By Steve Virgen
11:48 PM PDT, July 23, 2010
As I sat down for dinner at the Newport Beach Marriott Hotel & Spa Thursday night, I thought to myself, "awkward."
It's bound to happen with local events, running into the folks from the Newport Beach Independent (our new competition), but I wasn't expecting to sit next to the wife of the publisher.
"You're the enemy," Vicki Johnson said to me. She later said she was joking. I guess I can believe her.
Her husband, as you know, is Tom Johnson, the former publisher of The Daily Pilot. He's the president of the Orange County Youth Sports Foundation. He and his friends were determined to put on a great show to honor New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez, named Sportsman of the Year, by the OCYSF.
The night wasn't about the Pilot or the Indy, even though I laughed when Irrelevant Week founder Paul Salata referred to Tom Johnson as an, "out-of-work publisher."
The night was about Sanchez, the star-in-the-making who grew up in Orange County and starred at Mission Viejo High before gaining even more popularity at USC. At times, it was also about awkward moments (crude jokes and stereotypical/racial humor). But just like I was able to become comfortable at my dinner table with Vicki Johnson, Tom Johnson and his friends were able to provide credence that Sanchez deserved the award.
In his rookie year, Sanchez led the Jets to the AFC championship game, where they lost to the Colts.
The Jets have had a huge off-season, acquiring big names such as running back LaDainian Tomlinson and wide receiver Santonio Holmes. The expectations are high and the Jets might gain even more hype after their season on HBO's "Hard Knocks," the inside look at the team's training camp.
Much of the pressure will fall on Sanchez. From the looks of it he'll be able to handle it. He certainly handled the mild roasting at his banquet Thursday night.
He also quickly brushed aside my question before the dinner.
"Do you think Reggie Bush should give back his Heisman Trophy," I asked Sanchez moments after his interview with a TV reporter.
Sanchez smacked his lips in disdain and rolled his eyes. "I don't know," he said, appearing bothered. "That's not for me to decide."
Before I could get to another question, Bob Johnson, who coached Sanchez at Mission Viejo High, said his program's pride and joy had to go. His dinner was about to begin.
Bob Johnson spoke during the ceremony.
"I can't roast him," the Mission Viejo coach said. "I just can't do it. I can't roast him about the hot dog and how stupid he was to eat it [on the sideline during a game].
"All kidding aside, I've been in coaching for 42 years and I have never been around a family like the Sanchez family. I love those guys."
Nick Sanchez Sr., a fire captain with the Orange County Fire Authority, attended the dinner, even though he said he had surgery on his left shoulder earlier in the week. He wasn't about to miss the special night to honor his son. It was also a great time for his family to be together, as all three of his sons were there. Nick Jr. and Brandon were to support Mark and to show just how strong the Sanchez family really is.
The New York media can be unrelenting with its coverage, but Sanchez finds comfort in his family. However, it's not as if Sanchez wasn't prepared for the limelight. He certainly received his fair share of controversy and attention at USC.
Now that the Trojans have been punished for recruiting violations, most question anything that happened during Coach Pete Carroll's tenure. Carroll is now the coach of the Seattle Seahawks. He left just before the NCAA made its decision and dealt USC a two-year bowl ban, as well as the loss of 30 football scholarships over three years. Bush was a central figure, as the NCAA vacated 14 victories in which Bush played from December 2004 through the 2005 season.
Carroll was named OCYSF Sportsman of the Year in 2004.
"That name sounds familiar, eh Mark?" Tom Johnson said to Mark Sanchez during the banquet.
Tom Johnson was most likely referring to when Carroll famously criticized Sanchez for leaving USC for the NFL.
Yes, back then too, the Sanchez supported their golden boy of a son. Nick Jr., a lawyer, was there to represent his brother. His father was there to show that fighting spirit he had always displayed through terrifying blazes.
After one year in the NFL, the father has great pride in his son, especially on a night when he's honored for his successful year and his charity work.
"To have the community he grew up in embrace him the way they have, it's really wonderful," Nick Sr. said of Mark. "It's wonderful to have him home. It's good to have them all back home. Seeing Brandon and Nick and Mark together is just great for me. It's always a wonderful experience."
With regard to the USC controversy, Nick Sr. said his son or the Sanchez family never received any recruiting gifts.
"We never heard or saw any of that at all," Nick Sr. said. "It's something we've never been associated with or know anything about. Never been there."
Said Nick Jr., "Everybody knew from the outset that wasn't going to be our M.O. It helped that I was representing him as his brother."
Mark Sanchez has always had his family there for support. He thought he might need it Thursday , as he was going to be roasted. But it wasn't so bad.
Mike McDonald, a former walk-on reserve quarterback at USC and a Newport Harbor High product, spoke during the ceremony in place of his father, Paul, the former USC great who know does radio for the Trojans games. I think McDonald tried to poke fun at Sanchez, but I couldn't tell. McDonald still delivered a heartfelt message and said, just as many did, that Orange County is rooting for Sanchez.
Jim Hardy, an old man and a former USC quarterback who played in the early 1940s, roasted himself more than Sanchez.
"He is the next great quarterback," Hardy said of Sanchez.
Former Rams quarterback Vince Ferragamo also attended.
Before the dinner, I asked him if he had anything nice to say about Sanchez.
"Not much," Ferragamo said, jokingly. "I can keep it really simple, there's not much to say about him."
Oh, but there was.