Mark Sanchez knows more than a word or two in Spanish

DALLAS -- Cowboys quarterback Mark Sanchez is an American sports star who is proud of his Hispanic, and more specifically, Mexican, roots.

As a way to honor his heritage, Sanchez managed the difficult task of learning to speak Spanish on his own, as an adult. He felt he needed to communicate more directly with who he calls his people, his fans and countrymen.

"At the University [of Southern California] was the first time I felt the excitement and support of Mexican and Latino fans. It was something different and I didn't know how to deal with it. It was a little weird," Sanchez admitted, speaking in Spanish.

Sanchez, 29, is a third-generation Mexican-American who was born and raised in Southern California. He said that although his house was full of Latino traditions while he was growing up, he didn't really feel a strong connection to those family roots.

"When I was a kid, I ate tamales at Christmas but I didn't feel Mexican," he recalled. "I had no connection to my heritage. Now my work helps me in that aspect of my life."

It's through playing football that Sanchez has felt a stronger bond with fans who are also passionate about the game.

"Latino fans are the most loyal in the world," he explained.

Sanchez graduated in 2004 from Mission Viejo High as the top college prospect in the United States and he had scholarship offers from a number of top universities.

He opted for USC, known at the time as the "quarterback factory," where he quickly realized the influence he could have among the Mexican-Americans in Los Angeles as one of the team's star players.

Sanchez experienced even more awareness about his "duty" to learn Spanish and his desire to communicate directly with Spanish speakers upon reaching the NFL. He was drafted in the first round in 2009 by the New York Jets and was inundated by constant media requests for interviews. But feeling like his Spanish skills were too poor, he kept turning down interview requests in Spanish.

"I felt like I was Ritchie Valens in 'La Bamba,'" he said. "I literally said, 'I don't speak Spanish, I'm sorry.' I remember that, at the time, I felt really bad. It was something I set aside and I began to put it off. 'In the future, in the future,' I told myself."

The future arrived for Sanchez, thanks to his then-girlfriend.

"She helped me with CDs in my pickup truck," Sanchez said, referring to an audio course to learn Spanish. "I used to listen when I was driving to training camp. Then I traveled to Mexico every offseason. So I learned more and more."

"Now I feel more comfortable in Spanish." he added. "I'm not an expert, but I can communicate, more or less."

His parents' heritage and pride makes him even happier with his self-taught way of learning.

"They spoke Spanish at home, but I didn't answer," he said. "We didn't practice when I was a kid. So I had to learn on my own, more or less. They're very proud that I learned on my own, because they felt a little bad, a little embarrassed that we didn't speak it much at home."

The Cowboys' backup quarterback never wastes an opportunity now to practice his Spanish. Nor does he miss any opportunity to enjoy Mexican food (which he declares to be his favorite), or to listen to music from south of the border whenever he possibly can.

"I eat chorizo and eggs almost every day; I love it," he said. "I eat tamales. My mom makes me enchiladas. I love enchiladas, too. Street tacos, whatever, I don't care. I love Mexican food, everything."

Sanchez said that he never even dreamed of ending up as a quarterback for the NFL's "Mexican team," the Cowboys. The team has traditionally had the largest following south of the border.

"They give us great support," Sanchez said. "It's a good way to connect with all the Mexican fans. I feel very proud that I can represent them."

Once the NFL season ends, Sanchez said he longs to travel to one of his favorite places in Mexico. "We've had a house in Ensenada, Baja California, for almost 30 years; it's older than I am," he revealed. "My dad bought it 30 years ago and it's a vacation house on the beach."

"That's where I really started to speak Spanish for the first time when I was a kid. Just simple things like 'cucaracha,'" he added with a laugh.

But beyond the NFL, football or professional sports connection in general, Sanchez wants to send an even stronger message to his fans.

"Yes, you can! With a strong spirit, we can all do what we want. And you have to go get your dreams," he said. "Everything is possible. Every time, when I'm talking with Mexicans or fans or anyone, I always thank them for their support. I feel all their support and all the pride."

"This month is about our heritage," he added, referring to Hispanic Heritage Month. "We live in a country that allows us to live and celebrate our heritage."

Read the original Spanish-language version of this story here.