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Jets rookie quarterback Sam Darnold prepares for life on — and off — the field

Sam Darnold - New York Jets
Quarterback Sam Darnold answers questions during a news conference, Friday, April 27, 2018, in Florham Park, N.J. Darnold was selected No. 3 overall by the New York Jets in the NFL football draft.
(Julie Jacobson / AP)

“Rotate!”

Sam Darnold is on the move again, following a public relations representative across a conference room at the Ritz-Carlton Marina del Rey. Kelsey Rhoney has been assigned to help Darnold navigate his paid media appearance at last week’s Gatorade athlete of the year dinner. It’s an easy assignment because Darnold is pretty much down for anything.

Next up is a sit-down with an eager interviewer who wants to play a rapid-fire game with him.

“Would you rather have more money or more time?” she asks.

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“Definitely more time,” Darnold says.

“Would you rather be stuck on an island alone or be stuck with someone who never stopped talking?”

“Probably alone.”

“Shout all the time or whisper all the time?”

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“Whisper.”

One could translate Darnold’s on-the-spot decisions to mean he is still a shy guy from San Clemente, despite his surprising, whirlwind two-year tour as USC’s quarterback and his ascension to the No. 3 pick in April’s NFL draft. If his words are true — that Darnold would enjoy more quiet time to himself — then that is probably why the New York Jets felt he had the temperament to avoid the distractions and pitfalls that come with playing the most highly scrutinized position in sports in the country’s most demanding media market.

“Really bad short-term memory or really bad long-term memory?” the interviewer continues.

“Doesn’t really bad short-term memory lead to really bad long-term memory?” Darnold says with a good-natured chuckle.

“Never lose your phone again or never lose your keys again?” she asks.

“Never lose my phone probably,” he says. “Right now, I don’t have a case on it, and it slips everywhere. If it’s in my pocket, it slips out to the couch.”

His new life can be funny sometimes. Two years ago, few outside of his family, friends and Southern California football insiders knew his name. Now, he gets paid just to be Sam Darnold.

Part of his DNA is to take everything as a learning opportunity, and he knows that part of being the Jets quarterback is handling all kinds of questions with confidence and grace. This event — Gatorade invited Darnold and other pro athletes such as Rams running back Todd Gurley, Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce, Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns, soccer star Abby Wambach and track star Sydney McLaughlin to help promote its dinner honoring the country’s top high school athletes — is about as good a prep for the randomness of Super Bowl media day as a young quarterback could ask for.

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And that is exactly where Darnold wants to be some day. But first, with Jets training camp starting this week at Rutgers University, the rookie has to beat out veteran Josh McCown and Teddy Bridgewater, a former first-round pick who hasn’t played in a game in two years because of a knee injury so severe it nearly cost him a leg.

Darnold is bright enough to know which of the three holds the most hope for Jets fans.

“I don’t really sense it when I’m on the field practicing,” he says. “I feel like one of the boys, trying to make the smart play and the right reads. But once I get off the field and get swarmed by the media, that’s kind of when I feel, ‘OK, this is a little bit different.’ My situation is not the same as a fourth-round pick, if you get what I’m saying. It’s a little bit different, being that No. 3 pick.”

Darnold has chosen to live near the Jets’ practice facility in Florham Park, N.J., during the spring and summer. He has told New York reporters that he rarely ventures into Manhattan. He wants to keep it simple. In New Jersey, he’s learning plenty about Jets fans’ trademark desperation.

“Wherever I go,” Darnold says, “I’m getting recognized because the people there, they live and breathe football. That’s all they do, and they love the Jets because, you know, the Jets haven’t won in a long time. We haven’t won a Super Bowl in I think 50 years, so the Jets fans who are out there are die-hard Jets fans. It’s like generational fandom. Whenever I go out to eat or anything, I put money on me being recognized. It’s pretty cool, but at the same time, I understand the expectations these fans have not only for me but of the whole team.”

New York media has begun its dissection of Darnold. In the past couple months, stories have been written about why USC quarterbacks largely haven’t turned out to be successful pros; whether Darnold will be a draft bust if he doesn’t win the quarterback job by Week 6; and how recently fired New York Giants coach Ben McAdoo, of all people, doesn’t like how Darnold throws a football.

There’s a sense that Darnold is the perfect guy to block out all of the noise, which will only increase in the coming weeks.

“Sam’s the most down-to-earth guy I know,” says longtime NFL scout Gil Brandt, vice president of player personnel for the Dallas Cowboys from 1960 to 1988. “If you ever want anybody to be successful, it’s him.”

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Brandt has spent a lot of time around Darnold — weeks, he says — developing a relationship over the last year through mutual friends.

