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Oct 30, 2021; Eugene, Oregon, USA; Oregon Ducks defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux (5) walks off the field after a game against the Colorado Buffaloes Autzen Stadium. The Ducks won the game 52-29. Mandatory Credit: Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

SANTA MONICA, Calif. — Kayvon Thibodeaux has been playing football since he was in the second grade, but his desire to play in the NFL didn’t materialize until the summer between his freshman and sophomore years in high school.

“It was summertime,” he recalled. “I got a call from one of my coaches telling me that rankings were going to come out and I was going to be named the No. 1 player in the country. At the time, I didn’t really have an idea what it meant. So I had questions — Who’s ranking me? And what do these rankings mean?

“That was my first idea that — wow — the NFL would be possible.”

After starring at Oaks Christian School as the nation’s top high school recruit and living up to those lofty expectations as an All-American edge rusher at Oregon, the 21-year-old Thibodeaux is well on his way to making his NFL dream come true. He has spent the last two months preparing for the NFL Scouting Combine under the supervision and guidance of trainer Travelle Gaines at his Main Street gym, Athletic Gaines, tucked away amid all the coffeehouses and boutique shops.

Each week, Gaines says Thibodeaux has trained from 7:30 a.m. to “three or four o’clock” in the afternoon, working out three times a day — Monday through Saturday — to get “ready for the biggest moment.” On Wednesday, Thibodeaux will board a 6 a.m. flight to travel to Indianapolis to take that crucial first step in the draft process. When he returns next week, he will resume his training to prepare for Oregon’s pro day on April 1.

“He’s very, very ambitious and he’s very competitive, so we wanted to make sure that we challenged him every day and managed his expectations,” Gaines said of the focus of his workout regimen for Thibodeaux, a consensus top-five pick in NFL mock drafts. “And the biggest thing for Kayvon was to make sure he showed up (in Indianapolis) the best version of Kayvon — him being the strongest he can be, the fastest he can be.”

Thibodeaux will participate in all of the testing drills at the combine, according to Gaines. “Which, at this day and age, is kind of rare for a top player, but he wants to compete at every level,” he added. “And in every step of the way, he’s enjoying the process. He’s really excited to get to Indianapolis. … He’s ready to get to work.”

Gaines said Thibodeaux has been “steady with everything” in all of the drills. “So he’s slightly improved 1% every day in everything,” he added.

Gaines trains some of the NFL Draft’s top prospects every year. How does Thibodeaux compare?

“He’s a mix of two players that I’ve had,” Gaines said. “He’s a mix of, from an intelligence standpoint, Andrew Luck, who I had for the 2012 draft. (Like Luck), he asks a lot of questions, and he’s a student of the game — picks up stuff and is a very fast learner.

“From an athletic standpoint, he reminds me a lot of another guy who I had in 2017 — Myles Garrett. … Myles is a little bigger than Kayvon, but he reminds me of him from a competitive and just an athletic standpoint.”

On Tuesday, Thibodeaux talked to Bally Sports about how he’s prepared for the combine, who he idolized growing up, why “legacy” meant so much to him at Oregon and what his NFL goals are — in the short and long term.

Answers have been edited lightly for clarity.

It’s the week of the combine and you’ll be talking to NFL teams. You’re closer to your dream now. What are your thoughts going into this week?

I mean, I’m blessed. I feel like God has kind of shaped my life for this opportunity. I’m honestly just excited. I’m happy. I’m ready. I feel like I’ve really cultivated those seeds from way back then, and now I’m ready to eat the fruits of that hard labor.

What do you want to showcase the most — of your skill set or game — when you go through the workouts?

Well, see, the workouts, it’s not really football. It’s more about being strong, being fast, being smart. So really, I want to show I am the strongest, fastest, most athletic guy at my position and, not only that, but I’m the smartest (too). I can really break down a playbook. I can talk to coaches. I can sell myself as a player, as an athlete and as a young man going into a new organization.

So is that the big goal — to establish yourself as THE best edge rusher at the combine?

Yeah, I think that is always the goal. The competition. Being the best. I feel like none of us would really be in it if we weren’t trying to be the best. Just being able to prove that and being able to the show the hard work and the growth and whatever they thought what were my deficiencies are now my strong suits. Doing that and then being able to show them that I do have immense love for the game, I have a love for competition, I have a love for growing and sharpening my tools.

What do you want NFL teams to know about you that they might not have known before?

That this is bigger than me. And I understand that. When I say “this,” I mean me going to the NFL. I’m doing it to change the scope of my family forever. I don’t take that lightly. Just coming into it, I want them to know that I take as much pride playing for the organization as I do in my own skill set and my own life.

Is that the type of lasting impression you want to give them? Is there anything else that you want to leave them with when you walk out of the interview room?

