Mono to mensa: Sam Darnold ready for next challenge — Bill Belichick


FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — When the New York Jets last played on Monday Night Football, only five weeks ago, Sam Darnold was at his New Jersey apartment, hanging out with his parents in the family room and eating take-out Italian. No offense to Dad and Mom, who were visiting and spent part of the day stocking his refrigerator with microwavable bowls of Mom’s homemade chicken noodle soup, but this wasn’t his idea of cool.

He belonged at MetLife Stadium, 30 miles away, but the 22-year-old quarterback was fighting mononucleosis, not the Cleveland Browns. The frustration and helplessness formed a volatile mix, and it exploded when his replacement, Trevor Siemian, suffered a grotesque ankle injury. Darnold went to his bedroom, shut the door and, after a few seconds of silence, screamed. Then he went MMA on his pillow.

When he finally was allowed back in the team’s facility a few days later, Darnold tried to be a resource to his replacement’s replacement, Luke Falk, but he was told by the medical staff that he couldn’t spend long hours in the building. Go home and rest, they told him. He made a fuss, insisting he was fine. When he finally relented, he went back to his apartment and slept for three hours. He was not fine.

It was a painstaking process, one that included naps, long walks, stationary biking, ultrasounds, blood tests, more naps, smoothies and a lot of chicken noodle soup, but Darnold’s nightmare ended two Sundays ago in spectacular fashion. With one completion, and then another and another, he reenergized his forlorn franchise, upsetting the Dallas Cowboys 24-22 for the Jets’ first win.

“As a young kid at that position — I won’t even say kid, I’ll say young man — sometimes it can get tough on you,” said well-traveled wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, who has played with Peyton Manning and Deshaun Watson. “To be able to come back and click on his first day back, I was amazed. I was excited.”

That Darnold was able to return so quickly from mono, and play so well after only six practices, was a tribute to his preparation and natural instincts for the position. Because mono is rare in the NFL, it was uncharted territory, with an undercurrent of potential danger. Reporters questioned him about his spleen size and whether he was worried about a rupture. (Unbeknownst to the public, his spleen had returned to its normal size the previous week, but he was held out against the Philadelphia Eagles because his blood test didn’t pass muster.)

He eventually conquered the illness, but now another challenge awaits, another viral threat that has been known to debilitate young quarterbacks.

Bill Belichick.

Big-play ability needed vs. Patriots

Darnold will have his first real test against the New England Patriots (6-0) on Monday at MetLife (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN). He faced the Patriots last season, but it was a Week 17 clunker that involved a lame-duck coach (Todd Bowles was fired later that night), a skeleton lineup and a host of players who had already mentally checked out. In other words, he never had a chance. The Jets lost 38-3.

The circumstances are much different this time, as the Jets (1-4) — rejuvenated by Darnold — have a chance to play their way back into contention. It won’t be easy against the Patriots, who are putting up historic defensive numbers. Consider this: They have 14 interceptions and only one touchdown pass allowed.

“Their defense is good — they have been all year — but just like any other team, they’re not unbeatable,” said Darnold, displaying a hint of bravado.

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