Mark Cornelius Sanchez was born on November 11, 1985, in Long Beach, California. (Click here for a complete listing of today's sports birthdays.) His parents, Olga and Nick, passed along a lively heritage. Mark is a third-generation Mexican-American. A great-grandfather on his mother's side moved to Arizona in the 1920s and got into the real estate business. Mark’s father’s father emigrated to California as a young man and later settled in the area that was cleared to make room for Dodger Stadium.
Mark spent his early years in the towns of Whittier and Pico Rivera—both a few miles south of Los Angeles. Problems plagued Nick and Olga’s marriage, and they divorced in 1989. Mark and his two older brothers, Nick Jr. and Brandon, stayed with their father, although Olga remained involved in their lives. Two years later, Nick and the boys moved to Rancho Santa Margarita, a mostly white inland community of about 50,000 in Orange County. He soon remarried.
Mark came from a football family. Nick, a firefighter, had been a star quarterback in high school and college. He went on to become a trainer for the powerhouse Santa Margarita High School football team. Mark served as a ballboy for a squad that produced blue-chip prospects Carson Palmer and Chris Rix. Palmer was one of his heroes.
Mark’s brothers were also football stars. Both played in college. All three Sanchez boys were raised to be leaders. They were polite, forthright and focused.
When Mark stepped on the football field, he was always the biggest kid. Although his father tried to groom him as a drop-back quarterback, his youth-league coaches usually installed him at fullback and linebacker. When Mark was a seventh grader, his dad convinced Bob Johnson—who ran an elite quarterback training school—to evaluate him. Johnson normally didn’t take 13-year-olds, but he suspected he might have a prodigy on his hands. By the end of camp, he was convinced Mark had the makings of an NFL passer.
Mark and his dad worked endlessly on the passing drills he learned at Johnson’s camp. He enrolled at Santa Margarita as a ninth grader and played one JV season and one varsity season before transferring to Mission Viejo High School, where Johnson was the head coach. The reuniting of mentor and pupil did not pay immediate dividends, as Mark labored with his accuracy in preseason practice. Soon it all came together, and he had a lights-out junior season in 2003, throwing for 2,600 yards and 29 touchdowns.
Mark’s mechanics were nearly flawless for a player his age, and although he may have had less raw talent than other prep quarterbacks, his decision-making, poise, and leadership were already highly developed. That summer, the recruiters came calling, including Notre Dame, Ohio State, Texas and Nebraska. The school Mark was dying to attend was also in the mix, USC.
How could he turn down the Trojans? Besides being an NFL football factory, USC would give mark the chance to work with Norman Chow, who had tutored the likes of Ty Detmer, Philip Rivers, Matt Leinart, and Palmer. Head coach Pete Carroll ran a pro-style offense similar to the one that Mark had learned as a boy. All the stars were aligned as he began his senior year at Mission Viejo.
Matt finished up his two-year career with the Diablos in style. He led the team to the state championship game in 2004 and produced a 49–21 victory. For the season, Mark passed for 2,441 yards and 24 touchdowns—and his numbers could have been even more impressive. Coach Johnson sat him for the second half of eight games because Mission Viejo was so far ahead after 30 minutes.
ON THE RISE
Two days after winning the state title, Mark got a call from Leinart, who had just won the Heisman Trophy as the U’SCs quarterback. He asked Mark about the championship game. Mark was bowled over. Leinart, a fellow Orange County football product, had become a role model for Mark—both on the field and off. Many thought Mark had more than a little Leinart in him.
Heading into the 2005 season, Mark was ranked on most scouting lists as the #2 prospect among the nation’s freshmen. Even so, he knew that he would redshirt and run USC’s scout team, learning the ropes against one of the best defenses in college football. With Leinart returning for his senior season, there was little sense in Mark suiting up to be the third- or fourth-string quarterback with John David Booty and Rocky Hinds above him on the depth charts. The Trojans went 12–1, but their season ended in disapointment after a loss to Vince Young’s and the Texas Longhorns in the Rose Bowl.
