FLORHAM PARK, N.J. – Mark Sanchez strolled out of a restaurant and pulled a fast one on his future coach.
It was a moment, back in 2009, when Rex Ryan knew he needed the goofball kid with the golden arm from Southern California to lead the New York Jets.
Sanchez had just finished a pre-draft workout with the team and had dinner with Ryan, owner Woody Johnson and general manager Mike Tannenbaum, among others. Afterward, they walked to the parking lot together.
"My car's on the far side of the restaurant and they're walking to their car," Sanchez recalled Wednesday. "Right next to their car is a motorcycle, so I said, 'All right, I'll see you guys later.'
Sanchez snatched the helmet off the bike and was about to hop on when he realized — by the stunned look on their faces — that he had them.
"I was just messing around," Sanchez said with a huge grin. "I felt that comfortable with them."
Ryan lives and leads by not taking himself too seriously. What better match than to pin his Super Bowl hopes on a quarterback who's just like him.
For the second straight season, Ryan and Sanchez are a win away from their ultimate goal — the Super Bowl.
"A lot of times, a guy can think he's a good competitor, but when you get on the biggest stage, not so much," Ryan said. "He's such a huge competitor, but the bigger the stage, the more he wants to play."
And, it's where Sanchez has excelled. He doesn't have the impressive career numbers of Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers or Carson Palmer, but he has sent all four home in the playoffs the past two seasons.
What's more, he's already got one thing on Broadway Joe: Sanchez ranks first in Jets history with four career playoff victories — all on the road — and will have more postseason road wins than any other quarterback in NFL history if he can lead New York (13-5) to a win over Ben Roethlisberger and Pittsburgh (13-4) in the AFC championship game Sunday night.
"This is his time to shine," Ryan said. "That's just the way Mark is."
Sure, he makes fans hold their breath at times, but he has already established himself as a winner with a confidence that belies his age — 24 — and limited time in the NFL. More than just the playoff victories, Sanchez has shown he can win games late in regulation, in overtime or with the odds stacked against him.
"He's a good quarterback in my eyes," Steelers linebacker James Farrior said. "He does a great job of managing their football team and doesn't do anything to lose the game. We definitely give him a lot of respect."
He's also a pretty popular guy, with advertising executives panting at the prospect of getting Sanchez to endorse their product. He has kept those to a minimum for now, but as one former Jets quarterback knows, if you win in New York, you're a winner everywhere.
"Mark and I were both gifted with our quick feet and having the physical abilities to do things, but the mind comes into play so much," Joe Namath said recently. "He's wrestling with himself at times, like we all do, and he's got a lot of things going on in that head of his. But so far he's handled things beautifully.
"I want to congratulate his father because Mark had some good leadership early on, boy," Namath said. "You think it's a gift, but I think it's a skill that he's honed and that he's working on."
Nick Sanchez, a former firefighter, still travels to all of his son's games and watches from high in the upper decks of stadiums. Mom, Olga, taught him not to take anything for granted from the time he played Pop Warner football to Mission Viejo High School to USC. Sanchez's older brothers, Nick Jr. and Brandon, always posed a challenge — at the dinner table, fighting for that last roll or on the basketball court, taking a hard charge.
"They've all taught me to be competitive and taught me to lead from an early age," Sanchez said. "It just seems natural here."
That's how it's been for Sanchez from the moment he came to the Jets. Ryan has often said he acknowledges that his legacy will be tied to Sanchez and how he performs. And, that suits both just fine.
"You're the quarterback of a multimillion-dollar franchise," Sanchez said. "You're the face. You're the guy, and you need to wear it and own it, and be it at all times. And that's whether you're at the podium or at home studying your plays, or whatever it is, or you're out with the guys."
Or pouring water on offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer's chair, or flicking other players' ears.
"The thing about Mark is that he doesn't let anything get to him," running back Shonn Greene said. "People can pound him and then the next week, they can look to him like as a god. He just does a great job of staying focused and who he is."
Last month, 11-year-old cancer patient Aiden Binkley got his wish: He met his idol, Sanchez. Even though the Jets were preparing for a playoff push, Sanchez spent time visiting Binkley at his home and texting him.
When Aiden died on Dec. 30, his parents went public about Sanchez's compassion.
"I doubt he even realizes what an impact he is having on us all," Binkley's mother, Lisa, wrote in an online journal before her son's death. "I wish I could tell his mother how wonderful he is. I know if any of my sons did such a kindness I would love to know."
During a particularly tough stretch last season when Sanchez was struggling, Ryan reminded him of the meeting at the restaurant.
"He said, 'Be that guy. Always be that guy that got on the motorcycle. Just be him,'" Sanchez recalled. "And, he's right.
"You've always got to trust yourself."