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More than pads on his shoulders

Mark Sanchez, the quarterback for Rose Bowl-bound USC, carries the weight of a role model for many of L.A.'s Latinos.

December 29, 2008|Kevin Baxter

At 83, it can be a struggle for Salvador Sandoval just to move across a room. Yet on a recent bone-chilling afternoon, he pulled a heavy jacket tight against his chest, pushed his walker out the door and shuffled up the street to watch the USC football team practice.

And not only because he enjoys the sport.

Sandoval says he served with the 82nd Airborne in World War II's Battle of the Bulge, where many fellow Mexican American soldiers fought and died while concealing their heritage to avoid scorn and prejudice.

"The Chicano here has had the fame of obscurity," he says in a lyrical mix of Spanish and English. "They didn't want to rise. But you have to stand up to get that recognition."

Which is where Mark Sanchez comes in.

As quarterback for USC's Trojans, Sanchez, 22, is among the most visible and celebrated athletes in a city built on star power.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, January 01, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Mark Sanchez: An article in Monday's Section A about USC quarterback Mark Sanchez and his development into a role model for Mexican Americans gave the wrong last name for a USC professor it quoted. He is Ricardo Ramirez, not Ricardo Rodriguez.

On Thursday, he'll be center stage again when fifth-ranked USC faces Penn State in the 95th Rose Bowl Game, which will be played in a stadium packed with nearly 100,000 fans and before a national television audience of millions.

But, like Sandoval, not everyone watching will be interested only in the football.

Sanchez is third-generation Mexican American, and in a city that's home to more than 4.6 million Latinos -- three-quarters of whom are Mexican -- that's no minor detail.

"A big surprise," Sandoval says.

"Historic," adds Luis Rodriguez, 35, a USC graduate student.

"It is a big deal," says Manny Miranda, 20, a USC junior. "You do get that extra sense of pride, knowing that people are chanting 'Sanchez, Sanchez, Sanchez.' "

Sanchez feels that emotion. But he's also come to recognize the challenge it presents.

"Some people wanted me to be the Latino quarterback," he says. "Some people wanted me to be the USC quarterback who happens to be Latino."

Not wanting to alienate anyone, Sanchez decided to "just be me and do my best with everything and not try to be something I'm not."

But navigating a middle ground proved difficult.

Last fall at Notre Dame, in only his second college start, Sanchez took the field biting down on a protective mouthpiece with a dime-size Mexican flag painted on the front -- a gift from team dentist Ramon Roges, a Cuban.

Sanchez passed for 235 yards and four touchdowns in a 38-0 victory, and what was perceived as a gesture on his behalf was well received by many Mexican Americans. But there was also backlash over the tiny flag that smacked him like a blitzing linebacker.

Sanchez's patriotism -- even his sanity -- was questioned, with some letter-writers urging him to go back to Mexico (never mind that he never actually lived there).

"It was eye-opening. It was educational," Sanchez says. "I never in a million years would have thought that kind of reaction would happen. It just blew my mind that people were upset about it."

Though he quickly ditched the mouthpiece -- "a distraction," he says -- the criticism paled in the glow of Sanchez's new appreciation for his place in the community.

"I think I understand now, with the density of the Hispanic population in Los Angeles, that they rally around somebody like [me]," he says "It's special. It means a lot to represent them, and I'm trying to do it in the best way possible."

One step Sanchez has taken is to speak with schoolchildren from the heavily Latino neighborhoods around USC.

"I'm not trying to prove how Mexican I am or how American I am. I'm proud to be both, and I'll just keep acting accordingly," he says. "If the kid who sees me go to his school and looks at me, sees my last name, sees my skin color and realizes that we're the same, if he thinks he can do something better than he could have before, then I've done my job."

Though this isn't the first time a Mexican athlete has captured headlines and imaginations here -- Dodgers pitcher Fernando Valenzuela spawned "Fernandomania;" Oscar De La Hoya rediscovered his Mexican roots in the boxing rings of East L.A.; Guadalajara-born Tom Fears was the Rams' first big star in the 1940s and '50s -- Sanchez is believed to be the first Mexican American to start at quarterback for USC.

Not that Sanchez ever considered himself a trailblazer during his record-setting career at Orange County's Mission Viejo High. There, he played with kids named Gomez, Garcia, Rubio, Flores and Ocampo.

Back then, he was just Mark the quarterback.

"It wasn't anything different," he says. "There were plenty of Hispanic kids at school."

Sanchez's father, Nick, an Orange County fire captain and former Army sergeant, was born just after his family, along with hundreds of others of Mexican descent, were driven out of Chavez Ravine to make room for what became Dodger Stadium.

For many, that episode planted seeds that a decade later blossomed into a broad-based civil rights campaign known as the Chicano Movement. Though the Sanchezes weren't particularly active politically, Nick says, he tried to prepare Mark for the attention his ethnicity would bring him as quarterback at USC.

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