With Leinert graduated and Booty recovering from surgery, Carroll gave Mark a chance to run the first-team offense in the spring of 2006. He seemed to be on the fast-track—until he was arrested for sexual assault in April. The charges were later dropped by the student, but Mark was disciplined by the team for drinking and using a fake ID on the night in question. That fall, as Mark dealt with the ramifcations of his poor judgment, he saw action in three games as a backup. The Trojans went 11–2 with Booty at the helm.
Any chance of supplanting Booty as the starter in 2007 seemed to evaporate after Mark broke the thumb of his throwing hand in fall practice. But just as soon as he mended, Booty broke a finger, and Carroll inserted Mark into the lineup. He was nervous in the first half against Arizona and threw a couple of bad interceptions. In the second half, he relaxed and played with poise, leading USC to a 20–13 victory with 130 passing yards and a touchdown.
A week later, Mark was the starter again, this time against Notre Dame. He was superb from start to finish, completing 21 passes for 235 yards and four touchdowns in a rousing victory. Mark was named player of the game for his effort. His good run ended in a 24–17 loss to Oregon. Mark threw a pair of disastrous interceptions in the second half, wich costs the Trajoans dearly. Afterwards, he took responsibility. Then he took a seat, as Booty reassumed the starting role. USC finished the year at 11–2 again with Mark engineering two of those victories. In all, he passed for 695 yards and seven touchdowns.
In 2008, with Booty graduated, Mark began spring practice as the team’s top quarterback. He faced stiff competition from Aaron Corp, a redshirt freshman with a similar pedigree to Mark's. Transfer Mitch Mustain, a former Arkansas Razorback, ws also in the mix.
Mark solidified his hold on the starting job heading into fall practice, but there were some nervous moments when he dislocated a kneecap. The injury proved less severe than it looked, and he was in game shape for the opener against Virginia. Mark threw for 338 yards against the Cavaliers and was named the nation’s Quarterback of the Week. Like all high-rpofile USC stars, he instantly appeared on the Heisman Trophy radar.
Mark ran a balanced Trojan attack that had national championship ambitions. An early season loss to Oregon State derailed this dream, but other than this head-scratching defeat, USC was perfect, going 11–1 and earning a berth in the Rose Bowl. Mark’s best moment during the regular season came against archrival UCLA. He defeated the Bruins with incredible composure and determination, despite being mugged by their defense again and again.
Meanwhile, Mark was becoming a Latino celebrity of near-Fernandomania proportions. As the most recognizable Mexican-American athlete in a city with more than three million Mexican Americans, he was the topic of great pride and debate as he became a figure of national prominence. Things got a little out of hand when fans began showing up at USC games wearing "Lucha Libre" wrestling masks. For his part, Mark embraced this new celebrity. He was not fluent in Spanish but began taking classes so he could do interviews with Latino news outlets.
In what would be his final college game, Mark won a shootout against Penn State, 38–24. After a subdued first quarter, the Trojans lit up the Nittany Lions, scoring 24 points to take a commanding lead. Penn State tacked on 17 meaningless points in the fourth quarter. Mark threw for 413 yards and four touchdowns, completing 28 of 35 attempts for a Rose Bowl record 80% passing mark. He also ran for a fifth score.
Only two other quarterbacks had surpassed 400 yards in the Rose Bowl, Ron Vander Kelen in 1963 and Danny O’Neill in 1995. On the strength of their blowout of Penn State, the Trojans finished #2 in the Coaches Poll and #3 in the AP Poll.
MAKING HIS MARK
Mark’s junior numbers were sensational. He rolled up 3,207 passing yards and 34 touchdowns against only 10 interceptions. Mark now had the resume and pedigree to go pro, but he loved USC and couldn't decide what to do next. The nation’s other top quarterbacks made it easy for him. When Tim Tebow, Colt McCoy and Heisman winner Sam Bradford all announced they would stay in school, Mark—who was on track to earn his degree that semester—declared himself eligible for the NFL Draft. Carroll, who had become quite close to Mark, disagreed with his choice and told the press how he felt.
