Viva Mark Sanchez! New Jets QB celebrates his Mexican heritage
BY Ohm Youngmisuk
DAILY NEWS SPORTS WRITER
MISSION VIEJO, Calif. - Long before Mark Sanchez ever had to conduct pressure-packed personal workouts for pro teams in front of billionaire owners and picky general managers, he had to master his dad's grueling version of an NFL combine workout.
He had to keep his eye on the rolled-up towel that Nick Sanchez Sr. used as a marker to let his son know just how far he had to go on his five-step drop to a four-foot hula hoop made out of irrigation hose, the hoop that Mark had to drop back into before resetting his throwing stance. In the split-second he had to locate his two brothers, who were doubling as his downfield receivers, Sanchez had to tell his father what he was envisioning on each play. Just as he let the ball loose, he had to answer a couple of homework questions. What's the capital of Brazil, Mark? Name the Presidents of the United States, Mark. Recite your multiplication tables.
"We talked about those things until we were blue in the face," says Sanchez Sr., who sometimes parked his pickup truck on a park field as the sun began to set and turned on the headlights so he and the boys could continue the drills in the dark. "He didn't get where he is at today in the last six months. He accomplished this 12 years ago."
While Sanchez grew up in the suburbs about a flea-flicker from the affluent areas that spawned hit TV shows about rich white teens such as "The O.C." and "Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County", he was never handed anything on a silver platter.
Unlike some spoiled brat on an MTV reality series, Sanchez is a descendent of hardworking Mexicans who migrated to California, many of them making a living picking fruit. Sanchez's story is one of America, the kind that immigrants dream of for their future generations.
And it's one of the reasons Sanchez is beloved by Mexican-Americans in Southern California: If the Jets thought they added a legion of cheeseheads to their fan base last summer when they traded for Brett Favre, they will surely be bowled over by the followers of Mark Sanchez. How about hearing La Raza chant J-E-T-S JETS JETS JETS?
From the Mexican-American teenagers who proudly wear his USC No. 6 jersey in the barrio in East Los Angeles to the thousands of potential new Latino fans in New York, Sanchez represents so much more than the latest Hollywood quarterback from Southern Cal who likes to surf, play the guitar and sing James Taylor songs to his mother.
There are other quarterbacks of Mexican descent who've played in the NFL, including Tony Romo, Jeff Garcia, J.P. Losman, Joe Kapp and Jim Plunkett, but Sanchez is a third-generation full-blooded Mexican-American who openly embraces his culture, a quarterback who has developed a rabid following, one that can often be seen wearing Mexican luchador wrestling masks, serapes and sombreros and chanting "Viva Sanchez" at his games!
Now Sanchez hits New York and its large Hispanic community, and if he continues to throw touchdown passes and win like he did at USC, he might even resonate with beisbol-worshipping Puerto Ricans and Dominicans.
"And guess what?" says Kapp, the former Minnesota Viking Mexican-American quarterback who was featured on a 1970 Sports Illustrated cover as "The Toughest Chicano." "There will be a few gringos that will like Mark Sanchez too if he completes a few passes."
ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO
Sanchez's great-grandfather, Nicholas Sanchez, migrated from Zacatecas, Mexico to California and found work as a fruit picker. His grandfather, George, also picked fruit, along with the numerous other back-breaking jobs he undertook before serving in the military and eventually finding work as an aeronautical technician. George Sanchez lived in Chavez Ravine and was eventually displaced when Dodger Stadium was built. Sanchez's grandfather and great-grandfather said they lived right where second base sits today.
"My grandfather to the day he died said he owned second base," Sanchez Sr. says.
Sanchez Sr. didn't have to work as a fruit picker but he did have to survive growing up in notorious South Central L.A., where he was typically the only Mexican in his class and in the predominantly African-American neighborhood. As a kid, he and his pals routinely snuck into the Coliseum to watch the Trojans and Rams play. He played quarterback in high school and then at East Los Angeles College, a community college, for two years. He served in the Army for a couple of years before starting a family with Olga Macias - a teacher who grew up in East L.A. - and becoming a fire captain for the Orange County Fire Authority. Sanchez Sr. has been with Station 6 for 33 years - the reason his son wears No. 6.
The Sanchezes had three kids, Nick Jr., Brandon and Mark but separated and divorced when Mark was 4. Despite the divorce, both parents tried to keep life as normal as possible for the kids. Sports became a central part of their lives, especially football. Nick Jr. was a quarterback at Yale, and Brandon was an offensive lineman at DePauw. They were the first two men in the Sanchez family to graduate from college, and now Nick Jr. is an attorney while Brandon is a mortgage broker.
