The New York Jets loaded up three buses for Thursday's "Jerseys Off Their Backs" event and headed into the communities surrounding their home at the Atlantic Health Jets Training Center. It was reminiscent of a grade-school field trip; only the players didn't start singing "The Wheels on the Bus."
Nearly the entire team and several coaches, including head coach Rex Ryan, poured into the towns of Florham Park, Madison and Morristown, visiting various small businesses in groups of two and three and donating their signed jerseys.
"We're just trying to get out in the community and let them know how proud we are of just being a part of this community," said Ryan. "With our facilities and everything else, we just thought it would be a good idea to get out to some of the businesses and we're proud of the people we have in our organization."
They shared food, drinks and some laughs with the employees of these establishments as well as any customers who happened to be around.
"It's good because sometimes, with your players, they see them on the field and all that stuff, but they don't see them out in the community as much," said Ryan, "and we just thought it would be a good time for all of us to get out there during the day and rub elbows with 'em."
The experience was unique even for Jets fullback Tony Richardson, who is entering his 15th NFL season.
"This is a first and I think it was a great idea," said Richardson, who spent his time at Anthony's Pizza & Pasta in Morristown. "Just seeing the fans' faces — they asked us, 'What are you guys doing?' and we told them, 'Today' is Jerseys Off Our Back Day and we just wanted to come out and say thank you to the fans, the ones who support us' — it was pretty humbling just to see their reactions.
"I had a chance to meet a gentleman there today who was a season ticket holder for 44 years. His son, Rudy, runs the restaurant now. I met his grandson — lifelong Jets fans. So that was actually pretty awesome."
New Jets safety Jim Leonhard regretted having eaten prior to the event, as his teammates, Marcus Henry and Stanley Daniels, enjoyed their meals on the house at Morristown's Grasshopper Off The Green.
"It's very good, very, very cool," said Brian Fitzpatrick, the pub and restaurant's owner. "A lot of the guys come in on their own time as well, which is real, real good, so it's good to see some new faces in and get them to know Morristown."
"With football," said Leonhard, "generally, they just see you on the field or on TV, so it's nice to get out and get to know people in the community."
One fan asked Leonhard to autograph her ball and hat before continuing through the streets of Morristown, meeting as many Jets and getting as many signatures as she could before her lunch break ended.
"My husband and son are big fans," said Susanne, who works at a local bank and lives in East Windsor, N.J. "They sent me out to get the autographs. I think it's a very nice gesture to help support the local businesses. They're very pleasant and very forthcoming and approachable."
With the players' jerseys signed and already hanging up in some of the stores, the team got back on the buses and excitedly exchanged stories about their experiences.
"It was a blast," Mark Sanchez, who helped serve coffee to customers at a Florham Park Dunkin Donuts, told the Daily Record, the local newspaper in Morris County. "You get to mix it up with the local people. That's what being a Jet is all about."