More than pads on his shoulders

At 83, it can be a struggle for Salvador Sandoval just to move across a room. Yet on a recent bone-chilling afternoon, he pulled a heavy jacket tight against his chest, pushed his walker out the door and shuffled up the street to watch the USC football team practice.

And not only because he enjoys the sport.

Sandoval says he served with the 82nd Airborne in World War II's Battle of the Bulge, where many fellow Mexican American soldiers fought and died while concealing their heritage to avoid scorn and prejudice.

"The Chicano here has had the fame of obscurity," he says in a lyrical mix of Spanish and English. "They didn't want to rise. But you have to stand up to get that recognition."

Which is where Mark Sanchez comes in.

As quarterback for USC's Trojans, Sanchez, 22, is among the most visible and celebrated athletes in a city built on star power.

On Thursday, he'll be center stage again when fifth-ranked USC faces Penn State in the 95th Rose Bowl Game, which will be played in a stadium packed with nearly 100,000 fans and before a national television audience of millions.

But, like Sandoval, not everyone watching will be interested only in the football.

Sanchez is third-generation Mexican American, and in a city that's home to more than 4.6 million Latinos -- three-quarters of whom are Mexican -- that's no minor detail.

"A big surprise," Sandoval says.

"Historic," adds Luis Rodriguez, 35, a USC graduate student.

"It is a big deal," says Manny Miranda, 20, a USC junior. "You do get that extra sense of pride, knowing that people are chanting 'Sanchez, Sanchez, Sanchez.' "

Sanchez feels that emotion. But he's also come to recognize the challenge it presents.

"Some people wanted me to be the Latino quarterback," he says. "Some people wanted me to be the USC quarterback who happens to be Latino."

Not wanting to alienate anyone, Sanchez decided to "just be me and do my best with everything and not try to be something I'm not."

But navigating a middle ground proved difficult.

Last fall at Notre Dame, in only his second college start, Sanchez took the field biting down on a protective mouthpiece with a dime-size Mexican flag painted on the front -- a gift from team dentist Ramon Roges, a Cuban.

Sanchez passed for 235 yards and four touchdowns in a 38-0 victory, and what was perceived as a gesture on his behalf was well received by many Mexican Americans. But there was also backlash over the tiny flag that smacked him like a blitzing linebacker.

Sanchez's patriotism -- even his sanity -- was questioned, with some letter-writers urging him to go back to Mexico (never mind that he never actually lived there).

"It was eye-opening. It was educational," Sanchez says. "I never in a million years would have thought that kind of reaction would happen. It just blew my mind that people were upset about it."

Though he quickly ditched the mouthpiece -- "a distraction," he says -- the criticism paled in the glow of Sanchez's new appreciation for his place in the community.

"I think I understand now, with the density of the Hispanic population in Los Angeles, that they rally around somebody like [me]," he says "It's special. It means a lot to represent them, and I'm trying to do it in the best way possible."

One step Sanchez has taken is to speak with schoolchildren from the heavily Latino neighborhoods around USC.

"I'm not trying to prove how Mexican I am or how American I am. I'm proud to be both, and I'll just keep acting accordingly," he says. "If the kid who sees me go to his school and looks at me, sees my last name, sees my skin color and realizes that we're the same, if he thinks he can do something better than he could have before, then I've done my job."

Though this isn't the first time a Mexican athlete has captured headlines and imaginations here -- Dodgers pitcher Fernando Valenzuela spawned "Fernandomania;" Oscar De La Hoya rediscovered his Mexican roots in the boxing rings of East L.A.; Guadalajara-born Tom Fears was the Rams' first big star in the 1940s and '50s -- Sanchez is believed to be the first Mexican American to start at quarterback for USC.

Not that Sanchez ever considered himself a trailblazer during his record-setting career at Orange County's Mission Viejo High. There, he played with kids named Gomez, Garcia, Rubio, Flores and Ocampo.

Back then, he was just Mark the quarterback.

"It wasn't anything different," he says. "There were plenty of Hispanic kids at school."

Sanchez's father, Nick, an Orange County fire captain and former Army sergeant, was born just after his family, along with hundreds of others of Mexican descent, were driven out of Chavez Ravine to make room for what became Dodger Stadium.

For many, that episode planted seeds that a decade later blossomed into a broad-based civil rights campaign known as the Chicano Movement. Though the Sanchezes weren't particularly active politically, Nick says, he tried to prepare Mark for the attention his ethnicity would bring him as quarterback at USC.

"He's very proud of where he came from and his background," Nick says. "But he's also proud of being an American. If he can contribute in any way, shape or form in a positive respect to the Hispanic community, that's a great thing. But I think his goal is probably to be a contributor to the community in general."

