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He's Cool When the Heat Is On

The son of a fire captain, Mission Viejo's Sanchez is a quarterback who knows about pressure.

September 01, 2004|Eric Sondheimer | Times Staff Writer

There's no need for USC-bound quarterback Mark Sanchez of Mission Viejo to hang out in an NFL locker room or read a comic book to find his super hero.

Fifty-six hours each week, his father, Nick, serves as captain of Fire Station No. 6 in Irvine. Day or night, whenever there's a call for help, he responds, no matter the danger, no matter the risk.

"Oh my God, he's my hero," Sanchez said. "He can do it all. He's climbing ropes, he's jumping out of helicopters every other weekend. He possesses all the attributes of a quarterback. Under pressure, in a burning building, he's the leader. His shift will look up to him. They know he's always doing the right thing."

Like father, like son.

That's the secret to Sanchez's development as perhaps the No. 1 quarterback prospect in California. Polite, respectful and cool under pressure, the 6-foot-3, 215-pound Sanchez begins the 2004 season stronger, smarter and more determined to build on a junior season in which he completed 75% of his passes.

He'll need to be at his best because Coach Bob Johnson has put together a demanding nonleague schedule that includes games against national powers Concord De La Salle, Long Beach Poly and Los Alamitos.

"It's going to be one challenge after another," Sanchez said. "That's what this coaching staff and this team has built their philosophy on. We want to play the best and beat the best. We'll prove it's the right move."

Sanchez never runs from challenges. In fact, he welcomes them, something he learned growing up. He has two brothers, Nick Jr., 30, and Brandon, 25, both of whom played high school football and were honor students. Combined with his fireman father, who required his sons to answer adults with, "Yes sir, no sir," this is a family that prides itself on discipline and preparation.

"There was a method to my madness," Nick Sr. said. "We were going to prepare them for life. Things weren't going to be easy. They were going to be subjected to adversity and difficult decisions."

Mark, with a 3.7 grade-point average, has equaled his older brothers in the academic department. But he has the chance to surpass them athletically because he has excellent size, a strong arm and uncanny on-field instincts.

"He's improving every day," Johnson said. "He's got what you need in a quarterback. The kids really respect him. He works extremely hard at everything."

Sanchez has come to understand the emotional roller coaster that a quarterback experiences.

"You have to have a short memory," he said. "Bad things happen all the time. You have to forget about it. The next play is the most important. You have to be like a robot. You're playing with all your passion and all your heart, but you can't wear your emotions on your sleeve. You have to stay positive the entire game because everyone is looking at you."

Last season, Sanchez led Mission Viejo to a 13-1 record, completing 143 of 191 passes for 2,460 yards and 29 touchdowns. The one disappointment came in the Southern Section Division II final, where Newhall Hart upset the Diablos, 25-7, ending their 41-game winning streak.

"We learned real quick, probably in the first quarter, that we can't just roll out our Mission Viejo helmets and say, 'Hey, take your shot, we're going to win,' " he said. "It was very humbling. A lot of guys took it hard. We didn't know what hit us."

Calling this season "a redemption year," Sanchez has used the spring and summer to gain better knowledge of the Diablo offense and to study defenses. He'll be given more opportunities to make decisions when he comes to the line of scrimmage, whether changing plays or changing patterns.

As Sanchez begins his final year of high school, it's clear his father's values and beliefs have influenced him greatly.

"He's so consistent with his emotions," Sanchez said. "No matter what happens, this is the best day of his life. You talk to him, 'How are you doing?' and he'll say, 'Hey, if I was any better, I'd have to give something back.' I really appreciate him."

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