Jets' Sanchez (cont.)
Before he died in 1979, former Dodgers manager Walter O'Malley often mentioned he wished he could find, "a Mexican Sandy Koufax." Though O'Malley didn't live to see Valenzuela capture a nation's fancy, the manager's vision could not have been more profound.
It's one thing to have significant, popular, even Hall of Fame-caliber players of a certain demographic on an NFL roster. But it's quite another to have the most important position on the field and the face of the franchise be one that crosses cultures.
The NFL has had numerous big-time Hispanic players over the years, including Hall of Fame tackle Anthony Munoz, All Pro tight end Tony Gonzalez and defensive stars Luis Castillo and Tony Casillas. And while quarterbacks Tony Romo and Jeff Garcia have Hispanic blood on their fathers' side, not until Sanchez arrived has a Mexican-American player who completely embraced his culture stepped into the market and had such an opportunity.
If Sanchez' charisma, professionalism and talent translate onto the field, his influence could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars to the league. As things stand now, the NFL ranks first among all sports in English-speaking Hispanic households, but most polls indicate football remains behind soccer, boxing, baseball and basketball in Spanish-speaking households.
Some people will say it's unfair to consider a 22-year-old player yet to even wear NFL shoulder pads so pivotal to the league's initiative. But take it from someone who grew up in a Hispanic household in which Spanish was spoken and the television always was tuned into NFL football on Sunday afternoons: Sanchez is exactly what the league's initiative has been missing.
Simply put, he gets it. Or, seems to. And he never has shied away from taking on the added burden, to the point of taking Spanish classes at USC so he could better speak with Hispanics in the community and conduct interviews in Spanish.
No amount of group studies or contrived demo-specific events can replace having someone who speaks the language on so many levels entering millions of living rooms in HD. While it's nice to having Mariachis tooting horns in NFL parking lots, it's better having someone who looks the part, understands the part and plays the part becoming a star.
The great-grandson of South Texas and California fruit-pickers, with roots in South Los Angeles, Sanchez has lived the culture. The pride he feels for his heritage will be there, whether or not the NFL is banking on it.
Sanchez also has consistently connected with Mexican-American football fans, many of them wearing Zarapes, Mexican wrestler masks and other colorful costumes in his honor when he starred at USC. The USC band used to play "El Matador" whenever he jogged onto the field.
The Jets, for now, are traipsing delicately when it comes to Sanchez becoming anything more than just a good quarterback. In fact, they said as much when contacted about Sanchez being interviewed on the subject of his role in the Hispanic market. And most Jets fans probably could not care less about anything other than wins on Sunday afternoons, either.
But no matter if the Jets choose to look the other way for now, the biggest, best chance at finally cracking open the golden piņata is staring the league square in the face. And his name is Mark Sanchez.
Award-winning Houston columnist John P. Lopez writes a blog and hosts a daily sports talk show on 790 AM in Houston. He can be followed at http://twitter.com/MonstersOMidday and reached at email@example.com.
NFL Truth & Rumors