When will it all hit Jacob Bender, that this red-bearded, Bunyanesque, 22-year-old babe of an offensive lineman from Mayo, Md., by way of Thibodeaux, La., is about to make his NFL debut for the Jets against the New England Patriots on opening day today?
Bender said Friday, as he came off the Weeb Ewbank Hall practice field, that it smacked him upside the head the night before.
"Watching the game last night, I was saying, 'Man, I can't believe this,' " he said of the Colts-Saints game that kicked off the league's 88th season. "I can't even explain it, really. I'm excited ... I'm thankful."
One thing Bender does not appear to be is overwhelmed. The last two weeks of interviews and attention since head coach Eric Mangini and his staff elevated the rookie to starting status in the final two preseason games seemed to leave him not befuddled but rather bemused.
"I never got interviewed that much at Nicholls State, just every now and then," he said. "It's different, but it's good. I'm building a reputation and all."
That reputation will get an immediate kickstart one way or another beginning today. Whether he starts or not, Bender knows the Patriots will be coming after him.
"That's in the game plan," he said at midweek. "They like to find weaknesses and limit strengths. I'm sure they probably will."
Steve Serby, the legendary New York Post football writer, turned in an insightful column on Bender late in the week and said he was impressed with the person he interviewed.
"I thought Jacob was as ready as any rookie could possibly be," Serby told me Saturday. "He sounded like he fit so many of the Mangini/Tannenbaum traits. It was just his character off the field — and he loves football. He's really just sharp, nice and very secure. One TV reporter asked him if he was overwhelmed by it all and he said, 'No, I'm not overwhelmed. It's football.' "
It's still up in the air as to whether Bender will become the youngest Jets opening day starter since Dewayne Robertson in 2003 and their youngest opening day O-line starter since at least 1990. No, he didn't work exclusively with the first offense in the past week, but even Mangini said as much Friday when asked about the communication level among the different cast members.
"It was different guys working together throughout the course of practice," the coach said. "I like the way Brandon Moore, Anthony Clement, Nick [Mangold], D'Brickashaw [Ferguson], and whether it's been Jacob, Adrien [Clarke], Wade [Smith] or whoever it is, they're working together, they're working with Chad [Pennington], they're working with Thomas [Jones] and Leon [Washington]. I've seen some strides in the overall level of communication."
So if anyone tells you he or she knows who'll be playing left guard today and into the regular season, don't believe them. It still could be Bender, Clarke or Smith — or, from the coach who brought us four different right corner starters last year and rotated them in the base defense throughout games, some combination during the course of today's opener.
Clarke, who began the post-Pete Kendall era as the left guard starter, is ready if and when called on.
"Honestly, my thoughts right now are on just staying focused," Clarke said. "I want to get out there and get off to a good start, be a piece to this whole puzzle."
The same with Bender, who said the largest crowds he played in front of at Nicholls were about 10,000 strong. Whatever happens, it just doesn't feel as if he'll be intimidated by the 78,000 in the Meadowlands or the myriad of blitz packages or the Patriots' status as four-time defending AFC East titlists and three-time Super Bowl champions in this millennium or his status as a sixth-round rookie making his pro debut.
"Yeah, it's going to be awesome just being out there," he said. "The Patriots are a great team in the NFL, and it's going to be great to play against them and see how things work out. I'm excited. I'm pumped up."
And that, after all, is what you want from everyone on opening day.
For one more look at the Jets-Patriots game release, click here.