LANDOVER, Md. -- With each completion, Sam Darnold raises the excitement level of the quarterback-starved fans who root for the New York Jets. They're giddy in Gotham, but it can't compare to the adulation in his hometown: San Clemente, California.
They might as well rename it Sam Clemente.
The coastal city of about 63,000, located midway between Los Angeles and San Diego, gives Darnold a civic embrace whenever he plays on TV. On Thursday night, One Eleven Coastal -- a restaurant that hosted a Darnold draft-night celebration -- will have a watch party for the Jets' preseason game against the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field. There's a good chance Darnold will start the game, which means happy hour will be very happy for kickoff at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN.
Darnold is everywhere around town, thanks to a clever idea by his former high school coach, Jaime Ortiz, who helped develop a Darnold bobblehead. It features Darnold in his old San Clemente High jersey, No. 18. It costs $20 (proceeds go to the football program) and it arrives in a box that refers to him as "San Clemente's Hometown Hero."
You haven't arrived as a professional athlete unless you've been immortalized with a bobblehead.
"The hair on the bobblehead actually looks a little bit better than mine in real life, so I give them props on that," Darnold said, laughing. "I think it looks like me. They did a pretty good job. Coach Ortiz over there at the high school is really into it. It's really cool to see kind of the buzz that goes around these bobbleheads floating around the whole city of San Clemente. It seems like when I go to see a friend who I haven't seen in a while, they always have their bobbleheads. It's pretty funny to go to their house and see that surprise. That's always different."
Ortiz got the idea from nearby Capistrano Valley High, which launched a bobblehead campaign for alum Kyle Hendricks, a pitcher for the Chicago Cubs. After a couple of phone calls, Ortiz sent pictures of Darnold to the National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum in Wisconsin, where the doll was designed.
There was some trial and error before the finished product. At first, the hair and eyes were the wrong colors, so they did some tweaking. The hair was changed from blond to reddish and the eyes went from blue to green. Darnold's parents gave the final approval.
The base of the bobblehead includes San Clemente's official hashtag: #OneTownOneTeam. Fittingly, it's similar to the Jets' slogan: One Team, One Goal.
"Everybody in town has the opportunity to have a bobblehead," said Ortiz, who still coaches the San Clemente varsity. "It's a great way to celebrate Sam and his success. You can see where he came from and where he's going."
They've sold 450 of the 500 in stock, according to Ortiz, who received pre-draft orders from eight addresses in Northeast Ohio. Those folks evidently studied the mock drafts, most of which projected Darnold to the Cleveland Browns with the first overall pick. Their heads -- bobbleheads? -- probably were ready to explode when their beloved Browns picked Baker Mayfield.
Ortiz also received an order from the United Kingdom. Hmm, there's a pretty big Jets fan in the U.K. -- U.S. ambassador Woody Johnson, who happens to own the team. If you see a photo of a Darnold bobblehead on Johnson's desk at the Winfield House in London, you'll know where he got it.
The bobbleheads can be found throughout San Clemente High. Ortiz has one on his desk. So does the principal. There's also one next to the state championship trophy. There's a Sam-pling everywhere, it seems.
Darnold was a two-sport star at San Clemente -- football and basketball -- before going up Interstate 5 to USC, where he stayed for three seasons (two as the starter) before leaving early for the NFL. He's still only 21 years old.
"The seniors on our high school team [last fall] played with Sam as freshmen," said Justin Rider, the owner at One Eleven Coastal. "That's just a crazy, surreal thing. He was one of them and now he's in the NFL."
On draft night, Rider's restaurant overflowed with about 120 people, some of them spilling out on the patio to watch Darnold and his welcome-to-the-NFL moment.
"When Cleveland picked Baker, everybody booed," Ortiz said.
The boos turned to deafening cheers a few minutes later, when the Jets -- stunned he was available -- picked him at No. 3. Since then, Ortiz has noticed more Jets jerseys around town, especially in his restaurant.
"We have a lot of overnight Jets fans," Rider said. "People are so incredibly proud of Sam making the NFL in such a class fashion -- third overall pick."
A local watering hole, the Artifex Brewing Co., drew a big crowd last Friday night for Darnold's preseason debut, and he didn't disappoint. He played so well in relief that he received the majority of the first-team reps this week in three joint practices with the Redskins. All told, he took 70 reps against the Washington defense and didn't commit a single turnover, earning praise from Redskins cornerback Josh Norman.
Coach Todd Bowles declined to announce his quarterback plan for Thursday's game, but it probably will be Darnold and Teddy Bridgewater, in that order. It's premature to say the rookie has secured the Week 1 starting job, but he's moving in that direction. The buzz is getting louder, but Darnold's demeanor hasn't changed.
"He's all football," Bowles said.
In other words, Darnold's head isn't getting too big.
But the bobbleheads are.