He's here for a workout but dressed for the beach. Baggy black shorts, faded green T-shirt, flip-flops the size of boogie boards. He drops his gym bag on the indoor field of fake turf and warms up. He winces as he tugs and yanks something that looks like a giant rubber band, trying to shed the stiffness of the weekend, the July Fourth holiday, the long off-season. Now he tosses aside the rubber band and grabs a football—no more wincing. His face relaxes. Clearly he's more at ease when gripping or cradling a football, which must be why his house and truck are filled with them. And his bed. His teddy bear has laces.
He pulls on his green-and-black cleats, takes a last sip of his iced coffee, and looks around. Mark Sanchez, "the Sanchise," the 24-year-old franchise quarterback of the New York Jets, is ready. Dang—where is everybody? (Away from the locker room or playing field, dang is one of the few cusswords you'll hear from Sanchez. If he's really worked up, God dang.) Normally, in July, it would be the coaching staff counting heads. But in this strange summer of 2011, when NFL owners have declared a lockout, players are barred from the team facility. So they practice here, thirty minutes away, at this tony health club in suburban Martinsville, New Jersey.
A friend of Sanchez—quoting Saul Bellow, of all people—calls him "a first-class noticer," and indeed he now notices several high school athletes peeping at him from behind a curtain. He quickly bootlegs the cup of coffee as if it's a fifth of Jack. "They see me drinking coffee," he says, "then they have to drink coffee." But he's also a first-class non-noticer: He has no idea that there's a message to him in big letters on the side of the coffee cup, presumably from some heartsick baristas: We ♥ Mark Sanchez!
Told about the message, he stares blankly. "What? There is?"
Now he notices a familiar face: Jerricho Cotchery, 29, one of his favorite receivers. Sanchez smiles, gives Cotchery a manshake, asks how he's feeling. Good, good, Cotchery says—except it's been months since his disk surgery, and he's eager to see how his back will hold up.
So is Sanchez. They stroll toward an imaginary scrimmage line, discussing which routes to run. Then, suddenly, it's on. They stand ten feet apart, perfectly still. One, two, hut hut. Sanchez drops back, Cotchery bursts forward, slants, turns. The ball is there. Cotchery snatches it, zooms upfield. Nearby, wearing yoga pants and Keds, seated on her fanny and straining to touch her shins, a fiftysomething real real housewife of New Jersey watches in openmouthed awe.
"Oh, my," she says.
More Jets trickle in. Linebacker Bart Scott, safety Eric Smith, lineman Vladimir Ducasse, among others. Gearing up, stretching out, they compare notes about last night's barbecue at Scott's house. Scott mocks Ducasse for leaving early—so many "hos" were poolside! They were invited expressly for Ducasse. "The girl in the tiger pants!" Scott says. "That girl in the Indian thing!"
"They were old," Ducasse says.
"Old?" Scott says. "Old!" He turns to Sanchez for support. "Were those hos old?" "Define old," Sanchez says.
The debate rages on, as fun as it is pointless, until Sanchez takes charge. He leads his teammates up and down the indoor field, through stretches and sprints, drills and weights. He leads them outside, to a steep dirt ramp in the humid woods, ignores their plaintive questions about deer ticks, runs with them up and down until they're panting and dripping sweat, then leads them back inside for sit-ups.
At some point the country music playing on the health-club stereo gets pulled. Good-bye Carrie Underwood, hello Eminem and Jay-Z—and Drake.
I know way too many people here right now That I didn't know last year Who the fuck are y'all?
Sanchez blanches. He worries that the thumping profanities and N-words might offend the other patrons. But he doesn't say anything. Whatever the guys want, whatever keeps them working hard. He doesn't want to be a killjoy. (Of course, if Sanchez were the DJ, there's no telling how offensive the music might get. He's an ardent fan of Broadway musicals, so his teammates are lucky they're not doing biceps curls to Wicked.)
It's this binary quality, this fusion of seriousness and playfulness, rectitude and mellowness, that makes Sanchez the right fit for the Jets, say his teammates, family, and friends. He can be the vigilant big brother when he needs to, but at his core he's the consummate little brother. He can spend all week competing in a gladiatorial sport, then be front row, center aisle, at Billy Elliot. If people think it's dorky or weird, Sanchez doesn't mind. He usually doesn't notice.
