Nick Mangold hobbled his way out of the Jets’ locker room and down the hallway toward the frigid indoor field house.
The walking boot on his right foot, which makes each step more laborious than the last, serves as a reminder of a Jets season gone wrong.
Mangold, the Jets’ stalwart center, was placed on injured reserve on Dec. 8 after he no longer could play through a lingering foot and ankle injury. But he won’t retire. Not yet. Not like this. Not with his body, and the Jets, limping toward the finish line.
Sunday’s game against the Buffalo Bills will be the final chapter in a lost year for the Jets. For several players, it also will give way to an offseason full of uncertainty.
Mangold knows there’s no guarantee he’ll spend 2017 — his 12th NFL season — in a Jets uniform. But that’s all he wants.
Mangold, who will turn 33 on Jan. 13, is under contract next year but also carries a $9.075-million salary-cap hit. If they cut him, the Jets would save the full amount.
Mangold wants to return to the Jets, but he understands the business side of the game. And that is a matter for another day, he said. Right now, he’s focused on cheering on his team one last time before turning his full attention to his own return to football.
“Just the fact that it’s been taken away from me, I don’t like that feeling,” Mangold said in a sit-down interview with Newsday. “I still love football. That’s why I want to play. Whether the business side allows me to do that or not, we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. But there’s still a deep love of football . . . I still have that fire.”
Mangold’s season will end with him playing the role of sideline spectator as the Jets (4-11) look to avoid another defeat.
But he suffered his first loss of the season back in March.
The void was palpable, even in a meeting room littered with 300-pound offensive linemen. As Mangold scanned the room, he was reminded that this Jets season would be unlike the others in his 11 years with the team.
“Definitely that first time coming in, and he’s not sitting in his chair, it was a weird feeling,” he said.
D’Brickashaw Ferguson’s unexpected retirement meant the Jets would have a new left tackle in 2016. It also meant that for the first time, Mangold would have to anchor the line without his longtime teammate and friend.
Adjusting to Ferguson’s absence took time, Mangold said.
“It was difficult for me because Brick had always been here,” said the seven-time Pro Bowler, who was drafted 25 spots behind Ferguson, a Freeport native and the fourth overall pick in 2006. “There’s something different about someone who’s been here from the beginning. It didn’t really hit me when we first talked [about him retiring]. It was more when we came back for the offseason and it was like, ‘Oh, Brick’s not here. This is . . . different.’ ”
And the year only grew more difficult.
The Jets started 1-5, and from there, the losses continued to pile up. Then came Mangold’s ankle injury, which he suffered on Oct. 23 against the Ravens and aggravated against the Colts on Dec. 5.
“I think emotionally, after getting hurt, that made it more difficult,” Mangold said, “because now, especially with losing, I’m trying to help as best I can. But without being able to be on the field, you can’t fully help out.”
But his limited mobility hasn’t stopped him from being a mentor behind closed doors.
Mangold has spent the past month giving pointers to his fill-in, 25-year-old Wesley Johnson, and asking the questions that “need to be asked” in meetings. “Either because the young kids don’t know to ask it,’’ Mangold said, “or they’re too scared to sound stupid.”
After Sunday, though, his focus will be on his rehab.
Mangold has no doubt that he’ll return to his Pro Bowl form, but the individual accomplishments are not his main concern. He and Ferguson made it their mission as rookies to win a Super Bowl together. Now Mangold is left to attempt the journey alone.
The Jets haven’t reached the playoffs since making back-to-back appearances in the AFC Championship Game after the 2009 and 2010 seasons. And Mangold is running out of time.
“The toughest part is, we were so close . . . and then not to have gotten back again,” he said, his voice trailing off. “I realized the magnitude of the playoffs my rookie year.”
The Jets finished 10-6 and clinched the No. 5 seed in 2006. Mangold still remembers being surprised to hear veteran guard Pete Kendall say he had never been to the playoffs before. “We were like, ‘Pete, you’re old as dirt. What do you mean you’ve never been to the playoffs?’ ” Mangold said, smiling. “And Pete was like, ‘You guys have to understand how special this is.’ ”
The Jets lost to the New England Patriots, 37-16, in the wild-card round. Now, like Kendall, Mangold fully grasps how fleeting success, and the game itself, can be.
“I think it’s been more realized now after going through the AFC Championships to having the drought that we’ve been going through,” he said, “that it is a very special opportunity.”