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.
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."
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.
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."
The decision wasn't easy for the family, remembers Nick Sr., because they had to leave Santa Margarita and move into their present rental home in Mission Viejo. "If you'd have asked me if we were going to move our family, I'd have told you that you were nuts," he says. "I never thought we'd have done it. But it was something that Mark wanted to do. There was just a greater variety of activities for him at Mission."
Meanwhile, Johnson tutored Sanchez in the craft of the most complex, cerebral position in sports. During the game, the quarterback's job starts the moment the play is called from the sideline: He must instantly comprehend every nuance—the formation, the personnel, the direction of the play, the blocking scheme, the routes of the receivers, the depth of his drop—and communicate that to his teammates. At the line of scrimmage, before the ball is snapped, he must read the defense—are the cornerbacks showing blitz? Will the linemen drop back into coverage?—and make any last-second changes. All this must be processed in 40 seconds, within the context of the game situation (What down is it? Is the team ahead or behind?). Oh, and then he must execute the play, oftentimes with a 300-pound defensive tackle in his grill and a hostile crowd jeering from the stands.
"It happens so fast on TV that people don't realize how much goes into each play," Sanchez says. "But it's so fun because nothing happens until you say go. It's cool to know that you're in charge of that."
In two seasons under Johnson's guidance, Sanchez led the Diablos to a 27-1 mark, including the California Interscholastic Federation Division II championship in 2004. He received numerous honors, including Parade magazine's Player of the Year, and became known for his arm strength and his improvisational skills. "Mark's a winner and a leader," Johnson says, "and a quarterback has to be that. The quarterback position is many things, but it's all about leading the team."
Sanchez, who had served as Palmer's ball-boy at Santa Margarita and calls him his "biggest idol," decided to follow in his footsteps and attend USC. Part of the lure was being able to stay close to his family (who attend nearly every practice and game). Another was to play under Pete Carroll, the former NFL head coach who has re-fashioned the Trojans into a perennial powerhouse by using a sophisticated, pro-style offense that highlights his signal-caller's athleticism and decision-making ability.
"Mark's got everything you want in a quarterback," Carroll says. "He's got a great arm, he moves beautifully, and he has a good feel for the game. Plus, he's smart and eager to learn."
Carroll has maintained a formidable, decades-long OC-USC pipeline that taps into one of the nation's most spirited high-school-football scenes. Approximately 15 players on the Trojans' current 105-man roster lived or played in Orange County, including another hotly recruited quarterback, Aaron Corp from Orange Lutheran. Mater Dei quarterback Matt Barkley, the nation's No. 1 senior recruit, has already committed to USC for next fall.
"It's the competition" that drives OC football, says USC offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. "The kids are going to very good football programs—the Mission Viejos, the Mater Deis, the Servites, the Los Alamitoses, the Orange Lutherans of the world—that place these guys in competitive environments and allow them to perform at a high level. By the time we get them, they're accustomed to a lot of the things we're already doing."
Corp credits the local coaches for churning out exceptional quarterbacks. "I think the Orange County coaches are probably the best high-school coaches in the country," he says. "When you have good coaches, you can produce quality quarterbacks because playing quarterback is not so much about being the best athlete but developing a skill set that has to be coached and worked on."
* * *
In the fall of 2005, Sanchez red-shirted his freshman year and began to learn USC's offense behind Leinart and Booty. He made headlines for the wrong reasons in the spring of 2006, when he was arrested after a female student accused him of sexual assault. He was also accused of underage drinking and using a false identification to gain entry to the 901 Club, a student hot spot on Figueroa Street. Sanchez was suspended from the team until law enforcement dropped the case because of insufficient evidence.
The topic remains a sensitive one, even two years later.
"From the outset, I maintained my innocence," Sanchez quietly says. "I was exonerated, exactly like we knew it would happen. But you see what kind of scrutiny you can potentially be under, you see how quickly things can turn."
"I'd have bet the farm that Mark wouldn't have any issues," his father says. "Unfortunately, he was placed in a bad situation and had to deal with that adversity."
Last year, Sanchez broke a bone in his thumb. He served as the backup until Booty was injured and missed three games. Sanchez guided the Trojans to two victories, including his mouthpiece masterpiece at Notre Dame. But he stumbled against Oregon with two second-half interceptions that derailed USC's national-title hopes.
Sanchez showed maturity in taking responsibility for the defeat, telling reporters, "Last week I was the hero, and this week I am a zero."
