He doesn't see her straining for another glimpse of him, tall and dreamy in his khakis and bubblegum-pink sweater, a Rockwellian soda-jerk fantasy sprung to life. Hoping he'll take notice, she idles in his wake, which last Wednesday afternoon put her in the middle of Manhattan's bustling Houston Street. But he never breaks stride, just keeps going, and finally, so does she.
It's not that Jesse Palmer—a.k.a. the Bachelor, a.k.a. the Giants' quarterback—doesn't appreciate the attention. It's just that he has kept his father, Bill, waiting in front of a Greenwich Village pizzeria. "Sorry I'm late, Dad," he says, taking his father's face in his hands and gently kissing him hello. It's such a sweet moment you can't help but think, This is one of the good guys.
Then again, millions flung across our reality-TV-mad republic have known that for weeks. Palmer has been busy paring a telegenic gaggle of 25 women to his final One. Through it all, he has proved flirty yet decent, curious yet respectful. And wonderfully gaffe-prone—a sort of rakish Inspector Clouseau, diligently on the make. Though he seems like a natural in the role, Palmer hadn't even seen the show when his agent, Peter Schaffer, called last September to gauge his interest. "I had a bunch of missed calls from Peter on my cell," Palmer recalls. "I thought I'd been traded. Or maybe I was starting." (Palmer has a wonderful sense of humor.)
Instead, he learned that Bachelor creator Mike Fleiss was searching for an NFL player to carry the show. Palmer was intrigued. "I saw it as a great life experience," he says, "and 25 hot girls didn't hurt." With the Giants' tacit blessing, Palmer was on board. Shooting wouldn't start until February, to allow for a possible Giants Super Bowl appearance. (Fleiss also has a wonderful sense of humor.)
Still, dating-game recklessness seemed an odd choice for a bright guy who spent last off-season backpacking through Europe. But a funny thing happened on the way to disaster: Palmer has become a hit, with Nielsen—The Bachelor is ABC's highest-rated show—and the bulk of his teammates. At least a dozen pack his Hoboken, N.J., apartment each Wednesday to watch for the subtle hand signals and locker-room lingo he used expressly for their enjoyment. To Palmer's delight, they also savage his romantic missteps, such as when he said he decided to search for a wife because, at age 26, he's "tired of waking up every day next to a stranger." When it's mentioned that he sometimes comes off as a caddish klutz, Palmer laughs. "Ah, the magic of reality TV," he says. "Things can be made to look different ways. But the editing has been fair. I had a blast."
Amazingly, hanging out with 25 women—and canoodling with seemingly half of them—proved tougher than Palmer expected. A typical day began at noon and often dragged past midnight. Palmer was not allowed to watch TV, read magazines or newspapers, or use e-mail or cell-phones. He passed the time working out and throwing passes to production assistants.
As the show nears its May 19 final episode (for the record, Palmer says he's in an exclusive relationship with the woman he selected), its star nears the end of what he unfortunately calls "this journey"—his only obvious sign of reality-TV fatigue. "It's good to get back to football," he says. "I'm 100 percent committed to the Giants." Less certain is how enthusiastic the Giants remain about him. Palmer " has thrown just 120 passes in three years as a pro. New York has hired a new coach, the exacting Tom Coughlin, and traded for its quarterback of the future, Eli Manning. Palmer could be out of a job in a few weeks.
But why worry about that now? Palmer wants to play "until I'm 40," he says, before taking the time to sheepishly indulge another doe-eyed passerby. If he's jobless next month it won't be the worst thing in the world. He'll land on his feet. The good ones always do.