Leadership Role: Mark Sanchez has been groomed for the opportunity at hand

This story originally appeared in Mile High Sports MagazineClick here to read the full digital issue.

Mark Sanchez was groomed to be a leader before he even knew what leadership was.

When he arrived home from school as a boy, his father, Nick Sanchez Sr., would often ask his youngest son how the day went. Mark would tell him everything. Yet he would inevitably have to retell the day’s events at his dad’s request, without saying “like” or “um.”

Those lessons served Mark well when he had to give speeches at end-of-season banquets. It didn’t matter if it was football, basketball or baseball, Nick ensured his boy was the one to present Coach with the obligatory gift certificate to Chili’s or Applebee’s. Mark would tell the coach what he was thankful for and also talk about the team.

Moreover, Nick encouraged Mark to assert himself, outwork everybody, be first in line and not be afraid to speak up. Not just in sports, but in life. Mark complied, albeit begrudgingly. He thought the teachings were “tedious and stupid.”

“Nobody else does that,” he would often argue.

“Well, maybe nobody else is going to do what you’re going to do,” Nick would reply.

Eventually, Mark realized the fruit of his father’s labor. The annoying lessons made him a better person and better public speaker. In turn, he held the confidence necessary to be in front of people, to talk in a locker room, to talk in a huddle – skills he needed as he developed into a prep star in southern California.

His position on the football field further forced him into a leadership role. A team often goes as the quarterback goes, and Mark’s squads went far. His Mission Viejo High team won a state championship his senior year and went 27-1 during his two years there. (He attended Santa Margarita High as a freshman and sophomore.) After a redshirt season and two years as a backup at the University of Southern California, Mark led the Trojans to a decisive Rose Bowl victory that left USC ranked No. 3 in the country. He was the game’s MVP and declared for the NFL Draft soon thereafter, despite having one year of eligibility remaining.

Sanchez’s time in the pros, however, has been mixed. He’s reached two AFC Championship Games, but might be more remembered for his infamous “butt fumble.” He’s thrown 95 touchdowns in six seasons, but also 87 interceptions. He’s won 41 games, but lost 37. He’s started 78 career games, but only 10 the past two years. By nearly every measurement, Sanchez has been perfectly mediocre.

Which is why his arrival in Denver in March was met with a collective shrug from Broncos Country. The reigning Super Bowl champions sent a seventh-round draft pick to Philadelphia for Sanchez, a move deemed acceptable, if not necessary, at the time. It came four days after future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning officially retired, and two days after the presumed heir, Brock Osweiler, bolted for Houston. The Broncos needed a quarterback and Sanchez would do until someone better came along (no offense to Trevor Siemian, the soon-to-be second-year quarterback who briefly found himself as the only passer on the roster).

Yet, Sanchez never saw it that way. He knew he wasn’t guaranteed anything, but he fully expected to be the starter. It didn’t matter if general manager John Elway brought in another veteran (which he tried to do) or drafted a quarterback (which he did do); Sanchez saw the Broncos’ quarterback job as his.

He says he didn’t closely monitor the quarterback departures here, but when Sanchez learned he was being shipped to Denver, it didn’t take long to realize the opportunity before him. In his press conference introducing him as a Bronco, he reeled off phrases like “reinvigorating feeling” and “incredible opportunity” and “dream come true.”

Prior to that meeting with the media, Sanchez sat down to write out a list.

“What do I really want?” he wrote. “What have I learned in the past? Going into this situation, what will help me maximize this opportunity?”

Sanchez quickly remembered his father’s lessons on leadership. “When you walk into a room, you can be a leader,” he recalled Nick telling him years ago. He brought that message to life upon arriving in Denver.

“When he walks in a room, he is that kind of guy,” says offensive coordinator Rick Dennison, who hadn’t met Sanchez previously and was unaware of the father’s life lessons. “He likes to take control and does a good job.”

And so here Sanchez is, about to embark on his eighth year in the NFL. The Broncos are his third team. He’s been a backup for two years. He’s not yet lived up to the hype that comes with being a top-five draft pick.

But he’s been given a second chance to meet those expectations, which mostly concur with his expectations. He believes this year, this situation, will begin to change the mediocre perception he’s developed. He feels he’s been prepared for a time such as this.