Selectively not noticing might be Sanchez's gift, his secret for surviving the pressure and scrutiny of New York. When it comes to his fame, for instance, Sanchez is often oblivious—which has kept the craziness from changing him. After two years of adulation and jeers, he still calls older men "sir," still opens doors for women, still sends thank-you notes, still poses with fans and spends long afternoons with sick children—and still won't say a bad word about Tom Brady, no matter how much you egg him on. In fact, he reiterates what he's said about his divisional nemesis in the past, "I love Tom," which makes Jets fans cover their ears and say, "La la la la la, I can't hear you."
He's the kind of guy, one friend says, who gets invited to a White House state dinner and thinks it's a steak dinner. Then, when the big day rolls around, whereas another guy might bring a starlet as his date, Sanchez brings 310-pound teammate D'Brickashaw Ferguson, because he knows Ferguson likes politics. He's the kind of guy who agonizes about what to buy his linemen for Christmas and reaches out to older quarterbacks for advice. (One veteran told him what not to do: Don't buy Rolexes for the white guys and Louis Vuitton for the black guys. Wow, the veteran said, it really pisses them off.)
As today's informal practice winds down, Sanchez makes plans to see his teammates later at a racetrack in Jersey City. They're going to eat chicken wings and pizza and then race 45-mph go-karts in a circle. Sanchez says he'll be there, though he doesn't look all that keen on the idea. If it were up to him, they might go into the city. Take in a show. Say, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.
Two years have passed since the Jets made Sanchez their first pick in the 2009 draft and signed him to a five-year deal worth up to $60 million, the richest contract in team history. "That was the guy they wanted," says Adam Schefter, who covers the NFL for ESPN. "They fell in love with him from the minute they worked him out."
It will be two or three more years before the Jets know if their love is requited, if Sanchez is the foundational quarterback the team has been seeking since the Vietnam War. But so far there have been hopeful auguries. In his first two seasons, Sanchez has led the Jets to consecutive AFC Championship games, one of two quarterbacks ever to accomplish that feat. He's won four postseason games on the road, which ties him for the NFL record among QBs.
At moments during the regular season, however, Sanchez has given his coaches and fans pause. Occasionally mystified by NFL defenses, he's suffered brain lock, posted anemic stats, thrown balls that looked like wounded pigeons. "His A game is as good as anybody's," Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum says. "For him the next step is to be that A player the whole year."
Through two seasons, Sanchez has thrown thirty-three interceptions and only twenty-nine touchdowns. By comparison, Tom Brady, arguably the best quarterback in the league and inarguably the winningest, threw twenty-six interceptions in his first two full seasons, against forty-six TDs.
Then again, Broadway Joe Namath, the legend to whom Sanchez will always be compared, threw forty-two picks in his first two seasons, to go with thirty-seven touchdowns. If Sanchez compiles comparable numbers but matches Namath's record of Super Bowl victories (one), no one at 1 Jets Drive in Florham Park, New Jersey, will complain.
"What I have seen of Mark these last two seasons," Namath says, "in my heart of hearts I know he's a champion-caliber quarterback."
Can Namath, who famously guaranteed a win in Super Bowl III, guarantee that Sanchez will win one? "Absolutely not. It's a team game. There's no guarantee they're even going to make the playoffs this year. The competition is awful tough, and Lady Luck plays a major role."
In Sanchez's long learning curve, the curviest stretch came at the end of a three-game skid in the first half of his rookie season. Against a subpar Bills team, he threw five picks, and the Jets lost, 16-13. Jets fans were apoplectic as only Jets fans can be. The back page of the Daily News showed Sanchez looking hapless and Shrek-eyed above the headline: BROADWAY SCHMO.
Sanchez was bereft. He went that night to a Cheesecake Factory and ate by himself in a corner. Then he slept in his car: "I didn't want to go home. I was just really mad and upset."
