Sal Paolantonio already knew he and Bart Scott had made television magic. But it was not until he entered the Jets’ facility in Florham Park, New Jersey, the next day that the magnitude of it hit him.
The first hint came from security guards as he drove in to prepare a report on the Jets for ESPN after their 28-21 upset of the Patriots in the divisional playoff round. "I roll down the window and they’re all saying, ‘Hey, Sal, can’t wait!’ " Paolantonio recalled.
Then it was the receptionist. "I walk into the lobby and the woman answering the phone answers it, ‘New York Jets, can’t wait!’ " he said.
That was 10 years ago, and those two simple words — "Can’t wait!" — remain a part of Jets lore and of Scott’s and Paolantonio’s professional histories.
"It’s two words, but it was the Jets, and the Jets at the very top of the Mark Sanchez-Rex Ryan Era," Paolantonio said.
It also marked the last time they won a playoff game.
"It’s a good thing and it’s a bad thing," Scott said of his famous line’s longevity. "It’s a bad thing that nobody’s replaced that memory with another happy thought."
They had reached the AFC Championship Game in Ryan’s first year as coach the season before, but they seemed unlikely to do it again as they prepared to face the Patriots on Jan. 16, 2011.
Sure, they had beaten Peyton Manning’s Colts on the road the week before, but the Patriots had finished 14-2 — three games ahead of the Jets — and defeated them, 45-3, in December.
The rematch in Foxborough, Massachusetts, figured to be more of the same, and ESPN analysts Tom Jackson and Keyshawn Johnson said as much pregame, in particular casting doubt on the Jets’ defense.
When the Jets won, Scott, a passionate linebacker, sought out Paolantonio on the field, then ripped into Jackson, Johnson and other doubters in what has become one of the most memorable postgame interviews of all time.
CBS, which televised the game, interviewed Sanchez afterward, leaving Paolantonio to find another subject for ESPN.
"As luck would have it, Bart Scott came looking for me because of what was said about the Jets' defense on our pregame show by Keyshawn Johnson and Tom Jackson," Paolantonio said.
"He’s got his arms in the shape of wings and he makes a landing like a Jet right in front of me and the camera . . . So at that point I’m like, ‘OK, he’s got something to say,’ and I realized not only did he have something to say but he was going to do it in a way that was going to light up the camera. I’m like, ‘OK, just don’t get in the way.’ "
For a minute, Scott spat out his words in anger and disgust. It was riveting. He closed with, "All we hear is about their defense! They can’t stop a nosebleed! Twenty-fifth in the league and we’re the ones who get disrespected!"
Paolantonio followed with, "Congratulations, see you in Pittsburgh." To which Scott said, "Can’t wait!"
Sensing he had a TV moment, Paolantonio knew the interview was over — "You have to know when the punchline just happened" — and stopped for a beat before looking to the camera and saying, "Back to you."
"I actually paused and then went back," he said, "because I knew that they were going to probably cut it for later use and I didn’t want to step over the final line."
Paolantonio handed a recording of the interview, which was not on live, to his producer, Charlie Moynihan, an avid Patriots fan, and told him to go back to the production truck "and feed it 50 times. Don’t stop feeding it. Feed it, re-rack it, feed it, make sure they got it."
Producer Seth Markman, an avid Jets fan, watched the interview and promptly texted Paolantonio, "Bart Scott, OMG," with multiple exclamation points.
"From that point on, every Jets fan in Bristol now can’t wait to get this thing on the air and on all of their shows," said Paolantonio, who himself grew up a Jets fan (and Newsday paperboy) in Stewart Manor.
Scott began to hear about the interview going viral as the team made its way back from Massachusetts, and it never has stopped. He last played in 2012 and since has gone on to a TV and radio career, most recently at ESPN.
"It won’t die," said Scott, who called Paolantonio a "mentor" in the media business, someone he first got to know when Scott was a Raven and Paolantonio’s coverage area included Baltimore and Philadelphia.
"We had had a relationship before, and that’s probably why he felt comfortable talking to me, because we had always had good, funny stuff together anyway," Scott said.
Paolantonio said that when he is in the New York area, the interview with Scott inevitably comes up. He said one of his Long Island rituals is buying a Newsday, then heading to Umberto’s in New Hyde Park for pizza.
"People see me reading Newsday and they’ll come up to me and just go, ‘Hey, Sal, can’t wait!’ " he said. "All the time, all the time. It’s the No. 1 thing people want to talk to me about in New York."
It never gets old.
"I get a total kick out of it, definitely," he said. "I enjoy it and I know Bart Scott enjoys it."
The only damper was the Jets’ 24-19 loss to the Steelers in the AFC Championship Game. Among other things, it robbed Scott of the chance to sell a lot of T-shirts. He had trademarked his two words after the upset of the Patriots.
"If we would have beaten Pittsburgh, I would have been selling ‘Can’t wait’ T-shirts, memorabilia, everything, for a long time," Scott said.
Paolantonio said he is proud of how he handled the interview, but more so of the fact that he associates it with Scott.
"I had a lot of respect for Bart as a player," Paolantonio said. "He was super-tough. He was a good teammate. And he was always available to me in particular, and that goes a long way if you’re a reporter."
Scott said now that he is a media member, he understands why Jackson expressed a strong opinion. It’s part of the job. But he still embraces the underdog vibe he expressed that night in Foxborough.
"For Jets fans, it was a moment in time where they could say, ‘Hey, man, we’re not the laughingstock. It’s not the same old Jets. This team is different,’ " he said.
He added, "It represented all the underdogs, all the people that felt minimized. It’s like ‘Rocky.’ You watch 'Rocky' because you see yourself in Rocky, right?
"There are very few people who see themselves as Apollo Creed or Ivan Drago. We all see ourselves as the guy who’s trying to make it. I think that’s why it resonates with everybody."