Mark was one of three good-looking college passers entering the draft. The top guy in almost every scout’s book was Matthew Stafford of Georgia. He was taken by the winless Detroit Lions with the #1 pick. Josh Freeman, rated higher than Mark early on, slipped down the charts as draft day neared and was picked up by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The Jets, having been burned by Brett Favre in 2008, needed a quarterback that they could build around. New York believed Mark was their man, even if the fans weren’t in total agreement. The team traded three players, plus the #17 pick and a second-round selection to the Browns to move up to #5, where they took Mark off the board. Some joked the Cleveland coach Eric Magini, formely New York’s head honcho, had finally helped the Jets solve their quarterback problem.
New Jets coach Rex Ryan, a defensive coordinator with the Baltimore Ravens in 2008, had watched his team come within a eyelash of reaching the Super Bowl with rookie quarterback Joe Flacco at the helm. Ryan was hired to whip New York’s defense into shape, but he had no qualms about handing the reins of the offense over to Mark. The rookie, however, would have to out-play Kellen Clemens, Favre’s backup during the disappointing ’08 campaign.
Mark signed a five-year pact with the Jets for $50 million, with a little more than half guaranteed. Throughout training camp, he demonstrated the necessary skills and the maturity to lead the Jets. In late August, Ryan named him the team’s starter.
In the season opener, on the road against the Houston Texans, Mark looked sharp in a 24–7 victory. He finished with 272 yards, one touchdown and one interception, and converted more than half of the team’s third-down plays. Just as important, the New York defense, a joke for much of the previous season, was airtight against a talented Texan offense.
The confidence gained on both sides of the ball in Week 2, when the Jets faced the New England Patriots in the Meadowlands. With Bill Belichick coming to town, the intensity ratcheted up several notches. Ryan, meanwhile, had upped the ante by trash-talking about the Pats and their coach from the day he was hired. Jets fans arrived in East Rutherford hoping for the best but expecting the worst—basically a typically game against New Engalnd.
What fans saw in the first half was a jittery rookie playing the shadow of Tom Brady. The Jets managed a mere three points, but theywere also getting to Brady, keeping him from mounting sustained scoring drives. At halftime, all New England had to show for its effort was nine points.
Mark came out gunning nn the second half. He looked like a different player. Mark put the Jets in front early in third quarter with a three-play, 56-yard drive the ended with a nine-yard strike to Dustin Keller. The Jets added a pair of field goals and made key stops the rest of the way, winning 16–9. Mark finished 14 for 22 for 163 yards and a touchdown.
After the game, the fans and press were ready to anoint Mark the next Joe Namath. But he knew better than to fall into that trap. It was a special moment, he said, but he knew the feeling would only last for a couple of hours before everyone had to start thinking about the team’s next battle. It came against the Tennessee Titans and, once again, Mark did what the team needed to stay in the game. The Jets turned a 17–14 second-half deficit into a 24–17 won on a short TD pass from Mark to Cotchery and a Jay Feely field goal. The defense held the Titans scoreless in the fourth quarter. It marked the first time since the NFL-AFL merger that a rookie quarterback had opened a season 3–0.
The New York defense was good again in Week 4 against the Saints, but Mark was not. New Orleans won 24–10, and two of the Saints' touchdowns were hand-delivered by Mark. The first was a 99-yard TD return of an interception by Darren Sharper. The second came on a fumble by Mark in his end zone after a sack. Two more close losses followed until Mark righted the ship with a 38–0 blowout of the Oakland Raiders.
Three more losses, with Mark was playing inconsistently in each one. The Jets were basically running on the first two downs of eery series and then looking to Mark to complete passes on third down. Most plays were play-action, directed away from the middle of the field. With six losses in seven games, some questioned whether the Jets should have signed a veteran backup as opposed to Kellen Clemens.