The youngest Sanchez son would become the most successful athlete but that success didn't come easily for either the father or the son: Sanchez Sr. began working his son through his demanding drills when he was 9. He'd wanted to send Mark to guru Bob Johnson's quarterback camp but couldn't afford the tuition. So instead, the elder Sanchez continued to drill his son endlessly, the same way he'd worked with his two older boys.
Even on vacation, Sanchez Sr. brought his props - depending on what season it was, he'd bring a basketball, football or baseball and bat.
"It's funny because (Jets offensive coordinator Brian) Schottenheimer did the same thing today like when we would shoot free throws or throwing routes," Sanchez was saying after his first rookie practice on Friday. "My dad would hold up fingers and make you see the fingers to go through your reads correctly. Coach Schottenheimer was holding up fingers over here and knowing what was on the second read, we would have to drop back and look at our first read to make it real and then say, 'OK, take my side to five and throw it to the back side.' Or when we were shooting free throws, my dad would start yelling at us or throw out multiplication tables while you're shooting.
"It was all prepping for this and he had a vision early on, but it is really paying off."
It didn't take long for Sanchez to show off his fancy footwork for the Jets.
"He has quick feet," Schottenheimer said after Sanchez's second practice on Saturday. "He's been well-coached on it coming out of high school. He is ahead of the game of most college quarterbacks that I have been around in terms of footwork. That clearly gives him an advantage in terms of accuracy. It just does not come as naturally to (the other rookie quarterbacks in camp) because they have not been coached as specifically as he has."
Sanchez attended Santa Margarita High School before transferring after his sophomore year to Mission Viejo, a sprawling high school with a scenic campus where students sit on grassy hills reading under leafy trees, and where Johnson, the man who runs the Elite 11 quarterback camp with his sons Bret and Rob, a former Bills and Giants quarterback, coaches.
Sanchez Sr. rented out his home in Rancho Santa Margarita and rented a new house in Mission Viejo to allow Mark to play under Johnson. The 6-3 quarterback with huge hands - his mother stands 6-2 and likes to show off her large hands as well - went 27-1 as a high school starter.
"I have been around a lot of guys," says Johnson, who also tutored Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer. "He is advanced beyond his years. He is very skilled, his work ethic is off the charts, loves the game and outworks people. He has strong enough of an arm that he can play in all weather. The guy has the entire package."
Even though Sanchez grew up in the mostly white upper-middle class neighborhoods of Rancho Santa Margarita and Mission Viejo, his ethnicity was never a factor until he got to Southern Cal.
Before he'd even played a game, he began to attract attention simply for his name and skin color in a city where 4.7 million Latinos live, 3.5 million of whom are Mexican, according to the 2007 American Community Survey.
Sanchez noticed that Latino cafeteria workers and other Hispanic employees on campus started to pay him extra attention and he returned the favor. Raised to be humble and respectful, Sanchez treats janitors with the same respect he shows Jets owner Woody Johnson.
"He would answer the phone, 'Sanchez residence, may I help you,'" Macias says. "I would say, 'This is not an office.' They (the brothers) were all raised the same."
Soon Sanchez Sr. started noticing his son's popularity. There was the 10-foot banner with Sanchez's picture on it propped up in the window of a bike store near campus owned by a Latino. Then on an annual vacation to Ensenada, Mexico, Sanchez Sr. stopped at a small taqueria and saw an 8-by-10 photograph of his son in a USC uniform hanging on the wall. All this before Sanchez was even the full-time starter at USC.
"Usually when a jock is Mexican-American, he shies away from it because the word 'Mexican' here in the United States was a bad word for many years," says Sal Castro, a retired Los Angeles educator and activist who is director of the Chicano Youth Leadership conferences. "You got the drug problem and now the swine flu comes out of Mexico. What's next?
"Little kids don't see Mexican heroes in the movies," Castro continues. "They depict them into being gangsters or even Cheech and Chong. You can't point to any hero. Maybe Zorro. But he had to wear a mask."
Sanchez found himself being painted as the villain during his second season as a redshirt freshman in 2006 when he was arrested after being accused by a female student of sexual assault. Sanchez spent five hours in jail, according to Sanchez Sr., before posting bail. Police took hair and DNA samples from the quarterback, according to reports, but later, the Los Angeles County District Attorney's office announced that no charges would be filed due to a lack of sufficient evidence.
"We knew it wasn't true," says Macias, who now proudly wears Jets earrings. "That is not the type of guy he is. That could have ruined him forever. It was seen as a wakeup call. If something like that could happen, I got to know who my friends are and what is going on."
