At the Binkley home in Floral Park, N.Y., Rex Ryan's new quarterback depth chart means nothing. Now and forever, Mark Sanchez is No. 1.
Two years ago on Friday, Sanchez spent an afternoon with Mike and Lisa Binkley's son, Aiden, who was 11. They hung out like a couple of old friends, talking sports. That day was the pinnacle of a three-week friendship that made Aiden's struggle with rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare form of cancer, more bearable.
Professionally, those were the best of times for Sanchez, who was preparing to embark on a second consecutive playoff run. Now he's out of a starting job, perhaps wondering about his future in football.
This much he doesn't have to worry about: He made a lasting impact on a still-grieving family of Jets fans -- a family of Sanchez fans.
"It was just magic," Lisa Binkley said by phone this week, remembering the month Sanchez was part of their lives. "For three weeks, instead of Aiden lying around here, feeling awful and thinking about how he was going to die, he was thinking about football and Mark. That was his focus."
The family watched this week's Monday night game in Tennessee, in which Sanchez lost his job by throwing four interceptions in a loss that eliminated the Jets from playoff contention. Naturally, the Binkleys felt awful. They still consider Sanchez part of their extended family.
When he has a bad game, the family receives calls and texts, friends wondering, "Are you okay?" Sometimes they'll get a call from a friend who sees Sanchez on TV and notices the camouflage bracelet on his left wrist, a gift from Aiden. He still wears it on occasion. The inscription says: "Binkley's Battle."
Aiden's bedroom remains intact, which means it's still a shrine to Sanchez and the Jets.
Next to the bed is a Jets helmet, signed by all the players. There are two footballs, signed by Sanchez and Darrelle Revis. Hanging on the closet door is an autographed Sanchez jersey, his actual game jersey from the Dec. 19 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers. On his shelf is a game ball from that win.
Sports is a powerful vehicle. We've seen examples of it with the Newtown tragedy, with Victor Cruz and Derek Jeter reaching out to families who lost loved ones. A simple phone call or a visit to someone's home can make a lifelong impression.
Aiden's younger brothers, Jake, 9, and Devin, 6, honor the quarterback by wearing his No. 6 on their youth football team, the Floral Park Titans.
Aware of the Binkleys' attachment to Sanchez, the youth league sent the family a box of No. 6 jerseys, with every size from small to XL. That means Jake and Devin will wear No. 6 for as long as they play in the league. In a sense, the number was retired for the Binkley boys.
"For a kid that age to meet his hero, it's a monumental thing," Lisa Binkley said. "When the kid can make friends with his hero, and text him and call him, you can't say enough about it. We just love Mark. Our family still thinks he's wonderful."
The family met Sanchez through the Teddy Atlas Foundation. Aiden and Mark became fast friends, and Sanchez invited him and his family for a tour of the Jets' facility. Aiden received the VIP treatment, getting picked up by a limo and meeting owner Woody Johnson and several players. He exchanged cell numbers with Sanchez, and soon they were texting buddies.
Aiden received a call from Sanchez shortly after the Jets' big win over the Steelers, and a couple of days later, Sanchez came knocking at his door. By then, Aiden's condition had worsened, but he rallied when he woke up and saw Sanchez sitting at the foot of his bed.
On Dec. 26, the Jets lost in Chicago, but they still made the playoffs. At home, Aiden struggled to keep his eyes open during the game. He received a text from Sanchez, smiled and took a nap.
"He never came back to us," his mother said.
Four days later, Aiden died.
This week, Aiden's mother sent her regards to Sanchez, wanting him to know the Binkleys still support him and still believe in him. When the message was passed along to Sanchez, he smiled. He probably hasn't smiled a lot lately. Tough times.
"Great family," he said. "Aiden, what a great kid."