The diner resembled so many others peppering New Jersey. Garrett Wilson held high expectations as he climbed from an idling S.U.V. This was Sopranos country, after all, where bottomless menus and bustling service await every eager lunchtime patron.
“You know it’s good if cops eat here,” Wilson said, motioning to a police vehicle stationed outside the Hackensack restaurant. Wilson walked inside, where he was quickly greeted by a lengthy sit-down counter, checkered floors and the sound and scent of sizzling meat.
In last year’s whirlwind of a rookie season, Wilson established himself as a rarity — a young, dynamic Jets wide receiver who possesses the type of sticky hands unseen since the days of Keyshawn Johnson. Jets Coach Robert Saleh describes Wilson as a “juicy route-runner,” one who finds open space because of his sharp breaks and cuts. “He’s so powerful that when he is running his routes, it looks like he can break four different ways and he gets people on his heels,” Saleh said.
He had not, during his debut year, stopped at a signature New Jersey diner.
Wilson, 23, regiments his life around football, opting to live a short drive from the Jets’ facility in Florham Park, N.J., and, in an unusual move for a new pro, settling in without any family members or friends as roommates.
“The reality of it is, that stuff is a distraction,” he said. “I got a big family, so if I bring my family in the house, all of a sudden, I got six people in the house and six different minds in the house, who want to maybe want to go out on this day, maybe want to have someone over on this day.”
But that unpredictability intruded on the field last year, as the Jets shuffled through Zach Wilson, Joe Flacco and Mike White at quarterback. (And who can forget the indomitable Chris Streveler?)
Garrett Wilson, whom the organization plucked with the 10th overall pick in the 2022 draft, was a dependable target no matter who lobbed him the ball, spiraling or fluttering. He listened to veteran stewardship, adjusting as defenses keyed on him, and earned first downs on 56 of his 83 receptions. His 83 receptions and 1,103 yards helped him become the first Jet to earn offensive rookie of the year honors.
“He’s one of those guys who’s intrinsically motivated,” Saleh said of Wilson. “He’s got a great head on his shoulders. Everything for him is all ball, all day, every day, and he’s just one of those kids, everything he does in life is to be the best version of himself every day.”
The Jets surged before stumbling and slipping out of the playoff race. When the Sacramento Kings clinched an N.B.A. playoff spot in March, the Jets’ 12-year postseason drought became the longest across all four major men’s North American professional sports. But Aaron Rodgers saw enough in the Jets to wrest himself free of the Packers, who in the past drew the quarterback’s ire for not drafting a young receiver like Wilson.
In Green Bay, Rodgers once formed a dynamic pairing with Davante Adams, the receiver who was named an All-Pro in 2020 and 2021, seasons in which Rodgers won the Most Valuable Player Award. Wilson and Adams share the same jersey number and possibly more.
“Davante is in a class by himself,” Rodgers said. “But that 17 reminds me of the other 17.”
Adams, entering his second year with the Las Vegas Raiders, chimed in after Rodgers and Wilson connected on a training camp reception. Rodgers, scrambling, found Wilson at the back of the end zone. Wilson, his back turned to Rodgers, plucked the ball from the sky with his right hand before collapsing to the ground. “These 2 bouta act up this year,” Adams commented in a social media repost of the video.
A waitress approached Wilson’s booth. He ordered a chicken wrap.
No one at the diner recognized the budding star, the player key to unlocking many of the expectations swirling around the Rodgers-led Jets. Wearing a Lifted Research Group T-shirt and Billionaire Boys Club shorts, Wilson said he has come to understand the nonchalance of fans in the New York area. “They probably seen Leonardo DiCaprio 30 minutes ago walking through so they ain’t studying me,” he said.
Wilson had arrived at the diner following an appearance at nearby Hackensack High School, where he surprised its football team by donating equipment and helping to design an alternate jersey. The teens, lulled into thinking they were sitting through another film session, stirred inside the auditorium when their coach, Brett Ressler, invited Wilson from backstage.
Wilson, wearing their jersey, mingled among them, and soon the teenagers had him pinned against a far wall, the coverage cozier than most defensive backs managed last season, asking him about the Jets and Rodgers. A couple boasted that they could defend Wilson.
He just smiled, posed and agreed to come to one of the team’s games this fall.
Though he grew up in a large family, with three older brothers and a younger sister, Wilson is most at ease by himself, alone with his thoughts and with his dog, Melo, a Shiba Inu named in honor of the former Knicks star. He listens to Sade and Marvin Gaye on his way to training camp as he settles into the day.
The waitress dropped off Wilson’s wrap. “Got that out with quickness,” he said. “Thank you.”
Wilson recalled a formative trip when, as a 12-year-old, he flew from Columbus, Ohio, to Austin, Texas, by himself to join his father, Kenny, who had started a new job there. His older brothers were close to starting college or already away at school, and his mother, Candace, had remained in Ohio with his sister for a while, but Garrett went solo in order to make it to spring football practices.
The boy had thought that he would never make another friend, that leaving Ohio meant his life was over. Most days Garrett roamed the hotel while Kenny was at work.
“If you told him to do something, he did it,” Kenny said. “He followed instructions. We knew he would be right where he said he was supposed to be.”
His dad remembers being amazed to find that while he’d been gone, Garrett compiled fruit and candy from staff he had charmed at the pool during the day.
Garrett Wilson likes to think he played a part in luring Rodgers, the four-time M.V.P., to New Jersey. Back in March, he and other second-year Jets, Sauce Gardner and Breece Hall, recorded a pitch video to Rodgers that showed them burning a cheesehead, the symbol of Packers fandom.
“He’s so cerebral and so smart and knows ball to the point where whatever he tells you to do out on that field is the right thing to do,” Wilson said of Rodgers over lunch. “And a lot of times it is about ball. We haven’t graduated to the point where we talk about anything yet, but I’d like to think we’ll get there.”
“He saw something in us,” Wilson added. “That’s Aaron Rodgers. I trust what he sees. I trust his eyes.”
He also trusts his own. Wilson started picking at his chicken wrap, unfurling a wiry trespasser from it.
A long hair?
“Nah, like a little scruff,” Wilson said. “I’d rather it be the long hair. Now I got to guess what this is. You see it right there? It was curled up though.”
He picked at some fries. The waitress returned.
“Do you need a box or anything?” she asked.
Wilson, kindly, politely, said his food had not turned out to his liking even as he moved the wrap a little farther away.
Expectations can sometimes fall short, as they have for the Jets many times. Wilson, with Rodgers as slinging mate, hopes to change that.
Santul Nerkar contributed reporting from Florham Park, N.J.