America Football: 'Viva Sanchez': Mexican gunslinger threatens to stage a Super Bowl raid

In only his second season, New York Jets' wild quarterback with a huge Latino following can shoot his side to their first NFL showpiece since 1969, writes Rupert Cornwell

Hear the word "ole" and you instantly think of bullfighting, flamenco dancing, or a teasing passage of play by the Barcelona football team.

But if Mark Sanchez takes the field, "oles" may conceivably ring out in two weeks' time at a most improbable setting: that ultimate fest of North American manhood known as the Super Bowl.

Sanchez is not the first American of Mexican heritage to make his name at the gridiron version of football. But none has taken such pride in his roots, and none has gone so far in the National Football League as he, or so quickly. At 24, he's in only his second season with the New York Jets – but already preparing for his second AFC Championship game.

Last year the Jets fell at the same penultimate hurdle. Victory tomorrow over the Pittsburgh Steelers would make Sanchez the first quarterback to win five NFL play-off games on the road. It would also mean the first Super Bowl appearance by the Jets since the miracle win of 1969, the apotheosis of Joe Namath.

Win or lose, however, Sanchez is well fitted to take on the glamorous but, for Jets fans, achingly distant legacy of "Broadway Joe". By definition for a quarterback, Sanchez is a hunk. More unusual, however, he's a huge fan of the theatre in general and musicals in particular, and even served as a presenter at the glitzy Tony awards ceremony last summer.

On the field too he's not unlike Namath – a "gunslinger" quarterback who's sometimes headstrong, occasionally wild, with a penchant for risky plays and spectacular passes delivered like bullets. Most important of all, however, he's good, and as the Jets' head coach, Rex Ryan, exulted after the Jets' upset victory over their bitter rivals the New England Patriots last Sunday: "He's just getting better and better and better."

For proof, look no further than his last two games, in which Sanchez has bested two members of current NFL quarterback royalty: first Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts in the wild-card game, then the Patriots' Tom Brady. After a typically erratic start last Sunday, Sanchez settled to throw three touchdowns (even though he'd be the first to acknowledge that an even greater share of the credit belongs to the Jets' defence, which hounded the normally magisterial Brady from first to last, sacking him five times.)

Between them Manning and Brady own four Super Bowl rings. If the Jets manage to down the Steelers (once again away from home), Sanchez will have also overcome Ben Roethlisberger, another of the League's elite quarterbacks, playing for the most successful franchise in League history and who, at 28, has two Super Bowl wins under his belt already.

But Sanchez has graduated to this lofty stage naturally. Back in 2005, he was considered that year's best high school quarterback, when he came out of Mission Viejo High School in California's Orange County, for whose fire authority his father is a senior captain. The only question about Mark's football scholarship was, where? He chose USC, the Los Angeles college sports powerhouse in the most celebrity-besotted city in the country, whose usually all-conquering football team plays its home games before crowds of 90,000 at the LA Coliseum, where the 1984 and 1932 Olympics were held.

USC, a large and expensive private institution on the city's south side, stands for University of Southern California – or as detractors have it, the "University of Spoiled Children". But Sanchez was never spoilt by his father, who understood the fickle nature of sporting success, despite his offspring's evident talent.

Whether young Mark or his two brothers were practising football, basketball or baseball, Sanchez Snr made them simultaneously recite mathematical tables or the names of US presidents: "There was no foresight to athletics," the father once told The New York Times. "I wanted them to deal with difficult situations. My hope is that they would be stronger."

He was aware too of both the strengths and weaknesses of his son's game, even when Mark was leading the USC's Trojans to another near-invincible season in 2008. "There's no doubt Mark has that gunslinger mentality," Nick Sanchez said then, "he wants to come out and make a play. The last thing you want to do is to take that out of him. But it's got to be tempered to a degree. He has to learn when to and when not to."

Then there was the small matter of ancestry. Mexican-American quarterbacks have made the NFL play-offs before, most recently Tony Romo last season for "America's Team", the Dallas Cowboys. But for them, the fact was almost an accident. For Sanchez, whose great-grandfather emigrated to the US from Mexico in the early 20th century, it was different.

In the LA region, with its Latino population of some five million, success at USC made him a cult hero and something of a role model for an ethnic group normally more concerned with the football known in North America as soccer than the gridiron. "Viva Sanchez", Hispanic fans would shout at Trojans practice sessions, major events in their own right on the Los Angeles sports scene.

Sanchez responded during his first season by wearing a custom-made mouth guard in Mexico's colours of red, green and white, complete with the eagle eating a rattlesnake depicted on the Mexican national flag. He stopped when critics accused him of being an advocate of Mexican power, even a supporter of illegal immigration. But that didn't prevent people referring to him as the "Mexican Jumping Bean" or the Trojans' band from striking up "El Matador" the huge 1993 hit throughout Latin America for the Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, whenever Sanchez took the field.

By early 2009, after a standout performance for USC in the Rose Bowl against Penn State had sealed his reputation, Sanchez had become one of the most coveted targets in that year's NFL draft. In the end he went as fifth pick overall to the Jets, still smarting from the letdown of 2008 when the legendary Brett Favre, perhaps the ultimate "gunslinger" quarterback, had come out of one of his several retirements but failed to lead them to the play-offs.

Sanchez has already corrected that omission, twice. In the process he has become a hero for New York's burgeoning Mexican and Latino populations. The only question now is, can he go all the way? If he can, not only Jets fans, but Hispanic followers of the NFL everywhere, may bellow a huge, collective "ole".

Play-off details

NFC Championship

Chicago Bears v Green Bay Packers

Tomorrow, Sky Sports 2, 19:30-22:30

AFC Championship

Pittsburgh Steelers v New York Jets

Tomorrow, Sky Sports 2, 23:30-02:30

Super Bowl XLV

Sunday 6 February, Sky Sports 1

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