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After the Final Rose: How an N.F.L. Quarterback Ended up Hosting ‘The Bachelor’

SportAfter the Final Rose: How an N.F.L. Quarterback Ended up Hosting ‘The Bachelor’

LOS ANGELES — Typically, a throng of beautiful, mid-20s women excitedly giggling and waving is the stuff of boy-band lore or bad Hollywood script writing.

But this is Jesse Palmer, so this is Wednesday afternoon.

His welcome is the type of earned experience that comes with being a handsome television star, and one you witness multiple variations of over the course of a few days together.

You’re deep in the canyons of Malibu, Palmer carefully steering his Audi rental car toward a remote ranch and popular filming location. In a little more than 24 hours, he will appear in a previously filmed three-hour block on ABC primetime television, first as the suit-clad host of the new “Golden Bachelor,” then in a breezy linen button-up on “Bachelor In Paradise.” But today you’re on site for Season 28 of “The Bachelor” proper, set to air in early 2024, where one lucky young man will venture to find love among an even larger throng of those women you drove past on the way in. Collectively, it provides a convenient snapshot of the unabating cycle that is “The Bachelor” and its brood of love-curious spin-offs.

Palmer knows this terrain well, having starred as “The Bachelor” himself almost two decades ago. Now at age 45, with flecks of seasoned gray throughout his expertly spiked hair and manicured stubble, he’s back as the consummate host of a franchise that has grown into a monolith of broadcast television — and the highest profile of Palmer’s many public-facing jobs. The former Florida Gator and NFL quarterback is also a longtime college football analyst and color commentator for ESPN, the host of various Food Network seasonal baking competitions, and the spokesperson for brands such as Rooms To Go and Avocados From Mexico.

“It’s pretty nuts, but I don’t get crazy about the schedule. If all you do is look at your calendar, you’ll sh— yourself. It’s brutal,” says Palmer, effortlessly chic in jeans and a white polo. “So you just gotta have that quarterback mentality: Play the next play. I realize it’s a terrible football analogy, but it’s the truth.”

This Malibu ranch and its surrounding property, about 30 minutes from the famous “Bachelor” mansion in Agoura Hills, is milling with production staffers setting up for a group date, where eight contestants will vie for the attention and affection of Joey Graziadei, a 28-year-old tennis instructor. The women compete in a make-shift doubles tennis tournament — The Bachelor Open — after which the winners “get to go to a hot tub with Joey or something like that,” says Palmer. “Naturally.”

The whole endeavor is hyper-produced, including on-court action that vaguely resembles the sport of tennis. But Palmer, who is commentating the tournament, leans all the way in, rattling off cheesy puns from a pop-up broadcast booth.

“Joey is looking for his doubles partner in life,” he says with a commendably straight face.

It’s an enlightening glimpse into the reality-TV formula of long, meandering days of filming for what will probably amount to 20 minutes of television.

The fits and starts give Palmer time to prep for his weekend job. In two days, he’ll hop a connecting flight from LAX to Lexington, Ky., where he will serve as the ESPN color analyst when the Kentucky Wildcats face off against Florida, his alma mater. Back in Malibu, you intermittently catch Palmer huddling in a corner with his trusty iPad, taking meticulous notes while reviewing game film. “The Bachelor” may be at the top of his marquee, but football will always be Palmer’s first love, and the thing responsible for launching his television career.

“I didn’t know a lot about ‘The Bachelor’ before I was a contestant, but I knew Jesse because I love college football,” says Graziadei, hanging around craft services between matches. “He’s a very versatile guy.”

It’s all part of this non-stop, multi-hyphenate fantasy life Palmer has cultivated. Off screen, the native Canadian is an indulgent foodie who spends his downtime traveling with his wife, Emely Fardo, a Brazilian model. On screen, he interacts with everyone from Deion Sanders, to the Pioneer Woman, to 20-somethings named Amber and Emma and Olivia who are done playing games and ready to settle down.

At a time when the coupling of Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce has incited wall-to-wall crossover coverage from the sports and entertainment worlds, here’s Palmer, already spanning every geographic and demographic boundary of pop culture in the United States — young and old, male and female, from coast to coast. A real-life Prince Charming who can telestrate how to best attack a Cover-2 defense.

He’s America’s favorite, most ubiquitous quarterback. Whether you realize it yet or not.

Palmer tells you that one of the best things to happen in his life is one he had no control over: the New York Giants selecting him in the fourth round of the 2001 NFL Draft.

He had moved straight from Canada to Gainesville, Fla., to play under legendary Gators coach Steve Spurrier, throwing for 3,700 yards and 31 touchdowns over four seasons. New York City was a culture shock for Palmer, but he soaked it in, walking the neighborhoods and boroughs, learning about the history and architecture. His curiosity expanded beyond the city’s borders as well, including a solo, month-long trip to Europe after his rookie season — Paris, Budapest, Stockholm, all over — unlocking highbrow interests in food and fashion. He bought a Prada linen fedora, which he still owns, just like the ones he saw men wearing on the trains in Italy. He discovered his love of oaky red wines and ostrich loafers.