Sanchez has two older brothers who played football -- Nick Jr. was a quarterback at Yale; Brandon played on the offensive line for DePauw -- without their heritage becoming a topic.

Though the spotlight on Mark is far more intense, Nick says it doesn't have to burn. "There's no downside to it," he insists.

Nick recalls stopping at a taco stand on a recent trip to Ensenada and seeing an 8-by-10 photo of his son hanging on the wall behind the counter.

"It was interesting just to feel the impact and the pridefulness the Hispanic people, even south of the border, feel," he says.

One in seven students at USC is Latino, and the star athlete enjoys immense popularity. If there is a knock on Sanchez, it's that some Latinos in the greater L.A. area consider him a little too Anglo.

"You'll hear talk," says Miranda, the USC student whose parents are from Mexico and El Salvador. "It's whether he's Mexican enough or just adequately Mexican. It's a huge topic. And I don't know how to answer that.

"What do you mean exactly? Does he speak Spanish? Does he act a certain way, dress a certain way, talk a certain way? Is it because he doesn't fit a stereotype? That's really unfair."

Sanchez, who spoke only English at home, has taken steps to embrace his heritage. He completed an advanced Spanish class in summer school so he could do interviews with the Spanish-language media -- Mexico's TV Azteca was recently in town -- without a translator. He also participated in a fundraiser for Operation Teddy Bear, which provides school supplies to first-graders in heavily Latino areas of Long Beach and the South Bay, and recently joined L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in distributing holiday gifts to needy families in East L.A.

"I didn't expect this from a kid growing up in Mission Viejo," says Ricardo Rodriguez, a USC political science professor. "I was like, 'Oh, that's why people are rallying around him.' I see it here at the tailgate [parties] and in my classes. People are always talking about it."

Luis Rodriguez, a doctoral candidate in American studies and ethnicity, sees it too.

"He doesn't really shy away from it," Rodriguez says of Sanchez. "It's a credit to him and it's almost paying homage to his grandparents and his parents. There's that sort of sense of pride that comes with having Mark as quarterback.

"I myself went out and bought [a Sanchez] jersey."

Cal State Northridge professor Rudy Acuna, an author and activist who is considered the padrino (godfather) of Chicano studies, says Sanchez carries the weight of a role model.

"We all pave the way for each other," Acuna says. "We also all benefit from being Mexican American. It makes us different. It makes us unique. Evidently, he does have a sense of responsibility and I applaud him for it."

That was partly forged in another controversy early in Sanchez's USC career -- when he was suspended after being accused of sexual assault, underage drinking and using a false ID to enter a bar, an incident that gave pause to many of his early supporters.

"I was excited [he came to USC], and then that happened his freshman year and I was like, 'Oh, great,' " says Isaac Cuchilla, 20, a USC student activist. "Even if it is not true, it still tainted his name. That will always follow" him.

Sanchez was arrested on suspicion of sexual assault but never charged; authorities cited a lack of evidence. But the episode was an important wake-up call.

"It taught me a lot about this position and how to be a leader on and off the field. In social situations as well," Sanchez says. "Any kind of incident, negative media attention, can easily affect how you're playing and what people perceive you as."

Among teammates, the perception of their quarterback is clear. "He's our leader," wide receiver Damian Williams says.

Adds sophomore offensive lineman Kristofer O'Dowd: "Sometimes, when things aren't going our way, it's always good to look at him because he always has that fire in his eye."

There's no arguing Sanchez's effect on the USC football team. Dating to last season, the Trojans have a record of 13-2 with him as their starter. Soon, he'll probably earn the opportunity to perform on an even bigger stage.

Although he has one year of eligibility left at USC, Sanchez has asked the NFL to evaluate his status for its upcoming draft. He has until Jan. 15 to decide whether to forgo his senior season to turn pro.

In the NFL, he would join a fraternity of Mexican American quarterbacks, including Dallas' Tony Romo, Buffalo's J.P. Losman and Tampa Bay's Jeff Garcia. They, in turn, are part of a storied tradition dating back to Super Bowl quarterbacks Joe Kapp of the Minnesota Vikings and Jim Plunkett of the Oakland and Los Angeles Raiders, each of whom are of Mexican heritage.

Sandoval, the World War II veteran, would hate to see Sanchez leave USC, but he says the quarterback has already made an indelible mark at school and beyond.

"I never thought that he would come to the point where he's at now," Sandoval says, leaning on his walker. "And still he's got this potential that . . . it's beautiful."

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kevin.baxter@latimes.com

For The Record Los Angeles Times Thursday, January 01, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction Mark Sanchez: An article in Monday's Section A about USC quarterback Mark Sanchez and his development into a role model for Mexican Americans gave the wrong last name for a USC professor it quoted. He is Ricardo Ramirez, not Ricardo Rodriguez.
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