Commentary

The Original Mr. Cool

Mark Sanchez's father, Nick, a fire captain, taught him not to feel the heat

Updated: January 24, 2010, 2:57 PM ET
By Shelley Smith | ESPNLosAngeles.com

A little more than 12 hours after his rescue team was told to stand down on a mission to earthquake-ravaged Haiti, Nick Sanchez's unit was placed on swift-water alert in California as brutal rains and a tornado ripped off at least one roof and flooded areas throughout Orange County, where Sanchez lives and works.

Sanchez merely put his cell phone on vibrate, waiting for the "go," (which, by the way, never came) and went to a movie ... demonstrating calm in the eye of, well, a real storm.

It's a trait he instilled in his three sons, and one that his youngest, Mark, no doubt will fall back on Sunday when he looks into the eyes of a healthy and hungry Indianapolis Colts' defense.

"Practice and prepare," Nick said. "Practice and prepare. That's what we do. That's what gives you the confidence to be calm. It's the same in life, and certainly in football."

Nick is a former Army sergeant and currently a fire captain and a key member of California Task Force 5, which responded after the Oklahoma City bombing and the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

In August 2005, he and his team spent a month in New Orleans, helping save lives and restore the city in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It has been his life's mission for 34 years. He knows disaster, and he knows response. It's what he does.

So when a recent earthquake hit Haiti, Nick knew his unit, one of 28 in the country, would likely be called. And even this week, after the recent aftershocks there, his unit still could be activated.

"We wanted to go to Haiti," he said. "We were begging to go. We were loading up, rostering up. That's what we prepare for. But it was a double-edged sword because there was this other event.' "

Ah yes, this "other event." The one in which his son, Mark, the rookie quarterback of the New York Jets, was to take the field (just 40 miles from where much of the Sanchez family lives) against the San Diego Chargers for the right to go to the AFC championship game.

"We were standing by at March Air Reserve base near Riverside in the days leading up to the game," Nick said. "But they couldn't get the right aircraft for all of our equipment and all of our personnel. We were waiting because to go that way would have meant taking your offense but not your defense. Wouldn't work."

So he put his phone on vibrate and went to Mark's game.

"It's just something I'm used to," Nick said.

And something his boys are used to as well. Mark and his brothers, Brandon and Nick Jr., were raised knowing their father saved lives and was often called away at a moment's notice.

They basically grew up in Orange County Fire Station 6 (not so coincidentally, Mark's jersey number), climbing on the big red trucks, playing basketball in the back of the station, and eating a meal prepared by a firefighter on kitchen duty, then helping to wash the dishes. "Little boys and fire trucks," Mark said. " Imagine having the real thing."

Last spring, Mark climbed on top of one of the trucks and recounted his childhood. He said he wouldn't have had it any differently. His father taught him discipline, dedication and sacrifice -- lessons he has taken to heart all his life and a big reason the ups and downs of football have never sucked him under the reality of what is important.

On Sunday, Nick said Mark shelled out the money necessary to bring about 100 family members to the game in San Diego and easily could have brought 1,000.

"But good thing for Mark," Nick said. "It was expensive enough."

He said Mark realized that the stars may never again be aligned like this again  his playing quarterback in the NFL playoffs in his own backyard. So he told his brother, Brandon, "go for it." And through ticket brokers and friends of friends, he found enough. So aunts and uncles, cousins and cousins of cousins, many of whom had never seen an NFL game, were suddenly driving down Interstate 5 to celebrate the success of the young man they've known all his life.

"It was like a homecoming game," said Mark's mom, Olga Marmolejo, who was divorced from Nick Sr. when the boys were small but has remained great friends with him and his wife, Mandy.

"And then to win the game?" she said breathlessly. "Something magical happened that day, and it's still going."

The only major family member who couldn't make it to the game was Olga's mother, Helen, who will be 93 on Jan. 26. She still lives in the same East Los Angeles house where Olga was raised and where Mark and his brothers spent nearly as much time as they did at the fire station. It was there that they learned to speak Spanish and spent hours playing Mexican loteria, a kind of bingo they played for candy, and a game at which, Helen still emphatically insists, Mark learned to cheat because of his competitiveness.

She hung a USC flag outside the house for Mark's college games and now religiously hangs a Jets banner. Actually, the rest of the once never-superstitious Sanchez family has now become extremely so since Mark started growing a beard, vowing not to shave until the season is over.

It has caused Olga to wear the same green and white tennis shoes every game and Nick Sr. to wear long pants every game (he's usually in shorts when not in uniform) because "they win when I'm in long pants."

The Sanchez and Marmolejo families, stretching from East Los Angeles to Orange County, will be glued to their televisions on Sunday. Olga and her two sons and their families will be in Indianapolis for the game, as will Nick Sr.

But if disaster strikes and he's needed elsewhere, he says, if he can get there, he will go. It's what he does.

And he'll put his phone on vibrate.

Shelley Smith is a writer and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com and a regular contributor for ESPN television.

Shelley Smith

SportsCenter correspondent
Shelley Smith joined ESPN in January 1997 after working part-time as a reporter for the network since 1993. She has covered Super Bowls, the NBA Finals, the BCS championship game, the Stanley Cup playoffs, golf and tennis championships and more.

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