Oddly, Sanchez later had the Daily News page blown up. It's now displayed beside his bed, the last thing he sees when he goes to sleep. And yet he has no trouble sleeping. The page doesn't torture him, he says—it motivates him. Also, it must be said, he can sleep anytime, anywhere. His sleeping prowess might be the only thing he brags about. Whenever the subject of sleep comes up, Sanchez lifts his head and gives the same reflexive response: "I'm a really good sleeper." It's eerily reminiscent of Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man: "I'm an excellent driver."
Though Sanchez's decision-making remains an open question, it's hard to question his desire. He talks about winning with an obvious ache, about losing with raw sorrow. Last season, when the Jets trash-talked the hated Patriots, then got run over by them in week thirteen, no fan was more anguished than Sanchez. "I don't think I've ever been that embarrassed," he says. "You went out and talked a bunch of smack and then got your ass kicked—it sucked."
After the ass-kicking came another loss against Miami and then a round of second-guessing. Writers asked Jets head coach Rex Ryan if he would consider benching Sanchez. Yes, Ryan said—he would. "Rex is super honest," Sanchez says. "I wish he wasn't that honest at times, especially to say that."
Before the next practice, Sanchez was informed that Ryan wanted to give extra reps to Sanchez's backup and friend Mark Brunell. Ominous. Sanchez nodded like a good soldier, but on the practice field, when Brunell walked into the huddle, Sanchez pushed him away.
Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer approached. He repeated that Ryan wanted Brunell to take extra reps. "I was like, 'He can come tell me,' " Sanchez says. "And [Schottenheimer] is like, 'Come on, man, don't do that.' "
Eventually the crisis passed. Sanchez held his ground, kept his job, and managed not to alienate his friend. But the episode remains something of a sore point with Sanchez. In a locker room where everything is a laughing matter, Sanchez hasn't yet joked with Ryan about that almost-benching. And he doesn't expect to. "I wanted to fight him," Sanchez says. "I was really mad."
Sanchez leaves the health club and drives his Toyota Land Cruiser to the nearest burrito place. No one notices him, and he doesn't notice them not noticing. He gets a chicken bowl to go, with rice, pinto beans, guacamole, and mild salsa. The man knows his Mexican food. His great-grandparents came from Mexico, and Sanchez, growing up in and around Orange County, California, built his six-foot-two frame on homemade tamales and enchiladas and chorizo and eggs.
Chicken bowl in hand, he heads for a swim and a shower and a nap at Casa de Sanchez, his three-bedroom town house at a Trump luxury property. (Sanchez rents. The Donald cut him a sweetheart deal.) For a wealthy, stylish athlete, the town house is remarkably unremarkable. The decor is Early Bachelor. There is the requisite mega-couch (brown cloth), the standard jumbo TV (wall-mounted), the mandatory guitar in the corner (he's learning), the obligatory video-game station (an ace at FIFA Soccer; he's only so-so at Call of Duty), but there isn't much else. The master closet is smallish, not overfull, and the walls are hung with kitsch and football memorabilia. Extreme Makeover: Home Edition will visit Sanchez long before MTV Cribs.
Maybe the most striking thing about Sanchez's home is what's on the DVR. Holding a white towel around his waist, heading for the shower, he flips through his saved shows. A documentary about Justin Bieber? Episodes of Glee? The quarterback of the New York Jets is a Gleek and a Belieber?
Yes, he says, failing to notice the tone of incredulity.
The DVR squares with Sanchez's unabashed love of show tunes. It seems too perfect that the successor to Broadway Joe is a fan of Broadway musicals, but there you have it. While you're likely to bump into other New York athletes at Scores, you're more likely to find Sanchez at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. He's seen just about every show out there, many of them multiple times. His truck is cluttered with cast albums. So ubiquitous is Sanchez in the theater district that he was a presenter at last year's Tonys.
Aside from just enjoying the music, Sanchez says he feels a kinship with Broadway performers. "Their life is so regimented—like mine. They have eight shows a week. They have to take care of their bodies, stretch, eat right, take care of their voices. You know, their voice is like my arm."
Susan Evans, one of Sanchez's former professors at USC, visited Sanchez this summer. They went to a Broadway show, of course, and afterward Sanchez took her to a lowdown piano bar. "We sat around for a couple of hours and just sang songs," she says. "At the end, he got up and he sang."
