Back in June, as OTAs were winding down, with training camp a month away and the start of the 2022 NFL season still on the horizon, the Jets' wily veteran linebacker C.J. Mosley was asked about the team's top draft pick -- the long and lean cornerback out of Cincinnati who a reporter called "Sauce."
"I was laughing when you said his name," Mosley said then. "His name is Ahmad. We're not calling him Sauce as a rookie. Once he makes a play we'll give him Sauce. Sauce is for the fans. He's just pure raw talent."
Defensive end Carl Lawson echoed the Green & White's defensive captain when he posted that Gardner "is going to have to EARN the Sauce nickname, until he plays & balls out, then we'll call him Sauce, but he's Ahmad right now."
Now, 15 games into Gardner's first professional season, perhaps no one except his mom in Detroit refers to him as Ahmad. From the get-go, the Jets official roster listed him as Sauce Gardner, the moniker found on the Madden NFL video game.
Gardner was recently named a starter for the Pro Bowl, becoming one of three rookie CBs to start in the Pro Bowl since the NFL-AFL merger more than 50 years ago (the others were Everson Walls and Ronnie Lott in 1981). He will also be one of only 13 rookies on defense to start in the Pro Bowl. Finally, he's the youngest Jets player (based on a player's age on Sept. 1) selected for the event in franchise history.
All of that -- and more -- might come as a revelation to another rookie. But not the guy who has shown enough to be referred to by a single name: Sauce.
"I had three goals," Gardner told Eric Allen on this week's edition of "The Official Jets Podcast." "Pro Bowl, Defensive Rookie of the Year and All-Pro. I remember getting asked my goals and I didn't even know how big each was. I knew Defensive Rookie of the Year, I remember how I used to watch Jalen Ramsey saying I'm this and that. I wanted the Pro Bowl, that's big. And All-Pro, everybody can't make that."
Playing opposite veteran CB D.J. Reed (who will be returning to Seattle for Sunday's game, along with a pair of former Seahawks, OL Duane Brown and George Fant), Gardner has lived up to the expectations that go with being the No. 4 overall selection in last April's NFL Draft. At present, he leads the NFL in pass defenses (16). He has a pair of interceptions and boasts a 63.9 opposing passer rating when targeted. Those last two words are key: when targeted.
"It means a lot to be able to do what I do as a rookie, but you have to keep staying humble," Gardner said. "When you get too complacent, that's when teams start going at me. Coming in I expected to be targeted, for guys to go at me each and every week because I'm a rookie. In some games I didn't really get tried. I didn't know it would be like that. It's a great sign of respect for me."
Over the Christmas weekend, with the Jets off after playing Jacksonville the previous Thursday night, Gardner was able to return to his hometown of Detroit to be with his family and spread some love, especially to his mom.
"My city loves me," he said. "Growing up on the East Side of Detroit, they always loved me. My family probably had the best Christmas ever thanks to the NFL, the Jets and the game of football. I'm honored so much. Things my family wanted I was able to make that happen. I'm truly blessed for that."
He said that he bought mink coats for his mom and grandmother.
"They always wanted one when I was growing up," he said. "That's about it. She has everything, she's living the dream for sure."
Part of that dream was to counsel and admonish Gardner about growing up in the Seven Mile area, what he called the "toughest section" of Detroit's East Side.
"I carry a lot with me," Gardner said. "I had never lived outside Detroit, always on the East Side, I lived in the toughest area. There was a lot of violence going on. It's why my mom is my role model and my superhero. She was strict, she wanted me to be on a different path. She would tell me about my friends and ask what are you going to do to be different.
"I said I was never going to smoke or drink and I never did and I still never have. I pride myself on stuff like that. Peer pressure in college, you know, come on, just take a drink. But I'm a man of my word and it's why I appreciate my mom so much. She's been able to guide me on the right path."
For all his current accolades and for being part of the Jets' four-man starting contingent at the Pro Bowl (along with LB C.J. Mosley, DT Quinnen Williams and ST Justin Hardee), Gardner said that Reed, his running mate at cornerback across the field, is more than worthy of being selected. Reed is an alternate.
"It hurt me," Gardner said referring to Reed. "As much as it being one of my individual goals, if I could I'd want him to go. He's been in league longer than me, the way he approaches the game, the plays he's made. I'd give my Pro Bowl to him. He works so hard, busts his tail every week. I feel like he's the biggest snub. It hurt me seeing he was alternate." He added: "At Seattle this week, I know it's going to be personal for him. If it was me, I know it'd be personal. He's up to the challenge."
While Gardner and his teammates watched games last weekend and realized that their playoff hopes are still alive, he said that the message for HC Robert Saleh has been clear and consistent.
"Coach Saleh always talks to us about knowing where feet are, one day, one week at a time," he said. "Definitely just keep chopping wood every day, watching film, not getting to ahead of ourselves."