in a world of NIL and NFTs.

But he knows how those opportunities are tied to the thing he does better than just about anyone else – creating havoc in the opponents’ backfield and helping his team win games. And as the season hits the home stretch and Oregon looks to make a College Football Playoff run, Thibodeaux welcomes the outsized hype that comes with being a former No. 1 recruit and potential future No. 1 NFL draft pick.

“My expectations are higher for myself than anybody else,” Thibodeaux said. “My strength coach made a joke and said, ‘I realized what kind of person you are, that you like to tell everybody your goals, so everybody can hold you to them.’ That’s me. I’ve never shied away from a challenge and everything’s a competition, so once I realized the position I was in, I had to either win or lose.”

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Los Angeles Rams’ Matthew Stafford says toe feeling fine ahead of playoff game vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers



Los Angeles Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford doesn’t expect his injured toe to be a factor in Sunday’s divisional-round game against the Buccaneers in Tampa, Florida.

Stafford suffered the injury in the Rams’ regular-season finale against the San Francisco 49ers, a 27-24 overtime loss.

“I’m feeling OK,” Stafford said Wednesday. “The toe kind of happened in that game and that was kind of a real thing, but I got a bunch of treatment on it. I’m feeling a lot better. So I don’t see anything limiting me in this game.”

Coach Sean McVay said one of the reasons he tried to put the 49ers away with their run game near the end of regulation was because Stafford was hobbled. He said Stafford had “no limitations” Monday night against the Arizona Cardinals as the Rams leaned on their run game for much of their 34-11 wild-card victory.

Stafford was 13-of-17 passing, both easily season lows, for 202 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He also ran for a score in the first playoff victory of his 13-year NFL career.

“He felt good,” McVay said. “Everything was up and available to be called. He was feeling great.”

The Rams are uncertain about the statuses of left tackle Andrew Whitworth and safety Taylor Rapp for Sunday’s game.

Whitworth, 40, got his right knee rolled up on during the Rams’ opening play against Arizona. He played 30 of the team’s 60 offensive snaps before Joe Noteboom replaced him for the remainder of the game.

McVay said tests results haven’t indicated that the Rams need to rule Whitworth out yet. He’d be a nonparticipant if the Rams were practicing Wednesday, per McVay.

“He’s got some swelling in that knee and that ankle,” McVay said. “It’s a miracle. He’s like Gumby with the way that he got rolled up on. It was not a good looking play when you watch it on the replay. But he’s a resilient guy. He responds quickly. He’s been a quick healer. For him to be able to play and start at tackle at the age of 40 tells you everything you need to know about how blessed he is with his genetics and the way he takes care of himself.

“But we’ll see how quickly he can turn around. Not sure whether he’ll be able to go or not this week. We’ll take it a day at a time. Fortunately his scans gave us some information where we didn’t have to rule him out.”

Whitworth ranked third during the regular season in ESPN’s Pass Block Win Rate among offensive tackles.

Rapp, who missed the Cardinals game, remains in concussion protocol. His absence and Jordan Fuller‘s season-ending ankle injury prompted the Rams to bring 37-year-old Eric Weddle out of his two-year retirement last week to pad their safety depth. He played 19 of 56 defensive snaps while Nick Scott and Terrell Burgess started.

“With Rapp, we’re just taking that a day at a time,” McVay said. “The concussion protocol and kind of going through those strategic steps and making sure that when you are active, you’re not having any symptoms. Those are the things we’re working through right now and I know Taylor’s going to do everything in his power to be ready if he can.”

Cornerback David Long Jr. (knee) is “doing good,” per McVay. He returned one of the Rams’ two interceptions of Kyler Murray for a touchdown Monday night. McVay said backup running back Buddy Howell (hamstring) also would have been a nonparticipant Wednesday and that “everybody else would be in good shape” if the team was practicing.

McVay expects the Rams to designate linebacker Ernest Jones to return to practice from injured reserve on Thursday, thereby starting his 21-day window to be activated to the 53-man roster.

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Cleveland Browns QB Baker Mayfield has shoulder surgery, eyes return to ‘my true self’



Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield says he is on track to getting “back to my true self” after undergoing surgery Wednesday to repair a torn labrum in his non-throwing shoulder.