"Jim Croce. 'Operator.' "
Isn't that the way they say it goes?
Catch Me If You Can
Sanchez never goes out on the town without expecting some complication. The city is a celebrity aquarium; therefore every social interaction is wholly visible.
Of all social interactions, the most hazardous is dating. With green eyes and black hair and a chalk white smile, Sanchez is the most eligible bachelor to hit Manhattan in a generation. Family and friends tell him all the time: Be careful. Any indiscretion, any impropriety, anything that can be seen as caddish behavior, might turn off fans or scare away sponsors.
"You have to be a 24-year-old bachelor," he says, "with the means to do anything, just about, but with the wherewithal and understanding and life skills of a 45-year-old Supreme Court judge."
A good wingman would help, he says. Alas, Sanchez's wingman, Jets tight end Dustin Keller, is about to get married. "I'm Han Solo now," he says glumly.
So what is he looking for?
He doesn't have a type, he says. (He's dated actress Jamie-Lynn Sigler and Estée Lauder model Hilary Rhoda, whom he met at a GQ photo shoot, to name two.) His expression becomes thoughtful. "I can't help but want somebody that's, I don't know, athletic." Also, his future wife and the mother of his children will need to value family. "Family is big," he says. (The night before he got drafted, Sanchez flew from New York to Orange County so he could sit beside his grandmother while waiting to learn which team would select him.) And any prospective Mrs. Sanchez will have to win over the original Mrs. Sanchez. "My mom has to love her," he says. "I mean, love her."
Finally, he says, it would be nice to meet a woman who has some firsthand experience of bloggers and red carpets and skeevy photographers hiding in the forsythia. "Somebody who can handle all this, you know, who can help me handle all this—because I'm still learning."
Which may be why his celebrity crush is Jennifer Aniston. "She's experienced," he says admiringly.
Has he ever been in love?
"I don't know."
Does he realize that's like saying he doesn't know if he's ever won the Super Bowl?
He laughs. "Then no." Pause. "I think I might have been in the playoffs...." AFC Championship?
"Probably like a wild card—but I was the backup and suddenly got to play by accident."
His longest relationship was about six months. It ended the way most end. He recites his standard pre-breakup talk, which sounds like a pre-game locker-room speech delivered to a badly overmatched team: "I'm not going to be able to give you as much time as you can give me. That imbalance causes problems. It will be weird. There will be times when we lose and I will not want to talk to even you."
Even if Sanchez meets his dream girl tomorrow, he wonders if this is the time to date her, when his top priority is football. "Cynically, I think: Okay, how is this person going to help me win a Super Bowl?"
What vexes Sanchez most about being a bachelor isn't the search, per se, but conducting the search in a minefield—set inside a hall of mirrors. In late May, he suddenly found himself in the news for dating actress Hayden Panettiere. Except that he wasn't dating Hayden Panettiere. His longtime friend and teammate Scotty McKnight was dating Hayden Panettiere. Months earlier Sanchez hit the front page when a 17-year-old high school student from Connecticut told a gossipy sports site that she met him in a nightclub and they went on a date.
Sanchez has never spoken publicly about either story—and still won't: "I've found it's better not to comment on a lot of that stuff."
Generally speaking, however, he says that errors and half-truths and outright fabrications have left him shaken. "It's unbelievable. It all just blows your mind. It's crazy to think about how it could all be gone, how it could all...with just one lie, with just one cell-phone picture, you know?"
For Namath, watching Sanchez date in public causes flashbacks. "It does call up some memories," he says, laughing. "When it comes to the love life, you know, there's always that question, when we meet ladies or talk to them or visit with them or whatever: Is it because I'm me, Joe, or me, Mark, or is it because of what I am or what I'm doing? It's a little..." He searches for the right word. "Clumsy."
Does Namath have any dating advice for Sanchez?
"To really do his homework."
Life With Father
Sanchez is the youngest of three brothers. The eldest, Nick junior, 38, played quarterback at Yale. The middle brother, Brandon, 32, played offensive line at DePauw.
When Sanchez was 4, his father and mother divorced. At first Sanchez's mother had custody of the boys, but after a few years they went to live with their father. "My mom realized, with boys, sometimes they need a dad to kind of keep them in line," says Nick junior, who acts as his brother's agent.
