Niko Lalos ’20 forces turnovers in first two NFL games, earns Giants contract

by Will Ennis | 12/10/20 2:00am

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Niko Lalos '20 (57) is cheered on by his New York Giants teammates after recording an interception in his NFL debut.

Source: New York Giants/Matthew Swensen via the Dartmouth Athletics Department

In four seasons with the Big Green, defensive end Niko Lalos ’20 recorded one interception and one fumble recovery. In the two games since the New York Giants elevated Lalos off their practice squad at the end of November, he has already matched those totals, forcing a pair of clutch turnovers in back-to-back weekends. 

After securing an official spot on New York’s 53-man roster on Tuesday, Lalos will have a chance to build off of an impressive start to his NFL career. He is the first Dartmouth alumnus to play in the NFL since Casey Cramer ’04 finished off his career in 2008 with the Tennessee Titans. 

The undrafted rookie’s first NFL action came in the Giants’ Nov. 29 Week 12 matchup against the Cincinnati Bengals. Lalos only learned the day before that the Giants had promoted him to the active roster. He said that he had started “getting a couple reps” with the active squad in practice in the preceding days, but he was not informed of the official decision until that Saturday.

“It was exciting, pretty surreal,” Lalos said. “It didn't really hit me until I walked in the locker room and saw the jersey with my name on it, and then I was like, ‘Alright, this is it. This is actually happening.’”

At the end of the third quarter, with New York leading 13-10, backup Cincinnati quarterback Brandon Allen dropped back at his team’s 32-yard line to throw the ball. The pass was disrupted by rookie corner Darnay Holmes and looked to be falling incomplete when Lalos, on one of his eight defensive snaps, came off of his pass rush and made a heads-up diving grab to secure the interception.

Play-by-play announcer Kevin Kugler called it the “biggest defensive play of the day” in a game that proved to be a defensive slugfest after an injury to Giants quarterback Daniel Jones hampered the offense. Lalos’ third quarter snag led to a field goal and a 16-10 Giants lead, making up the difference in their 19-17 win.

“I think a lot of good programs, regardless of level, teach hustle and 11 hats to the football,” Lalos said. “That definitely holds true, even at the highest level, and it worked out for me just going with what I know to do, and it ended up putting me in the right place at the right time to catch the ball.”

Dartmouth football head coach Buddy Teevens ’79 said that his phone was “blowing up” with messages from people excited about Lalos’ play. He praised Lalos for his effort and work ethic.

“It was special, and he's such a good individual, just a good guy,” Teevens said. “And a lot of people, football players, non-football players know him and certainly pull for a guy like that.”

Lalos’ interception was not his first pivotal pick against a team wearing orange and black with a big cat for a mascot. Battling the reigning champion Princeton University Tigers at Yankee Stadium on Nov. 9, 2019, Lalos started off the scoring with a pick-six, netting the first points of his career in a 27-10 Dartmouth win to keep the team undefeated at 8-0. 

In the final game of that season against Brown University, Lalos notched seven stops and two sacks — tying career highs — to help Dartmouth win a share of the 2019 Ivy League Championship. That season, Lalos earned spots on the Division I All-New England Team, the All-Ivy League First Team and Phil Steele’s All-Ivy League First Team. 

Matt Kaskey ’19, who was called up from the Carolina Panthers’ practice squad late last season but did not debut and is back on their practice squad this season, talked about the challenging expectation to contribute right after being called up. He called Lalos’ ability to make such a big play in his first NFL action “a testament to [his] process” in staying mentally and physically prepared.

It wasn’t just the Dartmouth football world that took note of Lalos’ debut.

Before the game, Los Angeles Lakers’ superstar and Finals Most Valuable Player LeBron James, an alumnus of the same high school as Lalos — St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron, Ohio — gave Lalos a shoutout on Twitter to wish him “good luck” in his first game.

Lalos said that the Giants’ staff discourages players from using their phones shortly before game time, so he wasn’t aware of the tweet until his teammates told him about it after the win.

“I thought they were messing with me, and they showed me their phone and I was like, ‘Oh wow,’” Lalos said. “At first I thought it was a burner — a fake account — like someone trolling me. But then it ended up being real, and it was really cool to see that and just feel that support and recognition.” 

New York returned Lalos to the practice squad following his debut, but he received a call back up six days later before New York’s next matchup against the heavily favored Seattle Seahawks. 

NFL teams are only permitted to call a player up from the practice squad two times before exposing him to waivers, so the Dec. 6 game was his final opportunity to earn a spot on the Giants’ 53-man active roster.

In the second quarter, trailing 3-0, Lalos showed off his football instincts yet again, diving on a snap fumbled around the 50-yard line by Pro-Bowl quarterback Russell Wilson to recover possession for New York. Lalos played 26 defensive snaps and added two tackles en route to a 17-12 upset and a four-game winning streak.

“Playing the game you love, [when] you get to make a play and come up big for your team, it's always exciting, no matter how many times it happens,” Lalos said. “I feel like if you ask anyone, I don't think anyone gets tired of making plays, especially at this level. “

Taking a page from the pride of St. Vincent-St. Mary, Lalos mimicked James’ iconic “chalk toss” pregame ritual in a celebration with his teammates after recovering the football. James responded on Twitter with a message telling Lalos to “keep going.” 

After Lalos secured two defensive turnovers in crucial wins for the Giants as they fight for sole position atop the NFC East, New York officially signed Lalos to the active roster on Tuesday.

“[Lalos] is going to be just as humble as he's always been … but [he will] get right back to work,” Teevens said. “It was a wonderful moment, wonderful opportunity for him, for his family, for Dartmouth and Dartmouth football, so we're appreciative, and we're anxious to follow his career.” 

For Lalos’ part, he said that he looks forward to continuing to help the team in any way he can.

“I'm just taking it one day at a time, and wherever they need me, I step in and do my best,” Lalos said. “Honestly, on my end, I'm just focused on getting better each day. … Whenever the opportunity arises, I'll try and seize it.”

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