It took a while for Mark Sanchez to get it. He noticed a furtive glance here, a quick peek over a pair of glasses there. Or a smile from one of the workers in the kitchen or a wave from a professor on campus or someone in an SUV crossing Jefferson. As the newest starting quarterback for the USC Trojans, Sanchez knew he was getting recognized; students stopped him all the time. But this was different.
This was attention from people older than him, in different capacities that he hadn't really noticed before. He began to realize what was happening: The Hispanic community on campus was embracing him. He made sure to wave back, to smile back, stop and talk -- in what he called "kitchen Spanish," the phrases he picked up listening to his mother and grandmother's conversations in the kitchen.
It was as a junior at USC that Sanchez says it finally dawned on him, that he was, indeed, a part of that community.
"It was weird when it kind of hit me," Sanchez said recently during an interview in New York. "I'm thinking, 'Man, there's this whole other group of people that are attached to me because of my last name and my family's roots.' That's pretty cool. That's special, that's a lot of power and it's important.
"So you say, 'What are you going to do with that?' You don't just let it sit there and ignore it. You want to use it, not to your advantage, but you want to set a good example."
He embraced his newfound role. "Viva Sanchez" signs appeared at the Coliseum and the pep band learned to play "El Matador" when Sanchez took the field. He wore a mouthpiece with the colors of the Mexican flag.
"It means the world to me to represent the Hispanic community," he said.
Sanchez was raised in Orange County, Calif. His grandparents on both sides had immigrated to Los Angeles from Mexico. His father, Nick Sanchez, likes to tell the story about his family living where second base sits now at Dodger Stadium in Chavez Ravine. Nick and Mark's mother, Olga Macias, were divorced when Mark was a young boy, but both stayed heavily involved in their sons' lives. Both parents speak fluent Spanish and tried to pass the language on to their sons, who also spent many days with Olga's mother, who is now 93 and still has her home in East L.A.
After Sanchez was drafted in 2009 by the New York Jets, it didn't take long for him to embrace his Hispanic fans on the East Coast, as well. While his popularity grew -- he presented at the Tony Awards, appeared on the cover of GQ and visited the White House while leading his team to two straight AFC Championship Games -- so did his understanding of how greeting someone in "kitchen Spanish" can make a person's day.
"The Latino community, they're some of the most loyal fans on the planet," he said. "Win, lose or draw, some of the guys that work on our staff here at the facility are like, 'We're with you, man. Go win it.' And they'll talk to me in Spanish here and there.
"It means a lot to them that I'm doing my best," he said. "I did a little Spanish blog last year, and I try to do some interviews in Spanish after games. Anything I can do to express my gratitude and appreciation for their support. It's truly humbling."
Mark Sanchez said his family's strong sense of pride as Mexican-Americans helped shape his awareness of who he is. He is careful to mention his love of his country and the freedom it affords him to embrace his heritage. And he smiles big whenever he sees fans dressed in the masks of wrestlers that are popular in Mexico.
"Luchadores, mil mascaras a thousand masks," he says. "I see a lot of those in Jets colors. And then the Hispanic fans of other teams, they'll wear them in their colors. And they're like, 'You're our guy, Sanchez, but I'm a Steelers fan.' It's pretty cool that they go out of their way to make sure and say, hey, we're still supporting you, but we don't really want you to win today."
And with that, he smiles and looks into the camera and delivers a 30-second television promo in English and then in Spanish.
He gets it now.
Shelley Smith is a reporter for ESPN.