Jets may corner Hispanic football market

New York Jets' Mark Sanchez an inspiration to Hispanics
by M.A. Mehta/The Star-Ledger, April 30, 2009

A few days after the Jets' blockbuster draft-day trade, Gerry Salme hoped a man he had never heard of would help him.

Salme can't recite Mark Sanchez's career statistics or gauge his arm strength. He's not certain whether the Jets fleeced the Cleveland Browns or gave up too much to get the University of Southern California quarterback in last Saturday's NFL draft.

For the director of operations at the FOCUS Hispanic Center for Community Development in Newark, Sanchez's greatest impact will involve forging a connection with the nearly 1.4 million Hispanics in New Jersey.

Sanchez -- a 22-year-old third-generation Mexican-American -- became a fabric of the Latino community in Los Angeles during his college career. He was a role model to countless underprivileged Hispanic children, working with youth centers across the city.

"It would help our children if he could have that direct involvement," Salme said. "It would motivate them, raise their self-esteem and give them hope that they also can become professional athletes if they set their minds to it."

Sanchez's charisma could also fuel the National Football League's efforts to boost its Hispanic fan base, estimated at 25 million people. The league's diversity initiatives to attract Latino followers have included promoting stars like Pro Bowl tight end Tony Gonzalez and playing a regular-season game in Mexico City.

Sanchez, who will practice with the Jets for the first time Friday in Florham Park, already has a solid foundation playing for a team that was one of the first in the NFL to broadcast its games in Spanish. His No. 6 jersey is the top seller coming out of the draft and the hottest piece of team merchandise this week, said Matt Higgins, executive vice president of business operations for the Jets.

"The dynamic is already in place for Mark," Higgins said. "It doesn't have to be contrived on our part. He's already got a deep following in the Hispanic community. Now that he's on the national stage in the capital of the world, that's only to grow."

Sanchez's bi-coastal appeal also could turn him into a mega-star if he lives up to the Hollywood hype.

"The guy's got an unbelievable opportunity to do some damage," said Ryan Schinman, president of Platinum Rye Entertainment, a Manhattan advertising consultant. "He's the player on the Jets now. He can be a terrific inspiration for other Hispanics. He knows he can make a difference."

He knows the dangers, too.

OVERNIGHT SENSATION

Kids in Los Angeles were sticking out their bellies and looking to the heavens, mimicking that funky windup.

Nick Sanchez Jr. vividly remembers the summer of 1981 when Fernando Mania swept the city. Dodgers pitcher Fernando Valenzuela, the pudgy son of a poor Mexican farmer, had become an overnight sensation in Hispanic neighborhoods. Stickball games were sprinkled with children filled with hope.

When Sanchez's kid brother started his first game for USC in 2007, it was Fernando Mania all over again. Fans gravitated to Mark Sanchez, wearing serapes and homemade T-shirts with ¡Viva Sanchez! stretched across their chests. The Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, USC's home field, became one big Latino festival complete with well-wishers chanting for their newest hero.

"The fans were just wild for him," said Nick Sanchez, a former quarterback at Yale. "The Hispanic community had somebody to root for in a position where they rarely have. He embraced it. He was playing for everybody ... the whole city. It wasn't just one community. But he was really grateful for that and tried to honor them in return."

Sanchez's simple gesture of thanks caused an uproar.

Midway through the 2007 season, the USC dentist gave the quarterback a custom-made mouthpiece emblazoned with the Mexican flag.

Sanchez's four-touchdown performance against Notre Dame in his second career start was quickly overshadowed by the firestorm over the mouthguard. Detractors questioned Sanchez's patriotism, calling his decision to wear the protective gear a sign of radical activism.

Sanchez, stunned at the backlash, received threatening letters.

"In his eyes, it was a fun thing to do," Nick Sanchez said. "He called it a high-five or thanks to them for being so supportive of him. It wasn't some sort of planned political stance. He really didn't know how folks would respond to it. He didn't think it would be negative in any way. So, it surprised him."

Sanchez's popularity within the Latino community continued to soar after he ditched the mouthpiece.

Before long, he found support in the strangest places.

SOURCE OF PRIDE

Fabian Ruiz is ready to root for a man on a team he despises.

The Rutgers tight end won't pull a No. 6 Sanchez jersey over his head anytime soon, but the life-long Miami Dolphins fan wants the rookie quarterback to succeed.

"There definitely is a source of pride," said Ruiz, who left Cuba at age 6 and settled in Miami. "We've come a long way. Especially now when there's a lot of talk of immigration, it's nice to know that a Mexican-American is highly thought of somewhere."

Said Paterson Mayor Jose Torres: "He's clean-cut and very humble. He's going to be an asset on and off the field as a role model for young Latino men to emulate."

Rutgers linebacker Manny Abreu, a Union City native, hopes Sanchez will make a trip there to steer Hispanic kids toward the game. He hopes having a Mexican-American at the most important position in the biggest market can pave the way for limitless opportunities for Latinos in football.

"He can show that baseball is not the only Hispanic sport," Abreu said. "And that football is obviously out there. We just need to push our young kids in that direction."

For long-suffering Jets fans, Sanchez could be the one who finally delivers a Super Bowl.

For Hispanics everywhere, he could be so much more.

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