Another eye-opener for Sanchez came in 2007. Replacing injured starter John David Booty, Sanchez threw four touchdown passes in a nationally televised 38-0 rout of Notre Dame. But instead of being asked about his performance, Sanchez found himself embroiled in a controversy over the tri-colored custom-made mouthpiece he wore that featured the colors of the Mexican flag. While Sanchez wore the mouthpiece - made for him by Cuban USC dentist Ramon Roges - as a shout-out to his Mexican fans, not everyone appreciated the gesture. Some Web sites posted hate-filled messages while the USC football office received angry letters, calls and e-mails. Some felt Sanchez showed a lack of respect for the United States, while some Mexican nationals said they couldn't identify with Sanchez because they saw a quarterback who grew up in an upper middle class Orange County suburb who didn't speak fluent Spanish. (Sanchez has since taken courses to improve his Spanish and Macias texts her "mijo" almost daily with messages in Spanish.)
One of the few who can relate to what Sanchez experienced is retired boxing star Oscar De La Hoya, the Los Angeles-born "Golden Boy" who is beloved by Mexican-Americans but despised by many Mexicans for beating the legendary Mexican boxer Julio Cesar Chavez twice.
"When I beat him, I had every Mexican and their mother against me and my father even questioned me, asking why did I beat his hero," De La Hoya says. "It hurt me dearly. Being the 'Golden Boy' from the Olympics and receiving all this love and then for the first time receiving all this criticism, and from Mexicans, it was especially devastating. I didn't know what to do.
"Mark Sanchez will experience a few difficulties in the beginning of his career," De La Hoya continues. "He will experience not being embraced and 'well, he is really not Mexican' or 'he is from the U.S. and really doesn't speak Spanish.' (But) he can exceed beyond expectations of what I accomplished. Mark Sanchez has embraced his culture, and I feel that the sport that he is in and the visibility he gets can be a huge crossover. Here in the States, Hispanics and Latinos, we love American football. Now it makes me proud to know that Mark Sanchez has Hispanic roots and I'm definitely supporting the man."
Not far away from USC's campus is Garfield High School, a virtually all-Hispanic school in East Los Angeles. The most popular jersey there is the USC No. 6. Next year, green and white will certainly be the hottest colors in school.
"He gives Latinos something to believe in," says Patrick Vargas, a senior quarterback at Garfield. "Latinos know they can become something in sports."
"There is a sports myth that exists that Mexicanos and Latinos are not skilled to play that position, in other words not smart enough," says Mario Longoria, author of "Athletes Remembered: Mexicano/Latino Professional Football Players, 1929-1970."
"He shatters that myth. He resurrected what Plunkett did 30 years ago. When people found out that Plunkett and Kapp were Mexican, they went crazy."
It remains to be seen whether New York Latinos will gravitate toward Sanchez. Puerto Ricans and Dominicans are the two largest Hispanic ethnicities among the 2.3 million Latinos who live in New York City, according to the 2006 American Community Survey. Mexicans are a distant third and many are Mexican nationals, according to Rodolfo de la Garza, a Mexican-American political science professor who studies Latino politics at Columbia.
"The Latinos here, the Cubans and Dominicans, I don't think will respond to Sanchez," de la Garza says. "Most of the Mexicans who are here are relatively recent immigrants and will be more into soccer. There isn't a natural community for him to go to. (But) the Mets are viewed as being a Latino baseball team by a lot with good reason. It will be interesting to see if Sanchez tries to engage the Latino community, what impact he will have."
Apparently some New York Latinos are taking to Sanchez already. Last Monday, Nick Sanchez Sr. went to four different Modell's stores in the city in search of all the Jets gear he could find.
"There were a lot of Favre T-shirts and jerseys," Sanchez Sr. says with a smile.
At one store, the Sanchez family gathered all the non-Favre stuff they could locate before walking up to the register with their hands full of green and white sweatshirts, shorts and T-shirts. Sanchez asked the cashier if there was any more Jets' apparel left. That's when the cashier told Sanchez Sr. that most of the Jets paraphernalia had sold the previous day.
"They just signed that Sanchez kid and we are selling all kinds of stuff," Javier, the cashier, told Sanchez Sr. "We got a new Latino quarterback here in New York! We got somebody to represent."
Sanchez may soon sign a monster deal that could include an estimated $30 million guaranteed. With that kind of money, Sanchez Sr. can buy an entire factory full of Jets gear. Sitting in a plush recliner in his Mission Viejo home, he shakes his head when he contemplates the true Mexican-American success story of his family and his son.
"My mom and dad couldn't fathom what has happened in the last year," Sanchez Sr. says with a long pause. "It's been a long, long way since sleeping on second base in Chavez Ravine to Times Square."
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