Drew Bledsoe remembers the feeling of standing on the Rich Stadium turf, warming up for his first professional football game and seeing Bruce Smith jog out of the tunnel.
“I was like, ‘Man, I’m in the wrong place,’ ” Bledsoe said with a laugh this week. “ ‘I don’t need to be anywhere in the vicinity of that dude.’ ”
Next came Jim Kelly, the quarterback Bledsoe had idolized. Kelly ran by, slapped Bledsoe on the butt and said, “Good luck, rook.”
“I wanted to stop and get an autograph,” Bledsoe said.
Perhaps no one can understand better than Drew Bledsoe what Jets rookie quarterback Sam Darnold will be feeling Monday night in Detroit.
Twenty-five years ago, Bledsoe was in the same position as Darnold. Until Monday night, when Darnold takes his first snap, Bledsoe had been the youngest quarterback to start a Week 1 game in the modern era.
On Sept. 5, 1993, Bledsoe was 21 years, 203 days old when he made his NFL debut against the three-time defending AFC champion Bills at Rich Stadium.
“All of these guys I had just watched a few months before in the Super Bowl,” Bledsoe said.
Darnold won’t be facing a Super Bowl team on Monday, when the Jets open the season against the Lions, but he will be in a similar situation as Bledsoe was 25 years ago and surely will have a few “wow” moments when he looks around the field. Darnold will eclipse Bledsoe as the youngest quarterback to open a season as the starter since the 1970 merger. He will be 21 years, 97 days old.
“The biggest challenge is just making sure you maintain control of your emotions,” Bledsoe said of what faces Darnold. “You just have to recognize there are going to be some setbacks. There are going to be things that don’t go your way. It’s never gone perfect for anybody in their rookie year.”
For Bledsoe, that day in Buffalo ended in a 38-14 loss. He threw two touchdowns and one interception and was sacked three times, twice by Smith. One of the sacks ended up in a Nike commercial the following season with actor Dennis Hopper talking about Smith doing “bad things, man.”
Bledsoe would go on to make the Pro Bowl in his second season, the first of four such selections, and he would win 98 games over a 14-year career.
Now living in Oregon, Bledsoe watched Darnold at USC and followed this year’s draft. He likes what he sees.
“Everything I’ve seen from him just looks like he’s mature beyond his years,” Bledsoe said. “That composure and that calmness under duress is one of the most important traits you can have as a quarterback. You have to be able to maintain your composure while everything else is going crazy around you. It seems like he’s got that.”
Bledsoe said a key Monday and early in the season for Darnold will be the Jets’ game plan. The coaches must protect him and give him easy throws until he gets used to the NFL game.
For Darnold, another challenge will be winning over veteran teammates at 21. Bledsoe remembers looking around the huddle at some teammates 10 years older than him and thinking they were “grown-ups.”
“The easiest way to do that is to just get in and do the work and show them that you’re willing to No. 1 outwork everybody else,” Bledsoe said. “That’s really important as a quarterback in general, but especially as a young quarterback that when people show up they see your car in the parking lot and when they leave the parking lot in the afternoon, they see your car is still there.”
In addition, Bledsoe said Darnold needs to show the veterans respect and be humble but also project a belief in himself without being cocky.
“Along with that humility, you also have to be able to exude extreme confidence in what you’re able to do,” Bledsoe said.
So far, Darnold has done just that. Bledsoe said he has been impressed with Darnold, but the key to the future is what the Jets do now that they have him.
“I think he’s going to be a good player in the league for a long time,” Bledsoe said. “I hope, hope, hope that the Jets take care of him and surround him with the right pieces to be successful. Ultimately, that’s what it comes down to.”
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