Clemens did see action in December, after Mark hurt his knee. He played in a win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and a loss to the Atlanta Falcons that dropped New York’s record to 7–7. Coach Ryan reinserted Mark for the season’s final two games, against the undefeated Indianapolis Colts and playoff-bound Cincinnati Bengals. Neither opponent put its best team on the field, and the Jets were able to pull out a pair of victories to finish the year 9–7. Mark gained confidence in each win, and because the Jets got some help in the standings, he would be able to show what he’d learned in the playoffs, as the Jets snared a Wild Card berth.
What followed was an improbable and ultimately heartbreaking run at the team’s first Super Bowl in over 40 years. The Jets first traveled to Cincinnati for a rematch with the Bengals, who were looking to avenge the 37–0 beating their second-stringers took in New York weeks before. Cincy got off to a good start when Carson Palmer found ex-Jet Laveranues Coles in the end zone to open the scoring, but two long touchdown plays in the second quarter gave the Jets the lead. The first came on an explosive run by rookie Shonn Greene. Later in the period, with the Jets edging into Cincinnati territory, Mark hit Keller with a scoring pass good for 45 yards. The teams traded touchdowns in the second half, but the Jets pulled away 24–14 on Jay Feeley’s 20-yard field goal late in the final period.
The Jets flew to Southern California the following week to take on the Chargers. Once again, the rookies proved to be the difference makers, as Greene had a big game and Sanchez managed the offense well. The Jets trailed 7–0 at the half but pecked away at the San Diego defense for 17 second-half points. The Chargers scored a late touchdown and tried an onsides kick, but the Jets recovered to seal the deal and advance to their first AFC Championship since 1998. The winning score came on another long run by Greene.
For the second time in the 2009 playoffs, New York faced a team looking to settle a score. In Week 16, the Jets had ended a bid for a perfect season by the Colts. In a controversial move, Peyton Manning had been rested in the second half of that contest, during which New York outscored Indianapolis 26–6. With the starters on the field for the full 60 minutes this time, both teams had something to prove.
The Jets took an early 7–3 lead when Mark hooked up with Braylon Edwards for an 80-yard touchdown. Later in the first half, he engineered a seven-play, 77-yard drive that culminated in a short TD pass to Keller—his third in three postseason games. The Jets moved ahead 17–13, but that would be their last lead. Manning riddled the normally stingy New York secondary with scoring passes to Austin Collie, Pierre Garcon and Dallas Clark, and the Colts won easily, 30–17.
As the Jets entered the 2010 season, two huge question marks hung over the team: 1) Would defensive standout Darrelle Revis return to 100% effectiveness after a protracted holdout? 2) Would Mark improve on his rookie numbers and seize control of the offense? The answer to both was yes, although Revis battled a sore hamstring for much of the year. For his part, Mark played with greater confidence, was given more responsibility, and went through the typical sophomore ups and downs.
The New York offense was either great or awful, which made the Jets an inconsistent team at times. Mark understood his role well. The Jets were still primarily a running team, even after Jones left the club in the off-season. He was replaced by Ladainian Tomlinson, who teamed with Greene and fullback Tony Richardson to give the ground game an effective 1-2-3 punch. Meanwhile, Santonio Homes also joined the club, offering another primetime target for Mark.
After a 10–9 loss to the Ravenson Opening Day, New York reeled off nine wins in their next 10 games to challenge the Patriots for the division lead. Many of these wins came on heart-stopping fourth-quarter comebacks. On the one hand, it showed that Mark was capable of being a clutch quarterback. But his detractors pointed out that these victories came against clubs the Jets should have beaten easily. A Week 13 showdown with the Pats was billed as the true test of New York’s mettle. The result was a catastrophic 45–3 loss that all but the most optimistic Gang Green fans writing off any hopes of a successful season. The Jets managed to split their final four games to finish 11–5, good for the #6 seed in the AFC playoffs.
Mark nearly reversed his numbers from ’09. Overall, he completed 278 of 507 passes for 3,291 yards, 17 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Mark’s biggest problem was accuracy. He smily missed too many open receivers, particularly on vertical throws down the field. But he did show grit and moments of brilliance when the New York offense looked unstoppable.