In the spring, with Booty drafted into the NFL, Sanchez won the starting job after a spirited competition with transfer Mitch Mustain and freshman Corp. "Mark assumed the spot very comfortably," Carroll says. "He asserted himself in the huddle and with his guys. It's clear that this is the right decision for us at this time."
"We saw tremendous leadership ability with Mark," Sarkisian says, "a guy who enabled the other 10 guys on the field to go out and play even better. I think the team felt his energy, felt his competitiveness."
In his first official appearance as the starter, at the annual intra-squad scrimmage at the Los Angeles Coliseum, Sanchez flashed his play-making potential. Facing the first-team defense, he faded back and hit sophomore receiver Ronald Johnson streaking down the right sideline for a 37-yard touchdown hookup. Afterward, with a relieved grin, he dutifully completed postgame duties: he iced his right shoulder, addressed myriad television and print reporters, and signed autographs for eager alumni and their children.
"I think the team really understood that I can handle difficult situations," he says. "I expressed my leadership well, and that was the main goal."
Not long after the scrimmage, with the semester concluded, he began to prepare for the upcoming season. After his family made their annual trout-fishing expedition to Crowley Lake, near Mammoth Lakes in the eastern Sierras, Sanchez spent the summer shuttling between USC and Orange County. He took one class at Annenberg (in persuasion), directed the team's informal practices and weight-lifting sessions, and trained with coach Johnson. He also worked as a sous chef at Phil Trani's restaurant in Long Beach (he makes a mean fettucine alfredo), took in some musicals (Wicked, A Chorus Line) and practiced his guitar.
Earlier this month at practice, Sanchez dislocated his left knee. He's expected to recover in time for most of the season, which starts Aug. 30 at Virginia. He's smart enough to recognize that Carroll has surrounded him with talent. Once he returns to the lineup, Sanchez won't feel intense pressure to gamble or freelance—which all too often results in interceptions or sacks for negative yardage. "The quarterback's best friends are a good defense and a good running game," he says. "We should be very balanced and very efficient."
USC has also tried to dial back expectations regarding Sanchez. His face isn't on the cover of the team's media guide, and it was senior linebacker Brian Cushing who accompanied Carroll to the PAC-10 media day. And yet, because of his crossover status as starting quarterback and Latino star-on-the-make, the media has descended. He and his family were profiled in ESPN Magazine; Rego, the LA-based Latino lifestyle magazine, did a photo shoot and an interview. And—shades of Joe Kapp—he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated (with Cushing and linebacker Rey Maualuga). This time around, the word "Chicano" wasn't used.
With Trojan fans breaking out homemade ¡Viva Sanchez! T-shirts, some observers have attempted to compare the attention beginning to surround Sanchez with Fernando Mania, the fevered response to Fernando Valenzuela's ascension with the Dodgers in the 1980s. That misses the point. Valenzuela came to Los Angeles as a 19-year-old, left-handed pitcher from Sonora who didn't speak any English. Sanchez was raised in relative comfort in Orange County and groomed to play quarterback since high school. Valenzuela was a unifying figure everyone embraced, in part because his roly-poly girth was so Everyman-ish. It's doubtful UCLA fans will cheer for Sanchez, no matter his lineage or looks.
Still, Sanchez's journey—a multigenerational exodus from Mexico to Chavez Ravine to Orange County to the Los Angeles Coliseum—is unique. "For Mexican-Americans, it's kind of a blessing," Longoria says. "It shows the fallacy that Mexican-American athletes can't be leaders, can't handle the pressure. All they need is the opportunity."
Carroll says that he can't yet measure the impact of Sanchez's Latino heritage on college football. "I know Mark is very proud to represent," he says. "We'll find out in the fall about the following he creates and all of that. It'll be cool to watch what happens."
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His high-school coach is confident the USC community will embrace its new leader. "The public will get behind ¡Viva Sanchez! Mark'll do fine with it," Johnson says. "He'll handle it better than any kid his age could ever do."
Sanchez says he's prepared for all the hoopla. Though he's not bilingual (he speaks some Spanish, but "understands it really well"), he plans to "work on it in the future" to forge a deeper connection with the Latino community.
But he knows that once he takes the field, his heritage won't matter. His performance will be measured only against those of his immediate predecessors—Palmer, Leinart and Booty—and the Trojans' six consecutive PAC-10 titles and two national titles under Carroll. "There are a lot of expectations, but that's what this position is all about," he says. "It comes with the territory, and I'm excited about it. Now it's time for me to make my own mark and have my own legacy."
That might include the unveiling of a new mouthpiece. "It'll be a surprise," he says with a sly grin. "We'll figure it out. It's going to be something good, something universally good."