***

When Nick Sanchez Sr. wasn’t teaching his sons – Nick Jr., Brandon and Mark – how to be leaders, he was showing them. He’s a former Army sergeant who served as a captain in the Orange County Fire Authority for 20-plus years. His fire station in Irvine, Calif. was an urban search and rescue team, taking Nick right to the heart of such disasters as Hurricane Katrina and 9/11.

The firehouse was like a second home for Mark and his brothers, as well as for the children of the other men on Nick’s crew. Five different families spent many Thanksgivings, Christmases and Easters together, even went on vacations together. Mark saw countless instances of his father leading others.

Nick had a nickname for everyone. He was always positive. He made the decisions he needed to make, but also allowed for others to shine and elevate themselves.

“I got to see how somebody could interact with people while being the leader and being personable, not just a dictator,” Mark says.

He took on those qualities as he starred in high school and again when he became the starter at USC. Sanchez’s ever-positive outlook and constant energy led teammates to call him the Mexican Jumping Bean.

But leading when you’re a team’s best player is one thing; it’s much more difficult when you’re a 22-year-old rookie on a defensively-dominated NFL team. Sanchez moved across the country when the New York Jets traded up 12 spots to take him fifth overall in the 2009 draft. He moved to the top of their depth chart largely because of the hype that comes with being a top-five pick from USC.

Sanchez began his rookie season admirably: Three straight wins while tossing four touchdowns and two interceptions. Then he threw three picks with no scores in Week 4. Two Sundays later: Five picks and no touchdowns. There was a four-pick game in November, and another three-pick showing in December.

Despite only 12 touchdown passes against 20 interceptions from their quarterback, the Jets finished 9-7 and claimed a Wild Card. It was because they rode their top-ranked defense. Darrelle Revis, Shaun Ellis and Bart Scott led a unit that allowed the fewest yards and points in the NFL that season. That defense keyed the Jets to two playoff wins on the road before they squandered an early lead on Manning and the Colts in the AFC Championship Game.

The defense slipped a bit in 2010, but improved play from Sanchez helped the Jets to an 11-5 record and another Wild Card. They knocked off Manning and Tom Brady to return to the conference title game, only to fall behind the Steelers 24-3 at halftime and never recover.

Two years in the pros, two AFC Championship Game appearances and Sanchez appeared to have silenced the critics – including his own USC head coach, Pete Carroll, who said he left college too early. Statistically, Sanchez’s third year was even better (217.1 yards per game, 26 TDs, 18 INTs), but the defensive slide continued and New York missed the playoffs at 8-8. Sanchez’s form joined the decline in 2012; the Jets went 6-10.

He looks back now and admits he got caught up in the big city lifestyle.

“In New York there’s a lot of access, a lot of opportunity,” he says. “I’d be lying to you if I said I was doing things right, on and off the field. I worked hard and I studied hard, but I also just had a little too much fun at times. I wasn’t reading the Bible, I wasn’t in a daily devotional, I didn’t have people around me that were going to keep me accountable, and your faith starts to slip.”

Sanchez picked up his Christian faith from his mother, Olga. She and Nick Sr. divorced when Mark was young, but both stayed active in their sons’ lives. Mark often attended church with his mom in Diamond Bar, about 30 miles north of Irvine.

He strayed from his faith, though, as football took top priority in his life. But having the game taken away from him altered his perspective on what’s most important.

Following the disastrous 2012 season, the Jets drafted Geno Smith in the second round. The team’s apparent desire to move on from Sanchez was made easy when he tore the labrum in his right (throwing) shoulder the following preseason. He missed the entire year after undergoing surgery. The Jets officially let him go in March 2014. He spent a week on the market before Philadelphia signed him to a one-year contract.

The Eagles had Nick Foles coming off an improbable Pro Bowl season, so Sanchez was immediately slotted as the backup. He was also rehabbing the shoulder and had to be eased into the up-tempo Philly offense.

Yet, Sanchez was well-prepared for the uphill battle of regaining his form after getting to know Miles McPherson, a former NFL player who became the pastor at The Rock Church in San Diego. The two met during Sanchez’s season away from football, and McPherson helped Sanchez see his Christianity not as a religion, but as a personal relationship with God.