“I became more curious, more confident,” says Palmer. “My whole life to that point was football, and the sport completely orchestrated my emotions. Now I’m traveling to all these places and living in this city that is a mecca of food and culture. It opened up a lot of my other passions.”

New York also led him to Season 5 of “The Bachelor” in 2004. The show, still in its nascent stages, was looking to feature an athlete, and a good-looking quarterback from the country’s biggest sport and biggest city was an ideal option. Palmer, only 25, worried his Giants teammates and coaches might think he wasn’t serious about football, but any hesitancy was outweighed by the wanderlust, “say yes” mentality he inherited from his father.

“I always told the kids that life is an adventure,” says Bill Palmer. “Everything for me is an experience. Enjoy the journey.”

Jesse Palmer grew up the oldest of three boys in Nepean, Ontario, a suburb outside Ottawa. His mother, Susan, was a model and later ran her own modeling agency. Bill worked in construction after playing linebacker for six seasons in the Canadian Football League. Palmer would often wander into his parents’ closet and rifle through boxes of old uniforms and pictures from his dad’s playing days, which is how a young boy in a hockey-crazed province grows up wanting to play professional football.

Palmer was a precocious kid. He attended French immersion school and still speaks the language fluently, in addition to knowing a little German and Portuguese. Susan sent him to drama camp every summer and used him as a model in back-to-school spreads, and Palmer would reenact scenes from “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” with his younger brother after dinner.

“Even in the hospital after he was born, I had this intuition that he would be using his name and would do well in life,” says Susan.

Palmer didn’t find love on “The Bachelor.” His final rose went to a 22-year-old student named Jessica, but their relationship lasted only a few weeks. (“She was great,” says Palmer, “she just wasn’t my person.”) The series filmed in the offseason, and then Palmer returned to New York to fight for a roster spot on a Giants team that had just hired Tom Coughlin and drafted Eli Manning. But when the show aired in fall 2004, it instantly thrust Palmer onto a bigger stage than any backup quarterback in the league.

He bounced around the NFL until 2006, after which that recognition and familiarity in front of the camera led to commentating opportunities. He signed with ESPN in 2007, where he’s worked as a studio and game analyst for 17 seasons, including its Thursday night primetime telecasts and then alongside Brent Musburger when SEC Network launched in 2014.

That was around the time of another watershed moment in Palmer’s life. He was calling two games a week during the college football season, but spent most of the offseason either traveling or vegging out at his place in Montreal. Until his mom called one day and told him he was too young and handsome to be sitting idle for months at a time. It sparked a flame in Palmer, starting with a hosting gig on Food Network Canada.

“It’s crazy how much ‘The Bachelor’ benefitted me in all these things outside of sports,” says Palmer. “When I got the Food Network job, they straight up told me they were looking for someone that their female audience would know and relate to.”

From there came roles as a special contributor to “Good Morning America” in 2015 and the inaugural host of “DailyMailTV,” a syndicated news and entertainment show, in 2017. He returned to the ABC airwaves in 2018 to host “The Proposal,” a short-lived, “Bachelor”-on-steroids gambit, and later “The Ultimate Surfer” competition, all while juggling Food Network and ESPN responsibilities.

“I had this sense that Jesse was going to be the face of something very big. I didn’t know what or when, but it felt like it was pointing toward that,” says Rob Mills, the executive vice president of unscripted and alternative entertainment for Walt Disney Television, including “The Bachelor” franchise. “And I loved that Jesse was always game for whatever we wanted him to do. He’s not a diva.”

The adventure of life did lead Palmer to his person. Eventually. And off camera. He met Fardo at a Rumble Boxing class in New York City, after which Palmer slid into her Instagram DMs, a modern-day meet-cute. The two quietly tied the knot during COVID at the Connecticut house of a friend before holding a family wedding at Château De La Gaude in Aix-en-Provence, France, last summer. They’re expecting their first child, a girl, in January.

“I met the right person at the right time,” says Palmer. “Emely gives me the space and freedom to be me. She’s amazing.”

In the midst of that unexpected love story, Palmer embarked on another he didn’t see coming. Out for a walk in New York in 2021 with Fardo and their Aussiedoodle, LouLou, Palmer got a call that longtime “Bachelor” host Chris Harrison was leaving the series, a thorny exit provoked by Harrison publicly excusing and defending the racially insensitive actions of a contestant.

Palmer, unwittingly short-listed as a replacement candidate, reached out to Mills to express interest in the role. There were optics to consider — another White male taking over in light of the Harrison controversy — but ABC viewed him as a natural fit with the necessary reps.

“It was very easy to advocate for him,” says Mills.

Palmer was named the new host in September of that year, one man’s journey to find love come full circle.