Dr. Orr Limpisvasti, the orthopedic surgeon for the NHL’s Anaheim Ducks, performed the surgery on Mayfield’s left shoulder in California.

“Surgery went great. Was a complete success,” Mayfield said in a video posted to social media. “Now it’s on to the road to recovery. It’s one of those steps to get back to my true self. … This is not the end of my story.”

The Browns said the likely time period for Mayfield’s recovery is four to six months. He will start physical therapy on his shoulder next week and is expected to be cleared by training camp, if not sooner, a source told ESPN.

Mayfield, who suffered the shoulder injury in Week 2 and played through it for the rest of the season, will begin light throwing in April and should be able to participate in the off-season program on a limited basis, the team said.

After the Browns’ Week 17 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Mayfield admitted that he was “pretty damn beat up.”

With Cleveland already eliminated from playoff contention, Mayfield sat out the team’s season finale against the Cincinnati Bengals on Jan. 9.

Even though Mayfield finished 27th in the league in QBR (35.3) this season, Cleveland general manager Andrew Berry declared last week that the Browns “fully expect” the 2018 No. 1 draft pick to be their starting quarterback in 2022 and “bounce back” from his injury-plagued season.

Mayfield will be entering the final year of his rookie contract, which will pay him close to $19 million in 2022 after the Browns exercised his fifth-year option last offseason.

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Dallas Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy says he does not see his future with team as an issue



FRISCO, Texas — Dallas Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy is operating under business-as-usual conditions after meeting twice with owner and general manager Jerry Jones following Sunday’s wild-card loss to the San Francisco 49ers.

McCarthy met with Jones immediately after the game and again on Monday and does not see his future as an issue.

“We had very positive conversations and, just, the focus is on the evaluation process,” McCarthy said.

Speaking on 105.3 The Fan on Monday, executive vice president Stephen Jones said, “absolutely,” and “very confident,” when asked whether McCarthy would return for a third season.

McCarthy has an 18-15 regular-season record in two seasons, including a 12-5 mark in 2021 that saw the Cowboys win the NFC East; however, they were the only home team to lose in the first round of the playoffs.

After a 13-year run in Green Bay, McCarthy, who has a 143-92-2 regular-season record and 10-9 playoff mark, understands the speculation.

“I think for people in this profession, it’s accepted,” he said. “It’s part of the job. I get that. I understand why you’re asking the question. It’s part of the job. You have a job to do, and I have a job to do here today in answering your questions appropriately and respectfully. But, yeah, I don’t put a lot into it because I know personally what I put into this.

“I understand what goes on here every day. I know how to win. I know how to win in this league. I know how to win playoff games. I know how to win a championship. So I have great confidence in that. What we’ve built here in two seasons, I feel very good about, and I think with that you just stay true to that. The hard part is the personal. We all have kids, so that’s the part that I don’t like. I would hope people are respectful to that.”

McCarthy, who signed a five-year contract with the Cowboys in 2020, acknowledged that the 2022 Cowboys will look a lot different from the 2021 Cowboys. Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn and offensive coordinator Kellen Moore have multiple interviews set up for open head-coaching jobs.

McCarthy did not rule out potential changes on the coaching staff whether or not Quinn and Moore stay with the team. The Cowboys have 21 players, including many key contributors, set to become unrestricted free agents, and the team also faces a challenging salary-cap situation.

Yet McCarthy said he has faith things will be better next season.

“No. 1, I trust our personnel process,” McCarthy said. “I think the collaboration [with the personnel department], just what we did last year to this year, I mean, my goodness. The change we had on defense, from a personnel and coaching staff standpoint, that was the biggest change I’ve ever been part of, both the player and coaching side. So to pull all of that together, there was a lot of hard work and a lot of credit that goes to a number of people. I have the same confidence that we’ll do that moving forward. Now, it’s going to be a challenge; I know you can’t keep everybody, but [for] every team, that’s the era that we’re in.

“We’ll go through that and count on another really excellent draft class to go with the two that we have. No, you got to remember, I’ve coached the youngest team in the league for a number of years. I have great belief in that draft and develop. This will probably hopefully be the first year that we can have a normal offseason program, so I think with that, the combination of veteran and young players we have, I think we definitely can take a step forward.”

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