Mark Sanchez will have the eyes of the Latino, Hispanic, and Mexican-American community on him in Sunday Night's AFC Title Game.
In the back of his mind, Mark Sanchez may know this, but may not acknowledge it. So I will for him.
Sanchez is not just a starting quarterback in the National Football League, who for the second consecutive season is one game away from the Super Bowl.
No, Sanchez is more than that. He's a cultural icon. He's Fernando Valenzuela for a new generation of fans not fortunate enough to have seen "Fernando-mania" . Not just football fans, or Jets fans, no, Sanchez, like Valenzuela is an icon to Latinos, Hispanics and Mexican-American people.
Who is Valenzuela you may ask? Here's a quick rundown:
Valenzuela was born November 1, 1960 in Navojoa, Sonora, Mexico. At 17 years old, Fernando began his baseball career and by his second season was playing Triple-A baseball for the Mexican Baseball League, where he posted a 10-12 record with a 2.49 ERA and 141 strikeouts.
One year later, at the ripe age of 19, Fernando was a Los Angeles Dodger. During his rookie season of 1981, Fernando set the baseball world, Dodger land, and the Latin community on fire. Not seen since the days of Mark Fidrych, a.k.a. "The Bird", who wowed and sold out stadiums during his magical 1976 season with the Detroit Tigers, Fernando began a craze appropriately dubbed "Fernando-mania".
Droves and droves of people from the Latin community came out in full support of Valenzuela. They identified with him. They loved him. They cared for him. He was one of their own.
Sure, the NFL has had their share of great Latino, Hispanic and Mexican-American football players. From Raiders quarterback Jim Plunkett, the first and only Hispanic starting quarterback to win a Super Bowl and Super Bowl MVP, to former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jeff Garcia, to Chicago Bears offensive lineman Roberto Garza, who donned the cover of Madden NFL 2009's exclusive Spanish content video game, to the most notable Latino football player today, Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez.
Then Sanchez happened.
Born November 11, 1986 in Long Beach, California, Sanchez was widely considered the top quarterback in the nation out of high school. Sanchez signed with USC and quickly became a cultural icon in a city that's home to over four million Latinos.
Sanchez drew fire from critics during the 2007 season at USC when he wore a custom made mouthpiece donning the colors of the Mexican flag. Sanchez eventually stopped wearing the mouthpiece and instead, got heavily involved in the Mexican-American community. Fans would show up to USC games wearing serapes (Mexican blankets), sombreros (Mexican hats), Mexican wrestling masks, Mexican flags and carrying signs that read "VIVA SANCHEZ".
Sanchez acknowledged his Mexican-American heritage through countless interviews and through his work with youth centers throughout Los Angeles.
Living in a heavily dominated Hispanic, Latino, Mexican-American community, fans who cheered on the Dallas Cowboys, Miami Dolphins, Chicago Bears, Oakland Raiders or San Francisco 49ers are now cheering for the New York Jets and quarterback Sanchez. He is one of their own. He looks like them. His last name is similar to theirs. He eats the kinds of foods that they eat.
Sanchez is not just a football player, he's an icon to a new and older generation of Latinos, Hispanics and Mexican-Americans.
And the NFL has not turned a blind eye to this either. On October 12, 2009, the NFL and ESPN celebrated Hispanic Heritage Month by featuring the New York Jets against the Miami Dolphins on Monday Night Football with the National Anthem being sung by Marc Anthony, and the halftime show including Gloria Estefan.
In 2010, the NFL, NBC and Telemundo teamed up to broadcast the Jets and Dolphins from Miami with the game being shown in both English and Spanish. Once again, the National Anthem was sung by Anthony and the halftime performance included Enrique Iglesias.
And oh yeah, the Jets starting quarterback just happened to be...Mark Sanchez. Coincidence?
In just his second full season in the NFL, Sanchez has become the road warrior, never having played in a playoff game at home. His playoff victories include wins over Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Philip Rivers and Carson Palmer, all top flight and elite quarterbacks.
Last season, Sanchez led the Jets to a Wild Card win over the Bengals, a come from behind win over the No. 2 ranked San Diego Chargers, and had the Jets up 17-6 in the AFC Championship game at Indianapolis before falling 30-17.
This postseason, the Jets entered the AFC Playoffs as the No. 6 seed, then quickly went on the road to avenge last year's AFC Title game loss, beating the Colts 17-16, a game in which Sanchez led the Jets downfield to set up the game winning field goal.
On Sunday night, Sanchez and the Jets upended the heavily favored New England Patriots 28-21, a game where Sanchez outplayed Brady in his own backyard. Sanchez is now 3-2 all time against Brady, including the playoff win Sunday.
With the win Sunday, Sanchez also tied the NFL record for most postseason wins on the road with four.
Now, Sanchez has an opportunity to take the "VIVA SANCHEZ" chants all the way to Super Bowl XLV with a win over the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday Night, and I can guarantee to you that Sanchez will not only have the entire nation's eyes on him, but also those of the Latino, Hispanic and Mexican-American communities as well.