“There are so few people in this industry who have been able to cross over the way Jesse has,” says Kaylee Hartung, the sideline reporter for Amazon’s Thursday night NFL games and a special correspondent for the “Today” show who previously worked with Palmer at ESPN. “When you have Jesse’s talent, but also his perspective on life, things have a way of working out. He has really charted his own career path.”

Jesse Palmer accepts a Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Entertainment News Program on behalf of ‘DailyMailTV’ in 2019. (Alberto E. Rodriguez / Getty Images)

This past April, Palmer had an afternoon off while filming “The Bachelorette” in Fiji, so he grabbed a bottle of rosé and took a boat to a secluded sandbar where the show had staged a one-on-one date the day before. Palmer lounged on the shore, sipping wine and following the NFL Draft on his phone.

But then the sky got dark and a storm rolled through, pushing the tide up onto the sandbar. For a moment, the thought crossed his mind: Is this how it ends? Fortunately, the boat returned and delivered him back to dry land, adding another chapter to his ongoing adventure.

“A great bottle of rosé and the NFL Draft? In Fiji?” says Palmer, able to laugh about it now, seated safely poolside at a Los Angeles hotel. “I guess if I had to go, that’s not too bad.”

Sporting a black cashmere sweater as the sun dips out of view, Palmer recognizes his jet-setting life has become an increasingly absurd existence in recent years, the kind filled with sandbars in Fiji and temple hikes in Thailand, and where news of his forthcoming child is exclusively reported by People magazine. But it’s an existence he’s careful not to take for granted.

That’s further evident a few days later, when he trades the hills of Southern California for the bluegrass of Lexington. As a college football analyst, Palmer could easily skate by on simply being Jesse Palmer, a point reinforced by the starstruck fans, male and female, snapping selfies before and after a late-September noon kickoff. None seem particularly smitten by his grasp of zone-blocking schemes, yet there he was earlier in the week, on the set of “The Bachelor” or aboard a string of commercial flights, grinding game film and studying rosters. And there he is in the booth on Saturday, that depth of preparation shining through as Kentucky races out to a surprisingly easy win over his beloved Gators. (Fardo made sure to send him a few needling texts during the game.)

Roughly half of Palmer’s work goes unheard during the telecast. While play-by-play partner Joe Tessitore describes the action in real time, Palmer is simultaneously analyzing it for producer Scott Matthews in the truck via a “talkback” feature — “We gotta show this drop-eight look” — helping determine when to show replays or what to focus on between snaps. Then Palmer has to succinctly relay that commentary for the audience, diagramming the pulling guard who opens a running lane or a third-down defensive call that leads to a turnover.

“There are a lot of great analysts who are OK broadcasters, and vice versa,” says Tessitore. “He’s everything.”

This past offseason, Palmer expressed a desire to move on from the college football studio show and return to the gameday booth. He thought it might be a long shot with his schedule for “The Bachelor,” but ESPN and ABC worked together to make it happen, adjusting the timeline for rose ceremonies and other production aspects to allow Palmer to dip in and out for weekend games.

“Our goal has been, how do we make him one of the faces of not just ABC or ESPN, but the entire Walt Disney Company?” says Mills. “You wouldn’t do that for anyone but Jesse.”

You’re back in the car, Palmer behind the wheel as you descend from the Malibu canyons.

He chuckles when you point out how far he’s come from those idle offseasons on the couch. Palmer tabulated that he slept at his fixed address in Miami for only about 50 days in 2022, and is tracking at a similar clip this year. It’s an enviable lifestyle, no doubt, but also a demanding one, and currently bumping up against a shifting work-life balance.

“You say yes to a lot of things and this is what you get,” he says. “I’m not complaining for a second, by the way. I’m blessed beyond belief to do all of this. But I’m also not 25 anymore.”

So what does the man who’s done everything and been everywhere want to do next?

“Wheel of Fortune,” says Palmer. “Big, big game show.”

He’s joking. Palmer insists he’s not driven by money or power or fame. He’s proud of being that kid from Nepean, Ontario, who overcame the odds to reach the NFL. And he draws a similar sense of accomplishment from things like hosting “The Bachelor” and calling college football games, preparing for and delivering in unpredictable, high-stakes situations. It’s that quarterback mentality reincarnate.

“We often struggle as athletes to find the next thing,” he says. “It’s not the same, but these jobs do give me a rush. It’s close.”

Years of reps and self-discovery and saying “yes” have led to this surreal, uniquely visible station in life. But the next challenge will be figuring out how to best refine that focus, and to occasionally say “no.”

As the canyons make way for the Pacific Coast Highway, windows down, ocean glistening beside you, the conversation drifts to things like marriage and fatherhood, and how anxious and excited he is for that baby girl who will finally slow him down, center him, and set him off on a new phase — the next adventure.

(Illustration: Sean Reilly / The Athletic; photos: Courtesy of ESPN)


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