NEW YORK (WFAN/AP) — Mark Sanchez and Scotty McKnight used to toss footballs around to each other when they were little kids, imagining what it would be like to play in the NFL.
Better yet, they thought, how cool would it be if they played on the same team?
Years went by, their friendship grew and the dream never faded. And now here they are: best friends reunited as teammates with the Jets.
“Every once in a while, you get a chance to step back and I remember playing Pop Warner and we’re taking pictures after games,” Sanchez said. “Now we’re playing in the National Football League taking pictures with his parents during camp.
“Honestly for the both of us, this is a dream come true playing in the NFL.”
They’ve certainly taken different paths to get here. Sanchez is entering his third season as the face of a franchise that has been on the verge of a Super Bowl appearance for the last two years. Meanwhile, McKnight is a seventh-round draft pick and a sure-handed receiver just trying to stick.
“The odds were definitely against us back then,” McKnight said, “but it’s pretty cool to see how it all worked out.”
There were those long afternoon football practices together in Southern California, and the days when they’d goof around together as ball boys at Santa Margarita High School hoping to someday be just like that team’s quarterback, Carson Palmer.
Their friendship blossomed a few years later, when McKnight’s mother, Catherine, a chef in Orange County, had a restaurant and hired Sanchez’s brother, Brandon, as a bartender.
“Mark used to come and hang out at the restaurant all the time and it was in a clubhouse and there was a basketball hoop and swimming pool,” McKnight said. “So, whatever holiday there was, we’d hang down at my Mom’s place. That’s when we started to get close.”
Sanchez is a year older than McKnight, and went to Mission Viejo High School and became a big star there. Meanwhile, McKnight went to Tesoro High School and had a solid career, but was not a major college recruit.
He also had some issues during his senior year, when he suspended the first eight games for writing a school paper that was considered to be in bad taste — if not threatening.
The two stayed in touch through it all, even as Sanchez headed to USC and was tabbed as the next big-time quarterback to lead the Trojans. McKnight went to Colorado a year later and joined the Buffaloes football team as a walk-on.
McKnight would watch some of Sanchez’s games and they’d even try to hang out back home sometimes. Sanchez also visited McKnight in Boulder, like the time the Buffaloes were playing Nebraska at Folsom Field. One of McKnight’s roommates worked in the equipment office and gave Sanchez an all-access pass during the game.
“So, he takes Mark up to the top of the scoreboard where’s there’s a place to stand and tells him they can watch the game from there,” McKnight said. “Mark didn’t know any better, so they go up there and security sees them and tries to throw him out of the stadium. We had to get the video guy to vouch for them. It was pretty funny.”
Yeah, to McKnight, who claims to this day he had no clue his roommate would do that.
“After the game, Mark comes up to me and he’s like, `Dude, they almost made me leave in the second quarter,'” McKnight said, laughing. “I was just like, `Oh, man. Really?'”
On the day of the draft in 2009, McKnight was playing in Colorado’s spring game and knew he wouldn’t be able to watch to see where Sanchez was going. So, he put his cell phone in a hand warmer and gave it to a team trainer on the sideline.
“I told her, `Hey, you need to just stay on my phone and tell me what’s going on,'” McKnight recalled.
Just five picks into the draft, McKnight’s phone buzzed with a text message from his buddy: “It’s going to be the Jets.”
“I was so happy for him because this is where he wanted to go,” McKnight said, “and rarely does that happen for a guy.”
Two years later, it was McKnight’s turn. Sanchez showed up at McKnight’s pro day and threw passes to him during the workout, just like the old days. More than two dozen teams were interested, and with his family around him, along with Sanchez’s, he got a call from the Jets in the seventh round in April.
Did being Sanchez’s buddy help? Probably. But the fact McKnight carved out his own record-breaking career at Colorado by setting the career marks for receptions and touchdown catches certainly didn’t hurt.
“It was just crazy,” McKnight said. “When a team would call me during the process, I would save their number under the organization name so on draft day I wouldn’t get a number and not know where it was. So, the Jets popped up on my screen and I was obviously thrilled.”
So was Sanchez, who has been able to throw to McKnight during training camp practices a few times.
“I was curious to see how much I’ll even get to interact with Scotty, being my best friend growing up,” Sanchez said. “We’re so busy I barely get to see the guy. Unless we’re working out or going over meetings stuff or napping, I don’t even see the guy. He’s in treatment, I’m in a meeting and then we flip flop and he’s doing something else.”
But they both know they’re here, and that’s all that matters to them.
“It’s a really special situation,” wide receivers coach Henry Ellard said. “You don’t see that very often. And for Scotty, he’s got to feel good about things because he’s got the quarterback on his side.”
McKnight might need any edge he can get, especially at a position that includes Santonio Holmes, Plaxico Burress and Derrick Mason. Ellard said McKnight has good hands and shows versatility, as well as the ability to pick up plays quickly.
“He’s had a good resource in me over the offseason, but he’s done a good job,” Sanchez said. “He’s going to have to play really well on special teams and he’s going to have to block his butt off. That’s how he’s going to try to make the team.”
And, that story would top the long list they’ve already compiled together since those Pop Warner days.
“This has just been a great experience for us,” McKnight said. “Man, it’s been so cool.”
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