Once again, Mark and his teammates threw it into a new gear once the postseason started. Up first were the Colts—hobbled but still dangerous with Manning calling the signals. When the All-Pro hit Pierre Garcon with a long scoring pass to end the first half 7–0, New York fans winced. In the second half, however, the two teams sparred back and forth with the Jets getting the better of it. Tomlinson found the end zone on a pair of short runs, and the Jets led 14–13 with under two minutes to play. Manning drove the Colts deep into New York territory but could not reach the end zone. Adam Vinatieri booted a field goal to give Indy a 16–14 lead with 1:43 to play.
The Jets started on offense with good field position after a long run-back by Antonio Cromartie. With New York marching, Mark completed a prettysideline pass to Edwards to set up a 32-yard field goal by Nick Folk to win the game.
Tempering the joy in Jets Nation was the looming presence of the Patriots. New England looked like the dominant team from the outset, but a botched screen pass by Tom Brady on the opening drive change in the whole tenor of the contest. From that point on, the Jets gained more and more confidence. Mark threw TD passes to Tomlinson and Edwards in the second quarter to give his club a 14–3 halftime lead.
The Patriots came back with a touchdown and two-point conversion in the third quarter to cut the margin to 14–11. The Jets answered with a touchdown pass from Mark to Holmes in the left corner of the end zone. It was an exquisitely thrown ball and a catch every bit as good as the winning play Holmes made in the Super Bowl for the Steelers a couple of years earlier. Greene capped off the fourth-quarter scoring for New York with another bruising run The final score was 28–21, but the Jets made Brady work for every point. They swarmed him when he dropped back to pass and dropped him five times.
Thus the Jets became the most unlikely back-to-back AFC Championship contenders in recent memory. Their opponent in the big game was Pittsburgh, a team New York had beaten 22–17 back in December. In that game, Ben Roethlisberger had a chance to win the game in the final moments, but he failed to get his team into the end zone on four consecutive plays. This time, however, the outcome would be different. Big Ben led Pittsburgh to a commanding 24–3 halftime lead. Only in the second half did the Jets stop Roethlisberger. Mark also to find openings in the hard-hitting Pittsburgh defense. The Jets made things interesting in a nail-biting fourth quarter, but they came up short, 24–19. Mark completed 20 of 33 passes and threw two touchdowns.
Few fans doubt Mark’s potential to become an elite NFL quarterback anymore. Regardless of his flaws, he has exhibited the skill, fortitude and creativity to take a good team to the edge of greatness in each of his first two seasons. Mark has the talent and charisma to own New York if he continues to develop. He may not be the next Broadway Joe, but it also may not be long before Jets fans will start guaranteeing themselves a Super Bowl victory.
MARK THE PLAYER
Mark was groomed from childhood to be a drop-back passer, and he all but mastered that position while in college. In USC's pro-style offense, he developed amazing poise and confidence—perhaps more than any Trojan quarterback in recent memory.
Mark's footwork, vision, and football intelligence are rare for a newly minted NFL starter. His leadership skills were tested in several close games during the 2010 season, and he passed (literally and figuratively) with flying colors. Even in defeat he has shown he knows what to say and do to keep his teammates focused and positive.
Thus far the Jets have been delighted to see that Mark is able to move and throw without panicking. He still rushes passes at key moments, but more and more he seems to make these plays with great throws under pressure. His touchdown throw to Holmes against the Patriots in the 2010 playoffs was one that Johnny Unitas or Joe Montana would have been proud of.
Mark has also shown the ability to avoid the traps set by opposing defenses when he is flushed out of the pocket. Thanks to some much-publicized sliding lessons from New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi, Mark is now less likely to be injured when he scoots downfield. The one part of his game that needs finetuning is his accuracy. Mark has tendency to drop his elbow, which causes passes to sail high.
Although Mark drew comparisons to Tom Brady coming out of college, the difference between the two became clear during the 2010 playoffs. While Brady's effectiveness is often diminished by throwing on the run, Mark's is enhanced. Defensive coordinators will surely look at hours of tape on Mark to find the best ways to combat him.
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