I would say that I want them to know that, not only am I able to be taught, not only am I coachable, but I also want to teach and mentor other people. So, not only are you getting a guy who’s able to learn from the best or learn from people who are older and wiser, but I’ll also share it with the guys who are younger and following in my footsteps.

Who were your idols growing up?

I didn’t really watch that much football growing up. I’d say my mom. My mom was probably my biggest idol growing up. Just for the fact that she worked so hard, that she sacrificed so much — just for me. When you see somebody, day in and day out, sacrifice everything that they have for someone else and do everything they can to make sure I have a better life, it only … that’s why I said it’s bigger than me. For me now, it’s paying that back and to the kids that are coming after me whose moms are in the same circumstance as I was. … I’m going to make a statement with everything I put into football.

What single word best describes your 2021 season at Oregon? And why?

I wouldn’t say it’s one word. … Well, I’d say it’s “legacy.” I say legacy because a lot of people don’t understand what the true meaning of legacy is. Legacy is how other people view you. People don’t really realize that. A mentor of mine, Antonio Patterson, he always tells me that a moment in my life I probably only remember for only so long, right? But that same moment, someone could remember it for the rest of their lives. And that’s your legacy. It’s what you leave other people with once you leave the room. So, for me, I knew that was going to be my last year and that was the plan the whole time for that to be my last year. I really focused on the impact that I have on my teammates and on the culture of Oregon, of Oregon football. So just being able to have guys look up to me, to really lead, blaze a trail for those guys. It’s been a blessing. And now this will be that top of the mountain, this will be that cherry on top, to just go on and showcase everything that me and those guys back at Oregon have put into it.

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How much did you pay attention to all the talk about the draft, where you might go in it? Was it a distraction?

I don’t think it was a distraction. Because the biggest thing about it is that it’s always the elephant in the room and no one likes to address the elephant in the room. For me, I looked at it as entertainment. I never let it get to my head. It’s all projections. It’s all what people think. So the biggest way to have an impact on what people think is to do the work. I’ve just been trying to do the work and I’ve been trying really stick to what’s gotten me here. Talking about it has never gotten anyone anywhere. It’s all about what you do and the work that you put in. No, I haven’t really let it affect me. And, at the end of the day, you can only control what you can control. You’ll drive yourself crazy focusing on things that you can’t control.

But does it matter where you go in the draft, to be one of the top picks?

Obviously, it matters. For me, it’s about history. I always talk about you make history or you be history. Not only is it important to me where I get picked — obviously, I would love to be the No. 1 pick — but then it’s also about circumstance. I’ve talked to a lot of pro guys, and they talk about the pick you go really doesn’t matter. It’s about the situation and circumstances that you become a part of. At the end of the day, I hope that God lands me in a circumstance that would be good for me and good for my team and puts me somewhere where I can be an impact to the team and where they can really impact my growth.

How should the NFL team that’s lucky enough to draft you get the most out of you?

I love hard coaching. I love a coach who pushes a person beyond their limits. I’m going to be a guy where, if I don’t feel like I’m being pushed beyond my limits, I’ll voice that and I’ll try to see what I can do to do more. Not just that and the hard work, but I guess rushing the passer. I love rushing the passer and I love setting edges. I feel like that’s kind of what I was born to do. As much as I can rush the passer and set edges — now coverage is great — but there’s nothing like owning that line of scrimmage. Most games are won at the line of scrimmage. Obviously, I would just love to stay on the line of scrimmage and set edges and rush the passer.

What’s the short-term goal for you in the NFL? And what’s the long-term goal?

The short-term goal is to, obviously, be a part of a team and gain the trust of other players — to become a leader. I feel like I have a lot of great leadership qualities. I have a lot of great wisdom that I have, and I know I am a guy who learns fast. Once I get there, I’ll not only be able to learn the ins and outs of the team and the organization, but then I’ll be able to have an impact on the other guys around me. Probably becoming a leader on the team is one of my first goals. And then another goal would be to become a starter. We talk about what happens if you don’t become a starter; I feel like I’ll still be able to work my way up. I’m a guy who loves the truth. I’ll figure out what it is and what it’s going to take for me to move up, and I’m going to learn from older guys. So regardless of what happens with my playing time or how much I play, I’m going to keep growing and learning. And then moving on, I would love to be Defensive Rookie of the Year. That’s the whole goal — to be the most dominant player in my class again.

How eager are you to get to draft night?

I’ve tried to really be calm. Calm before the storm. I know that once I am drafted everything will ramp back up, so I’m really trying to enjoy this moment. There aren’t too many times where you can just work out and just be around guys. Most of the guys at the combine will be guys I’ve seen for years and years, and we all have a mutual respect for each other. So that will be fun. Really, I’m just trying to enjoy the time. I really don’t want to rush it. It’s only two months. It’s going to go by in a blink regardless, but just being able to enjoy that time and really soak in the moment.

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