“What makes a good quarterback in New York is being able to deal with the media,” Brandt says. “I think that he’ll do well in New York because he’s an even-keel guy. It’s a good fit for both the team and the player.”

Darnold is so understated that he was able to go to Las Vegas for his 21st birthday in early June with five high school friends and five college buddies and not be outed on social media. He had always wanted to do Vegas for his 21st, and the fact that he pulled it off without a Johnny Manziel-esque PR debacle was an accomplishment.

“I wasn’t really seen,” he says, “which was awesome.”

As the eyes of the football world focus on Darnold this season, it would be a kind gesture to remember just how young he is.

At last week’s event, he was asked countless times what advice he would give to the high school athletes who were being honored — including USC quarterback JT Daniels, an incoming freshman who was the Gatorade male athlete of the year winner. Darnold’s repeated response: “Continue to be yourself.” He seems to mean it.

Darnold is in town for one last chance to spend time with family and friends before camp. That he took time away to attend the event signals a change in dynamics but not a change in him.

Gatorade tries to create a red-carpet vibe, and the pro athletes are expected to look the part. Gurley and Towns stand out with Ferrari red sneakers and finely crafted blue suits. Kelce, who doubles as a reality TV star, wears a big gold belt buckle to go with his plaid suit. Wambach sports a slicked-back, bleached-blonde, faux hawk hairdo and white high-top shoes. McLaughlin has chosen a revealing black dress with shiny tassels.

Darnold looks like he could have come from a church youth group outing, wearing a dark purple sport coat with a white button-down shirt, gray khakis and brown boots.

The only comment he gets about his style is when a reporter notices that his socks feature a small pineapple logo. He laughs it off.

“He’s going to thrive in New York,” says Pac-12 Networks college football analyst Yogi Roth, who played the role of co-host with Darnold last year on his “Season of Sam” podcast. “He doesn’t seek the spotlight, but he can handle it. That’s the razor’s edge you have to live on in that city.”

Darnold didn’t know he was going to land in the Big Apple last fall when he started work on “Season of Sam.” USC sports information director Tim Tessalone approached Roth about helping him put together a “master class” for Darnold through the podcast that would help him learn to find his voice in real time. Listeners who wanted to get to know the Heisman Trophy candidate were treated each week to Darnold interviewing a guest, honing his own skill as a curious investigator.

Darnold kicked off Week 1 by quizzing Super Bowl-winning quarterback and former ESPN football analyst Trent Dilfer. By Week 10, he was leading a conversation with USC alum and comedic actor Will Ferrell.

“It was the first time in the history of college football that a quarterback who was anyone, let alone a Heisman contender, said let’s have a show and listen to me learn in that area,” Roth says. “Sam was all in. He took it as seriously as anyone. He became a great listener.”

Tessalone, Roth and USC assistant sports information director Katie Ryan went over the tape with Darnold like he was in the film room, picking apart his monotone delivery and his use of “fillers” such as “um.”

“I kind of had to change my style,” Darnold says, “be more engaged, even though I already was, but acting more engaged. A lot of people, when I’m talking to them normally, I’ll go, ‘That’s interesting,’ and they’ll be like, ‘Are you just saying that because you feel like you have to?’ I’m like, ‘No, no, I’m really interested. I just don’t express my feelings that way.’”

Darnold says that the podcast helped him better empathize with media too.

“I didn’t realize how hard your guys’ job is,” he says. “Interviewing people is hard. I’d go into a podcast with a list of questions, wanting to get every question in. I’d ask my first question, he’d say something interesting, and I would want to ask him about that. Then all of a sudden, at the end of the podcast, I had 15 questions I wanted to ask and I only got to two of them.”

Darnold hints that he will bring the podcast back, possibly as soon as his second year with the Jets. Until then, he will remain the guy stuck answering the questions, no matter how odd.

Darnold is now sitting with a reporter from “Hot New Hip Hop.”

“What about country?” Darnold jokes.

Undaunted, the reporter asks Darnold about his favorite hip-hop artists, and Darnold rattles off a few before he is asked to settle the age-old East Coast-West Coast “beef.”

“2Pac,” Darnold says. “I’ve only been on the East Coast for a little bit.”

Another reporter wants to know whether Darnold prefers In-N-Out burgers to New York pizza.

“Pizza and burgers are really different,” he says. “It depends on my mood. Right now, I could go for both. I don’t want to pick one. I don’t think it would be fair to the burger or to the pizza.”

Like a media veteran, Sam Darnold has also learned diplomacy — just in time for training camp.

brady.mccollough@latimes.com

Twitter: @BradyMcCollough


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