FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Throwing footballs went
hand-in-hand with multiplication tables for Mark Sanchez.
Same for batting practice or free-throw shooting. His
father always combined sports with schoolwork, and it drove Sanchez crazy.
"Some of those pitches would stray a little bit, high and
inside," the New York Jets' rookie quarterback recalled with a smile. "You'd get
That was just Nick Sanchez Sr.'s way, routinely testing
his son's mental makeup while working on his physical skills. History questions,
spelling words – all fair game.
"It was anything that we had gone over during the week,"
Sanchez said. "It was almost like a pop quiz at all times."
Sanchez still laughs at the goggles his father made him
wear, the ones with the strap on them so he couldn't see the basketball while he
was dribbling. At the same time, Nick Sanchez would hold up flash cards with
multiplication tables on them.
"It was little things that seemed weird at the time,"
Sanchez said. "You'd be like, 'This is stupid. Why are we doing this?'"
Nick Sanchez had done the same with his two older sons,
Nick Jr. and Brandon, similar to the tough-love methods Earl Woods used on a
young Tiger. The elder Sanchez is a fire captain for the Orange County Fire
Authority and has been with Station 6 – Mark's jersey number – for 33 years. As
a firefighter, Nick Sanchez recognized the value in being able to think quickly.
"I was just shooting from the hip with all of that," he
told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "There were no guidelines,
no blueprints. I just knew that regardless of where he was going to be in life,
he was going to have to deal with pressure and adversity and remain focused."
Dad apparently knew what he was talking about. Mark
Sanchez is preparing to become the first Jets rookie quarterback to start a
season. Not even Joe Namath did that.
"It really paid off and when you get into tough
situations where you need to slow the game down and people are interrupting your
confidence, it takes you right back there. He had some foresight back then,"
Not that he always enjoyed those sessions.
"There's no doubt I was tough on him," Nick Sanchez
said. "But if you talk to his brothers, they'd say Mark had it easy."
Nick Sanchez will be in Houston on Sunday, along with
several other family members, to watch his son take on the Texans.
"I couldn't be more proud of Mark," the elder Sanchez
said. "Mark was always special to us, as are his two brothers. He has always
been able to capitalize on his opportunities."
Such as the three times he won elections for class
president in grade school, junior high and high school. Or, when he transferred
from Santa Margarita High School to Mission Viejo and became the starting
quarterback under coach Bob Johnson. Or, even when he went to play for Pete
Carroll at Southern California and sat patiently until he became the Trojans'
starter – and ultimately the No. 5 overall draft pick by the Jets in April.
"I've always told Mark that there are kids that run
faster, throw harder or farther," Nick Sanchez said. "But I also told him,
'Don't ever let anybody ever outwork you.'"
Sanchez has yet to take a regular-season snap for the
Jets, but he exudes a confidence that belies his age. Maybe that's because the
22-year-old quarterback has anticipated this moment for years.
"I felt when I was little that something great was
always going to happen," he said. "Whether it was basketball, baseball, football
or school, I just felt like something was going to go right."
He beat out Kellen Clemens for the starting job this
summer and immediately earned the respect of his veteran teammates and coach Rex
"He shows a lot of maturity for someone his age," said
37-year-old fullback Tony Richardson. "He's probably young enough to be my son,
but he's the quarterback and the leader of this football team. When he says,
'Let's go!' it's time to go."
Sanchez remembers learning how to carry himself as a
leader from former USC offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, who made his
quarterbacks shower before team meetings at 6 a.m.
"I thought it was the stupidest thing in the world,"
Sanchez said. "But he would tell us, 'All these other guys are coming in with
crust in their eyes. You don't do that. You're a quarterback. You don't look
He also has also already endeared himself to his
offensive linemen by surprising each of their wives recently with flowers.
"I came home and was like, 'What man is sending you
flowers?'" right tackle Damien Woody said with a big laugh. "She didn't tell me
the whole deal and she was kind of rubbing it in. Then I read the card and saw
it was from Mark."
Growing up in southern California, Sanchez shared bunk
beds with Brandon, who's living with Mark in New Jersey as his personal
assistant. Above Mark's bed hung posters of John Elway, Dan Marino and Troy
Aikman. He remembers looking at how they held the ball, and how his father told
him to hold it higher.
"I would always point to the pictures," Sanchez said,
"and he'd say, 'When you get there, I won't tell you to hold the ball higher
Well, Sanchez is in the NFL now, and his father is still
"I said, 'Come on, Dad. You're killing me,'" Sanchez
said, laughing. "I said, 'What about those posters? You said once I did that,
you had to leave me alone.'"
Sanchez will now be on his own poster, with countless
youngsters hanging them in their rooms and dreaming of big things.
"That's weird, but it's something I've always wanted to
have happen," he said with a huge grin. "It's pretty cool thinking about someone
having my picture in their room and looking up to me.
"I just need to set the right example. And hold the ball
high, I guess."