New York Jets quarterback Mark Sánchez may be best known for his GQ-worthy good looks, but there is much more to the California native. In his third year with in the NFL and with two straight trips to the conference championship game under his belt, combined with his approach to making an impact off the field, he has seemed to fuel the National Football League's efforts to boost its Hispanic fan base.
Sánchez is not the first Hispanic to play pro football, but he has been called a cultural icon for his generation. His quick rise to fame and popularity within the Hispanic community has set him apart from other Hispanic players in the league’s history.
Sánchez is a third-generation Mexican-American whose ability to lure legions of loyal Latinos first put him in the national spotlight as quarterback for USC's Trojans.
Today, the numbers seem to indicate that he is still making history. With Sánchez leading the Jets and Tony Romo at the helm of the Dallas Cowboys, this season’s NFL Sunday night opener drew a record 2.74 million Hispanic viewers and marked the first meeting in five years between starting quarterbacks of Hispanic heritage.
As the NFL celebrates Hispanic Heritage Month, Jessica Coscia (North Carolina-based freelancer, FoxNewsLatino.com), had the opportunity to ask Sánchez about his approach to the game of life, his commitment to social good, and to reflect upon the people and life lessons that paved the way for his success.
Q: Mark, tell me about how your approach to the game of life has led to the realization of your dreams of becoming a professional athlete?
A: Beginning as a kid, my parents and brothers always pushed and challenged me to be my best at everything I was doing. Whether it was math, science, basketball or football, they wouldn't settle for anything but my best effort. And that attitude has allowed me to achieve my dream of playing in the NFL.
Q: Is football a job or a passion for you?
A: It's my passion. I can't express how much I love playing and competing. As a third-year player for the New York Jets, and after two trips to the AFC Championship Game, it's just a dream come true. I get to play a game that I absolutely love for my work. I play the game hard because I love it.
Q: How has the game changed since you entered the NFL?
A: The game hasn't changed that much during my first few years. Teams that do the fundamental things well are still very successful. You have to be good on the line, have balance, and good defense to win. Most important, you have to execute and eliminate mistakes to win over the long haul.
Q: What is the most mentally challenging part of each football season?
A: There is a tremendous mental side for quarterbacks each week. Your opponent is trying to figure out how to trick you, how to beat you, and you are doing the same thing during the week. Defensive coaches, who have been in the NFL longer than I have, are scheming and game- planning to beat our offense. I'm working with our coaches to find weaknesses on the other side. It really takes a lot of work to put together a good game plan. Then on game day, it could all go out the window if you were wrong. That's when you have to adjust on the run.
Q: How do you balance the time requirements of the NFL being a year-round league with the philanthropic efforts that you are involved in?
A: During the season I try to eliminate any extracurricular activities. There is very little free time each week. I'm either on the practice field, in the film room, meeting with coaches, getting treatment in the training room or just trying to rest my body for the coming game. Sometimes I'm able to break away here or there, but it is rare. I've created a Facebook page (www.facebook.com/OfficialMarkSánchez) where I make exclusive merchandise available to fans. The proceeds from the sales go to charity. I am able to spend more time working with charities during the off-season. My schedule is a little more flexible and my charitable partners understand that I get pretty tied up during the season.
Q: You have been a huge promoter of healthy and active lifestyles for kids. How can the NFL’s Play 60 program target Hispanic youth to lead more active lifestyles and reduce childhood obesity?
A: I think it's important to remind kids to get outside and play. I have no problem with video games and things like that, but I believe there has to be a balance. Get outside and have some fun on your bike or scooter. I think the NFL has done a great job with the Play 60 program raising awareness for childhood obesity and promoting healthy diet and lifestyles for kids.
Q: What impact has your upbringing had on your career?
A: Our family is close. We rely on each other and always take care of each other. That's who I am as a person and it probably affects my relationships with my teammates in a positive way.
Q: Has the Hispanic passion for loyalty and family helped you in building a family atmosphere both in the locker room and on the field?
A: I look at my teammates as family. We have to take care of each other, encourage each other and take the hard times and successes together. Football is the ultimate team game and we can only succeed if we work together.