Nick senior definitely kept them in line. Before becoming an Orange County firefighter, he was a military policeman, and he sometimes parented like an MP. Sanchez recalls his father picking him up from school. Before driving off, Nick senior asked about Sanchez's day. Sanchez recounted the highlights. Then his father told him to go through it all again—this time without saying "like" or "um."
In junior high, Sanchez lost an article of clothing—he can't remember what. As punishment, as a reminder that money doesn't grow on trees, Nick senior ordered Sanchez to attend school for five days straight in the same clothes. "I still remember the outfit," Sanchez says. "Beige cargo shorts and a green shirt."
Curfew was when the streetlights came on. Bedtime wasn't long after. Sanchez always called his father "sir," and still does. If Sanchez feels any lingering resentment about his father's strict regimen, he doesn't express it. In fact, his jersey number, 6, honors his father's Fire Station No. 6.
Sanchez's mother, Olga, has always provided a football-free zone. With Mom he doesn't have to be the quarterback; he's still her mijo. She keeps him grounded, sends him Bible passages to help him through tough times. "Anything from the Book of Mark," he says. "She loves the Book of Mark."
When he was a star athlete in high school, Sanchez's mother would take three different buses from her house to the site of his game. That's why buying her a house—"she moves in today," he says with an ear-to-ear smile—is the greatest pleasure he's ever known.
"Mark," Nick junior says, "is a total mama's boy."
That Championship Season
The night after the informal practice at the health club and the wild go-kart derby in Jersey City, Sanchez—black jeans, black leather driving shoes, a white Travis Mathew polo shirt—climbs into a car-service Escalade with his marketing agent, Ryan Williams, and heads into the city. He was planning to attend a Broadway show, but at the last minute he got asked to the season premiere of Curb Your Enthusiasm. (An apt title for a history of the New York Jets.) As the Escalade nears the Time Warner Center, where the Curb screening is being held, Sanchez looks out the window at the swarms of people. "The city," he says. "Every time I come into New York, I kind of go: Okay." He sighs. "I'm going to The City."
The City is so far from where he was four short years ago—a backup at USC, riding the bench, yearning for his chance. Pat Kirwan, a former NFL coach and author of Take Your Eye off the Ball, remembers standing beside Sanchez on the sideline of the 2006 national championship, when USC, quarterbacked by Matt Leinart, fell to Texas. As the final seconds ticked off the clock, Kirwan recalls, "Mark turns to me, and he says, 'Now it's my effing team!' "
And then it wasn't his team. USC coach Pete Carroll elevated John David Booty, making Sanchez the backup. "I'm thinking, There's a time bomb here," Kirwan says. "He's going to transfer. He can't take this. Then I became more impressed with Mark Sanchez than ever. We know what was burning inside him, but this is where his class comes in—he never showed that to anyone. That's where he won me over as a high-character guy."
At last, in 2007, when Booty broke his finger, Sanchez got his chance. In three games as the fill-in, he showed flashes of brilliance. The following year, as the undisputed starter, he threw for the second most touchdowns in USC history and dazzled at the Rose Bowl.
Much was made of the 2009 news conference Sanchez held to announce that he was leaving school early to turn pro. Carroll said Sanchez was making a mistake, that the odds were against him succeeding in the NFL—then abruptly left the room. But Sanchez insists the media misread Carroll's intensity: "Coach Carroll is one of the most influential people in my life." And Carroll, now head coach of the Seattle Seahawks, has only praise for Sanchez. "I loved him when he walked out," he says. "I love him right now."
Two years later, on the verge of his all-important third season, the Jets are Sanchez's effing team, and this will be his effing City if he can take the franchise to the effing mountaintop. "We've got a good group," he says. "It's coming."
Does he know how crazy it will get in this city, in his life, if it comes?
He knows, he knows. But it won't change him. He won't let it. "I'll even sleep good that night," he says. "Or the next day, if we party all night."
Honestly? He's going to sleep well after winning the God-dang Super Bowl?
"I'm a good sleeper," he says. "A really good sleeper."
J. R. moehringer profiled LeBron James in the September 2010 issue.