By Jason Keidel
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If you were born and raised here, spent your life taking buses and subways instead of causeways, ate hot dogs and pretzels long before our beloved boroughs were usurped by yoga, Pilates and tofu, you know of a time when New York City gave a host of athletes lots of indigestion.
The montage of memories includes dozens of stars who hopped the Hudson and lost their swing, slider, jumper, instincts and confidence.
You remember the army of athletes whose pupils vanish under the bright lights, who are terrified by the blinding flash of cameras, the bouquets of microphones, the tape recorders shoved under their chins, the cacophonous questions and the zero-sum, cutthroat commandments of New York sports.
Win or else. Win or be a loser. Win or get out.
Mark Sanchez wasn’t one of them. The young, handsome, charismatic quarterback from Southern Cal came to the Jets with the look, sound and scent of a new era. He wasn’t part of the timid past, when the Jets had a turnstile at coach and QB.
He arrived as the first face of the Rex Ryan era. Ryan boldly asserted that the Jets were no longer in the business of being welcome mats to the Patriots, just two games on Brady and Belichick’s path to the AFC East crown.
Two trips to the AFC title game later, Sanchez was becoming the king of New York, slowly supplanting his regal colleague in the other locker room. Eli Manning won a Super Bowl, but the Jets had since leapfrogged the Giants, two teams passing each other on the escalator to the top. He’d even earned a handle — “Sanchise.” He became a blessed member of the aristocracy, a minted member of one-word monikers.
Then it all fell apart. And it’s not quite clear how it happened so quickly, so drastically or so brutally. Sanchez’s face was swathed across magazine covers. Some silly “Girls Gone Wild” videos splashed across YouTube, with Sanchez doing some odd mating dance with a few girls. Sanchez literally got under his coach’s skin, with a No. 6 jersey famously tattooed on Ryan’s flank. And there was that headband, or whatever you call that string wrapped around his forehead.
Some say it was just a matter of personnel, losing Sanchez’s safety blankets like Braylon Edwards, Dustin Keller and Thomas Jones. Others say it’s a matter of systemic hubris, the disease of instant success infecting every rung of the corporate ladder, from the GM to the coach to the QB.
Then ownership whacked Mike Tannenbaum, and the coach ran from the GM as though he were on fire, right after hurling him under the bus.
But the damage was done. Whatever magic and mojo the Jets had — the novelty of a new scheme, new attitude and new altitude — had vanished. And all that was left was Sanchez, who lost his mojo so swiftly that you couldn’t believe it was the same person on the field. There was no snap on his passes, no timbre in his voice, no command of his team.
He was given one last chance to win his job. But in the ultimate, fatal irony, Ryan left him in a preseason game with the scrubs, and Sanchez was knocked into irrelevance. Geno Smith took over, and Sanchez was alone on a trainer’s table, in the weight room, in some forlorn physical therapy session — the last stops on your way to Palookaville.
Usually the doomed athlete implodes in an instant, poisoned by his first bite of The Big Apple. Steve Trout. Ed Whitson. Bobby Bonilla. Vernon Gholston. Jason Bay. Eddy Curry. Starbury. The name, number or sport is incidental. Some folks just melt inside the white-hot crucible of NYC.
But not Sanchez, who had already earned his handle, Sanchise. He wasn’t Joe Namath. He didn’t have Broadway Joe’s arm, armor, candor or charisma. He wasn’t in the vortex of a social revolution. But he was a good-looking young man with just enough talent and temerity to make us believers. And he won four road playoff games in two years, unprecedented in NFL history.
So what happened? All we remember now is a stupid bandana and butt fumble, a frat boy who was great in college but couldn’t handle the real world. And the cadence and countenance that seemed so cool now sounds so indifferent. He was no longer Sanchise. Just Sanchez. Two toxic syllables, New York Latin for a loser.
The only analogy I can summon is Joba Chamberlain. Both set the city afire the moment they stepped on the field, then flamed out almost as quickly as they conquered.
Chamberlain has an excuse. The Yankees jerked him around and gave him so many conflicting jobs and goals that his failure was inevitable. Sure, the reliever didn’t help his case with a DUI and a mangled ankle from some dumb stunt on a trampoline. But by the time his body was injured, his soul was destroyed.
Likewise, the Jets didn’t surround Sanchez with enough skill players and protection to make another deep — or any — playoff run. But great quarterbacks make something out of nothing. And we thought Sanchez was really something, but it turns out he was really nothing.
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