Why Do People Have a Problem With OC-Raised USC QB Mark Sanchez Being Proud of His Mexican Heritage?

The Mouthpiece That Roared
USC's Orange County-raised quarterback Mark Sanchez is proud of his Mexican heritage. Why do some people have a problem with that?

Consider the sports mouthpiece.

It has a single purpose: to protect one's teeth from errant elbows (or not-so-errant fists). It is, at once, a small bit of hardened plastic that'll cost you a few bucks and an essential piece of athletic equipment.

Courtesy USC
Courtesy USC

Now, consider what happened last fall, when USC's football team traveled to South Bend, Indiana, to play arch-nemesis Notre Dame. Trojan quarterback Mark Sanchez stepped in for injured starter John David Booty and, on hostile turf, threw four touchdown passes in the 38-0 victory that was the Trojans' biggest rout of the Fighting Irish in the rivalry's 79-year history.

But the postgame chatter didn't focus on Sanchez's mature performance as a red-shirt sophomore. Rather, it was the custom-made mouthpiece he wore before the national television audience—designed in the tri-colors of the Mexican flag, complete with an eagle holding a serpent while perched on a prickly pear cactus—that lit up Internet forums.

Never mind that Sanchez had worn the mouthpiece the week before, in the game against PAC-10 rival Arizona. Displaying Mexico's colors in the bosom of college football . . . well, Sanchez might as well have worn a serape instead of a jersey.

"Mark Sanchez needs to get rid of the Mexican-flag mouthpiece," one outraged fan wrote. "People will think that he is a Mexican citizen, and it is an insult to this country, where he was born and raised. Mexico is not giving Sanchez the opportunity that he is getting right now, so why is he showing his love for Mexico with the mouthpiece?"

That a lowly tooth protector would ignite such a contretemps speaks to the status of playing quarterback at USC, the equivalent of football royalty in an NFL-less region of Southern California. Two of Sanchez's predecessors, Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart, emerged from Orange County's ultra-competitive high-school-football environment—Palmer from Santa Margarita High, Leinart from Mater Dei in Santa Ana. Both went on to win the Heisman Trophy while at USC; both were first-round draft picks in the NFL. (Palmer now plays for the Cincinnati Bengals, Leinart for the Arizona Cardinals.)

Sanchez is the heir apparent, a Mission Viejo High grad who enters the 2008 season atop the depth chart at QB for the second-ranked Trojans. But as the mouthpiece controversy showed, Sanchez faces a unique sort of scrutiny—what the Weekly's Gustavo Arellano has described as "Quarterbacking While Mexican." Indeed, in an election year when the nation's immigration policy (or lack thereof) is one of the hot-button topics, it's possible to view Mouthpiece-gate as the gridiron equivalent of Tommie Smith and John Carlos' Black Power salute at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.

Seated inside a windowless office within Heritage Hall, the building that houses USC's athletic department, Sanchez wears a T-shirt, baggy shorts and flip-flops. At 6-foot-3, with wavy black hair, light brown eyes, two-day-old stubble and dimples, the 21-year-old Sanchez could be mistaken for a tribal member of The Hills. His classes as a communications major at the university's Annenberg School have prepared him for media appearances: He looks interviewers in the eye and addresses reporters as "Mister."

Earnest and accommodating, Sanchez speaks without hesitation to downplay the mouthpiece incident. "I was a little disappointed, a little hurt, at the backlash because it wasn't some sort of radical, Mexican-pride thing," he says. "It was a chiste—a joke—between myself and our team dentist [Ramon Roges]. It was a high-five to people who have supported me and whom I'm similar to. But it's important for people to understand that I'm grateful to live in the United States, the best country in the world."

Playing quarterback, says Sanchez, is what he wants to be known for. "I'm not a political symbol," he says. "I don't want that to be my rap. I'm a football player; I'm not a politician. I'm not pushing for some bill to be voted on. That's not what I'm here for. I'm here to play football and do well in school."

* * *

In the summer of 1970, when Sports Illustrated was the unchallenged leader in sports media, Minnesota Vikings quarterback Joe Kapp appeared on the cover of the magazine several months after leading the team to their first Super Bowl appearance. The headline that accompanied the portrait of a helmetless, hair-blowing-in-the-wind Kapp read, "The Toughest Chicano."

Such a politically suspect phrase can be shrugged off as a sign of the times (though you can bet your SI subscription that "The Toughest Black" or "The Toughest Italian" never appeared within the pages of the esteemed mag). But as the headline indicates, part of the fascination with Kapp and his fluttering passes was his ethnicity. At the time, La Raza was represented in football by a handful of obscure place-kickers and linemen and quarterbacks Kapp, the Oakland Raiders' Tom Flores and Jim Plunkett, who earned fame at Stanford and with the Raiders.

"I taught all my huddles how to count to four in Spanish—uno, dos, tres, quatro—just to throw off the defense," Kapp remembers. "When I went up to Canada to play pro ball, there was no Mexican food, no tequila. The world's a very different place today."

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