By Julian Linden
NEW YORK (Reuters) - In a sport where breaking down barriers is paramount to winning, New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez is succeeding on two fronts.
Not only is he orchestrating his team's great start to the National Football League (NFL) season, Sanchez has also become a source of inspiration to millions of Mexican-Americans.
A third-generation Mexican-American, Sanchez has been a role model for the Latino community ever since he was thrust into the U.S. spotlight as a brilliant college player in California.
Now living on the other side of the country, the 23-year-old has become the poster boy of millions of Hispanics on the east coast and one of the most recognizable faces in the NFL, which is aggressively marketing the game in Mexico.
His picture is plastered on billboards all over New York and the sponsors are lining up to persuade him to endorse their products. Last season, he was among a select group of 200 people invited to have dinner with President Barack Obama at the White House to honor Mexican president Felipe Calderon.
Hardly a day goes by when Sanchez does not feature in the sports pages and he has lost count of the marriage proposals he has received but he has managed to keep a lid on all the hype by adopting a homespun approach to the trappings of fame and celebrity.
"Every trash can gets a steak," he told a news conference last week.
After a steady start to his NFL career last season, Sanchez has now established himself as one of the leading quarterbacks in the game and the driving force behind a Jets team suddenly being talked about as a serious Super Bowl contender.
In four games this season, he has thrown eight touchdown passes and not a single interception.
He has the fourth-best overall rating of any quarterback in the league, trailing only Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Michael Vick, triggering gushing reviews from Jets coach Rex Ryan about his rapid maturity in the most demanding position in the game.
"Great quarterbacks have a feel in the pocket. I think Mark has that," Ryan said.
"He's got all the tools as far as he can make all the throws. He's got great footwork. I thought his feet were great.
"(But) the thing that I love most was just him. He's got it right in here (pointing to his heart). That's the thing we see."
Sanchez is not the first Mexican-American to make it in the NFL but those who have come before him have never attracted such widespread attention.
His great-grandfather migrated from Mexico a century ago to pick fruit and raise a family. Sanchez's father is a fire-fighting captain in California and played quarterback during his school years.
His three sons all took up the game and went to university. One is a lawyer and another is a mortgage broker, but Mark was always earmarked for greatness on the sporting field.
He excelled as a high school player and at college, playing for the University of Southern California, and it was not long before he caught the eye of the NFL scouts.
In 2009, he announced his intention to enter the NFL Draft and graduated with a degree in communication despite skipping his senior year of college.
He was selected in the first round by the Jets, who agreed to a massive trade-up to get him as the fifth pick. He signed a five-year deal reportedly worth $50 million.
Sanchez was selected to start in the first game and began his professional career with a win. The Jets made the playoffs and won their first two games, giving Sanchez the distinction of being only the fourth rookie quarterback to taste success in the post-season games.
The Jets lost to the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Championship game, missing out on a spot in the Super Bowl, but are among the early favorites this season after winning three of their first four games.
It has not all been smooth sailing for Sanchez in his short time in the NFL and critics have been keen to point out any deficiencies but Ryan, who has boldly declared that the Jets will win the Super Bowl this season, has no doubts about the player calling his team's shots.
"There's no question that you're going to get some criticism here, but we never stopped believing in him. We know this is the guy that's going to do it for us," Ryan said.
"This guy is more confident than I am, which is saying something. You have to have wide shoulders, especially in this media market. We have the right guy to pull the trigger for us."
(Editing by Clare Fallon)