Indeed, some 40 years later, ESPN has replaced SI as the self-proclaimed "worldwide leader in sports." Meanwhile, as football has replaced baseball as our national sports obsession, Latino players are a growing presence in the NFL. No longer do undersized kickers and slovenly linemen dominate the ranks; the coterie of players whom journalist Paul Gutierrez recently identified as "la nueva sangre" ("new blood"), who are at least a quarter- or half-Mexican, includes San Diego Chargers defensive end Luis Castillo and quarterbacks Jeff Garcia (Tampa Bay Buccaneers), J.P. Losman (the former Venice High star now with the Buffalo Bills) and Tony Romo (Dallas Cowboys and erstwhile companion to Jessica Simpson).

"This generation is dispelling the myth that Mexicanos can't run or pass," says Mario Longoria, author of Athletes Remembered: Mexicano/Latino Professional Football Players, 1929-1970. "They're proving that, if given the opportunity, they can succeed at the top level."

Of these players, only Sanchez can claim to be a third-generation, full-blooded Mexican-American. His great-grandparents on his father's side were born in central Mexico before they immigrated to California to work as fruit pickers. On his mother's side, his great-grandparents came to Arizona from Jalisco before moving to LA.

Courtesy USC
Courtesy USC

Sanchez's grandfather Nicholas settled in the Palo Verde area of Chavez Ravine, just north of downtown LA. The family was displaced in the 1950s, when the city of Los Angeles paid many of the predominantly Latino residents a pittance to abandon their homes. The original plan was to build a low-income housing project that would include the displaced residents. But political pressure during the 1950s' Red Scare prompted city leaders to scrap the proposal. The land at Chavez Ravine was eventually sold to Walter O'Malley, who moved the Dodgers from Brooklyn after the 1957 season and built his state-of-the-art stadium there, a makeover that "signaled the destruction of a working-class Chicano community," wrote UCLA history professor Eric Avila.

"Second base," says Nick Sanchez Sr., Mark's father, leaning back in his recliner in the living-room of the family's home on a Mission Viejo cul-de-sac. "That's where they used to live, right where second base is now."

"My grandfather was a little bitter about Dodger Stadium," says Mark Sanchez. "He rooted for the Giants."

The family moved not far from Chavez Ravine, hard by USC. Nick Sr. and his buddies used to sneak onto the campus; he says he never dreamed of attending a four-year college (although he went on to play quarterback at East LA College).

In the mid-1970s, Nick Sr. joined the Orange County Fire Authority. Now 60 years old and a captain with Fire Station 6 in Irvine, he's part of the national Urban Search and Rescue team that has taken him to New Orleans (after Hurricane Katrina), New York City (after the World Trade Center attacks) and Oklahoma City (after the bombing of the Federal Building). He is relentlessly optimistic; ask him how he's doing, and he invariably replies, "Today's the best day I've ever had."

Mark was born in Long Beach and spent several years in the Whittier and Pico Rivera areas. He moved to OC at age 6, when his father and two older brothers, Nick Jr. and Brandon, migrated to Rancho Santa Margarita in the early 1990s. By then, his parents had divorced. His mother, Olga, eventually moved to Rancho Santa Margarita.

"I went back and forth between my parents," he says. "Everything worked out okay. It was important for my parents that they didn't put this burden on us and let it affect our lives."

He says that while growing up in overwhelmingly white Rancho Santa Margarita, he never encountered racism or discrimination. "I just don't recall anything bad like that," he says. "It was never a problem."

Nick Sr. emphasized schoolwork, leadership and discipline—as well as participation in sports. Nick Jr. and Brandon both played high-school and college football (Nick was a quarterback at Yale, Brandon an offensive lineman at DePauw). But it soon became apparent that Mark was bigger and had more athletic ability than his siblings. As he approached eighth grade, the question became what position was best for him. Linebacker? Tight end? QB?

Nick Sr. consulted with two local coaches about Mark's future: Bill Cunerty, the former coach at Saddleback College, and Bob Johnson, the former El Toro High coach who's now at Mission Viejo High. Known as the "quarterback guru," Johnson also runs the Elite 11 summer camp for top QB prospects. Besides mentoring his son Rob, a former starter at USC, Johnson helped mold the talents of Carson Palmer.

Both Cunerty and Johnson told the Sanchezes that Mark had potential at quarterback if he continued to work hard. Nick Sr. says he didn't enroll Mark in Johnson's camps because they were too expensive. Instead, Nick Sr. adapted the drills he learned watching Johnson train his charges, practicing them with Mark in the back yard and at a local park. The effort paid off: Mark's first pass attempt in high school, as a sophomore at Santa Margarita High, was a 55-yard touchdown strike.

In 2003, before his junior year, Sanchez decided to transfer to Mission. He joined the school's baseball and basketball teams and, in football, was reunited with Johnson. "I just felt like there was a better opportunity at Mission," he says. "To play for someone like coach Johnson, with his knowledge of the game and his résumé, I just couldn't pass up that opportunity."

« Previous Page
Next Page »