Sanchez later attended a conference put on by Pro Athletes Outreach, a Christian sports ministry. There, he rededicated his life to God. Weeks later he moved to Philadelphia and met Theodore Winsley, the Eagles’ team chaplain. Winsley was instrumental in Sanchez maintaining his faith while he grappled with being a backup.

In the eighth game of the 2014 season, though, Sanchez took over for an injured Foles. He played three quarters, threw for 202 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions and got a 31-21 win over Houston. He started the rest of the season. Philadelphia went 4-4, ending the year 10-6, which wasn’t good enough for postseason play. But had Sanchez taken the job from Foles?

We’ll never know. Foles was traded to St. Louis on the first official day of the 2015 season, in exchange for Sam Bradford, the No. 1 overall pick from 2010. Sanchez was re-signed to a two-year contract, but relegated to backup duty once again.

The injury-prone Bradford went down in the ninth game last season, allowing Sanchez two starts. With a dilapidated roster, the Eagles lost each contest. Bradford returned for the final five weeks.

So Sanchez entered the 2016 offseason under contract, but unsure of what would happen. He vowed to not worry about what he couldn’t control and just focus on preparing to compete.

“And then all this happened,” he says about Denver. “Now I get a second chance.”

***

Sanchez’s finest seasons came when his team boasted a strong running game and stout defense. To go with that No. 1 defense during Sanchez’s rookie year, the Jets also owned the league’s best running game. They were fourth in rushing as they returned to the AFC Championship Game in 2010, with the defense ranked No. 3.

Strong running game. Stout defense. That is the Broncos’ plan for 2016. Though it lost a couple key contributors, the top-ranked defense expects to excel once again. And the offense is optimistic about a running game that found its footing late last season.

When you consider the generally poor play at quarterback for Denver last year (19 touchdowns, 23 interceptions), even another mediocre season from Sanchez could be an upgrade. But it’s not off base to think he might improve his numbers with the talent around him. He’s never had receivers on the level of Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders.

“You get to a place like this – they put so many good players around you, so much talent around you, it’s like, ‘Man, this is a dream come true,’” Sanchez says.

He didn’t waste any time building a rapport with his new teammates. He immediately began watching film at the team’s Dove Valley headquarters, making sure to meet new players, coaches and staffers every day. He continued his annual tradition of hosting teammates for a passing camp near his home in California, but this was the first with Broncos receivers, tight ends and running backs. Sanchez even flew out Siemian, one of the quarterbacks he’d be in direct competition with.

He made involvement with his new community a priority, too. Sanchez has attended events with Children’s Hospital Colorado and visited servicemen and servicewomen at Buckley Air Force Base. He also started a Bible study at his home with the help of Broncos team chaplain, Luther Elliss. Russell Okung, Kenny Anunike and Shiloh Keo are a few of the regulars, but as many as 15-20 guys have shown up. Wives and children are welcome.

“Free food. Free Jesus,” Sanchez joked with running back C.J. Anderson, who overheard the new guy discussing the group and playfully announced, “I ain’t there though.”

“He’s coming. One day,” Sanchez said optimistically.

That friendly exchange took place shortly after the first day of a mandatory minicamp in June. It was also the first day head coach Gary Kubiak revealed any semblance of a quarterback depth chart. Sanchez ran with the ones, Siemian with the twos, and rookie Paxton Lynch with the threes. Despite that slotting, many have proclaimed Lynch, the Broncos’ first-round pick in April, as the team’s quarterback of the future, not Sanchez.

Kubiak later made it clear that nothing with the quarterback position was set in stone, other than saying all three guys will get their reps. He vows to have a depth chart heading into training camp in July, but wouldn’t declare Sanchez, or anyone else, the starter just yet.

That doesn’t change Sanchez’s approach. He aims to remain with the first team as camp opens. He’s certainly the front-runner. He’s got the most experience, the leadership qualities, the work ethic, and his teammates and coaches can see his desire.

“He works his tail off. He’s getting everything he can, any bits of information and trying to get better every step of the way,” Dennison says.

Training camp can’t come soon enough. Sanchez isn’t blind to the opportunity he’s been gifted and he’s ready to capitalize. The lessons from his father, and the tough seasons he’s endured more recently, have prepared him properly.

“Maybe those last couple years were just a breath of fresh air and a regrouping period,” he says. “And now I get a chance to just take off.”

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