April 12, 2004 12:00 PM

Jesse Palmer is used to facing a line of huge guys waiting to rush forward and crush him on the football field. But this was a whole new game: In January the New York Giants backup quarterback walked into the foyer of a Hollywood Hills mansion and confronted…25 eligible women, all attractive and all smiling. Did playing offense ever feel so good? “Exactly!” says Palmer, 25, who makes his debut as the fifth Bachelor when the ABC reality series returns April 7. “And my chances of walking away with a concussion weren’t as great.”

He’s reluctant to reveal very much about the outcome of the final rose ceremony—or, for that matter, whether he and his choice are faring better than the previous Bachelor lovers, who all barely made it past the finish line before splitting up. “I did meet somebody very special,” says the Ottawa native, who came to America from Canada in 1997 to play football for the University of Florida and was recruited by the Giants in 2001. And he sure loved those Bachelor fantasy getaways. “I was treated like a rock star and went on dates I’ll probably never have again. It exceeded my expectations 1,000-fold.”

Oddly enough, his mother, Susan Palmer, 51, a homemaker in Indianapolis (dad William Palmer, 51, is an executive at a construction company), thinks reality TV may be just what the oldest of her three sons needed to find a mate. Professional football “is a very fast-paced world,” she says. “I’m not sure he was meeting a lot of women who might be potential serious relationships.” Not that he hasn’t played the field a bit—he recently dated a former Miss Canada International, Lynsey Bennett—but his first, all-consuming love was always football. It runs in the family: Dad was a linebacker with the pro Canadian league, and brother Billy, 23, plays tight end at Notre Dame. “Jesse started playing at 7,” says his mom. “Once he learned about football and knew it was a way to be near his dad, he became totally passionate. Jesse had a dream, and his dream was to play in the NFL.”

His exploits there haven’t yet earned him a spot in the record books—and, by the way, a spokesperson for the show says none of the 25 women competing” for his heart recognized him as a football star. But Palmer, who had seen only four episodes total of previous Bachelors and Bachelorettes when he was contacted about doing the show in September, has a reputation as a gentleman outside the stadium. “He’s always been soft when it comes to women,” says Chris Theodossiou, 22, an Ottawa friend from childhood. “He’s a warm, romantic type.” (He’s also a movie buff, with a collection of 300 DVDs in his Hoboken, N.J., apartment.) His agenda as the Bachelor was simple. “I was looking for honesty, sincerity, for someone who is genuine,” says Palmer. “But more than anything I was looking for someone who’s secure with themselves.” And he had no trouble with the elimination ceremonies. “I’m able to make quick and confident decisions.”

Now that the six-week Bachelor shoot is behind him, Palmer is preparing himself for how the big guys back in the NFL are going to react. “I’m trying to think of a preemptive strike,” Palmer says, “like putting a rose in everyone’s locker.”

Tom Gliatto. Cynthia Wang in L.A. and Liza Hamm in New York

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