Q: What does your family think of your career?
A: I think our family is enjoying it so far. They are very supportive. A bunch of my cousins and aunts will wear my Jets jersey on game day and watch the games together. I think it's been fun for them.
Q: Are they proud of your success?
A: Of course they celebrate the victories and suffer through the losses with me.
Q: Any kids in the family who hope to follow in your footsteps?
A: I'm not sure if anyone in the family aspires to play pro football, but I've got some young cousins and a nephew who are pretty good athletes in sports like basketball, baseball, soccer and hockey.
Q: Research shows that the NFL is starting to dominate the Hispanic audience segment. What effect do you feel this segment has on the leagues activities, recruitment efforts, and marketing?
A: I think that the NFL is a great game. Fans love it because it is fast paced, physical, emotional and exciting. That sort of a game translates into any language.
Q: Do you think the NFL’s audience will diversify further outside of the Hispanic market?
A: I believe it will continue to grow in the Hispanic markets and around the world.
Q: The New York Jets celebrated Hispanic Heritage Month at their game on September 18 with activities that reflect the vibrant diversity of New York’s Latino population. What is your reaction to the leagues Hispanic Heritage Month outreach efforts
A: I love it. Growing up in Southern California, I know how passionate Hispanic fans can be about their sports. I love the fact that the NFL is including Hispanic fans and targeting them by saying, 'Hey, we recognize your passion for the game and want you to be part of the experience.'
Q: As a third-generation Mexican American, what aspects of your life, if any, are influenced by your heritage?
A: Probably mostly in my family life growing up. Our culture reached every part of my childhood.
Q: What role do you feel culture plays in the life stories of professional athletes?
A: Whether it was language, food, attitudes toward certain things, I think it helped form who I am today.
Q: You have been regarded as an inspiration and a role model to Hispanics everywhere. Is this added pressure on you?
A: I'm honored to be a role model. I don't think of myself in those terms, but I understand why people say that because of the tremendous opportunity I have to play in the NFL and the platform provided to athletes. I take it seriously and I want young people to see that I work hard to achieve my goals. It might be more pressure on me, but it's not something I welcome. I love doing what I do and if I can be a positive influence on someone else, that makes it even better.
Q: Who was your role model growing up?
A: Growing up my role models were probably my mom, dad and brothers. I wanted to be like them, succeed like them. As for athletes, I loved watching guys like [John] Elway and Steve Young play.
Q: How can this generation of emerging Hispanic leaders in the NFL shed some light on the long line of Hispanics, who with little to no recognition, broke down barriers throughout the history of sports?
A: We have had some great Hispanic players and coaches in this league. I think we have to recognize the accomplishments of people like Jim Plunkett and Tom Flores. I think guys like me and coach [Ron] Rivera at Carolina, we are standing on their shoulders. We have opportunities because our predecessors seized their chance for success.
Q: Have you given any thought to what you would like to do after your football-playing career, and how long you would like to stay in the game?
A: I want to play for as long as they let me. I feel I'm just getting started and I don't want it to end.
Q: As a born and bred California boy, do you prefer life on the East or West Coast?
A: I love New York and it's exactly where I wanted to play. It is very different than California. I think I've adapted to the weather and big city over my first few years. At the same time, I love getting back home to sunny Southern California, the beaches and some good home cooking.
Q: What are some skills that you’ve learned in football that you will carry with you for the rest of your life?
A: Patience and perseverance. The ability to do more than you thought that you could do. I think those lessons will serve me for a lifetime.
Q: After two consecutive seasons of coming so close to the Super Bowl, what have you learned that can help you make it past the threshold of the AFC Championship Game this season?
A: I'm not sure if I can put my finger on anything in particular. Maybe it's just that you have to find a way to win. Football games have ups and downs, setbacks and achievements. But even when things are not going well, you have to find a way to win the game. Sometimes it's an unlikely turnover, punt return or touchdown. You have to trust your teammates and execute without any mistakes. Usually the team that makes fewer mistakes will win the big games.
Jessica Coscia is a freelancer based in North Carolina.