Into the fire

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LOS ANGELES – Mark Sanchez is preparing for his third game as USC's starting quarterback, and his father wants to talk about it.

The four touchdown passes Mark threw in last week's shutout at Notre Dame … Saturday's showdown at Oregon … the Trojans' national title hopes. Nick Sanchez could chatter about USC football until his cell phone goes kerplunk.

But right now he can't.

Not while he's riding in a fire truck.

"I don't think it'd be very professional of me," Nick says from Orange County. "This just isn't a good time. But, hey, do me a favor, would ya? If you see Mark, tell him I'm proud of him."

Forty-eight miles away, during a post-practice interview with Yahoo! Sports, Mark Sanchez makes it clear that feeling is mutual.

At the same time his son is adjusting to college football's spotlight, Nick Sanchez finds himself at the crux of an even bigger story. As a captain with the Orange County Fire Authority, he's spent the week battling the blazes that have ravaged nearly 1,200 homes and 420,000 acres in Southern California.

While son zipped passes across USC's practice field Tuesday, dad doused flames and "protected structures" in Modjeska Canyon. Nick never made it home that night. His wife, Madeline, says he might not be back for the rest of the week.

Thus, as the biggest game of his young career inches closer, Mark knows his most loyal fan probably won't be in the stands at Oregon on Saturday.

"It's going to kill him not to be there," Mark says. "But just like he gets excited for my games, I'm excited for him right now. This is his chance to really make a difference in the communities around Southern California.

"I'm so proud of him. I look up to him. I love being able to say, 'My dad’s a fireman!' "

Concerned as he is for his father's safety, Mark has grown used to these scenarios. In 2005, Nick missed the Trojans' game at Hawaii because of Hurricane Katrina. As a member of the Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) team, Nick floated from house to house in New Orleans looking for survivors before retreating to his "bed" each night at the SuperDome.

In 1995, Nick was summoned to Oklahoma City to help recover bodies from the rubble of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building after it was bombed by Timothy McVeigh.

"If there's any kind of a national emergency, he's on call," Mark Sanchez says. "Locally, if there's a house fire or a hiking accident or if a river overflows, he has to respond."

The quarterback smiles.

"Even the cat-in-the tree type of stuff … he deals with that, too."

When Mark was in third grade he said his father suffered a severe knee injury while he was standing on the roof of a burning home as it collapsed. Aside from that, dad's managed to avoid any serious injuries.

Still, it's been awhile since Nick, 59, faced a situation as daunting as this. News reports Wednesday said that six firefighters were admitted to UC San Diego Medical Center's Burn Unit. Damage from the blazes has covered 656 square miles and counting.

"It's on the news here 24 hours a day," Madeline says. "You can't help but watch it. This is Nick's job and he's good at it, but it's hard not to worry just a little bit."

Mark says one of the firefighters in his father's unit sent him a text message containing a 15-second video of the fire they were battling Tuesday.

"There were flames everywhere," Mark says. "The fire was on a hillside and they were pretty close to it.

"He did a good job when I was younger of prepping me for stuff like this. He relates it to football. They practice all year to do stuff like this. This is their game. They're not bummed that they have to go do this.

"They're excited about it. Not excited that people are losing their homes, but excited to get out and do their jobs and make a difference."

Mark said he won’t let his father's situation become a distraction as he prepares for No. 5 Oregon. John David Booty suffered a finger injury, catapulting Sanchez into the starting role two weeks ago. Now he's doing everything he can to keep the job.

Sanchez passed for 235 yards in last week's 38-0 victory over Notre Dame. A week earlier, he was serviceable in a 20-13 win over Arizona – his first college start. Coaches haven't said whether Booty will be healthy enough to return this week but, even if he is, he might have trouble winning his spot back.

"Once you get the nod it totally changes," Sanchez says. "(It's) like a heavyweight fighter – you win the title and that's it, you don't want to look back and you don't want to change. That's the way I feel and I'm working to keep the job."

A large chunk of Trojan followers are throwing their support behind the charismatic Sanchez, an Adrian Grenier look-alike who was named the 2004 National High School Player of the Year.

A gauntlet of fans lined the pathway leading from USC's practice field to the locker room after workouts Tuesday. By the time he reached shelter, Sanchez had signed 16 autographs, asked a teenager the score of his last high school football game, stuck his hand through the window of a police car to greet an officer and called a 32-year-old reporter "Sir."

And all that was after a two-hour practice in which he routinely jumped into the arms of teammates not just after a completed pass – but after a successful run by a tailback.

"The players really respond to him," coach Pete Carroll said.

The only problem was that dad wasn't there to see it. When he's not on call, Nick Sanchez fights California traffic and drives more than an hour to each and every USC workout. When Mark sees him walk through the gate, he usually trots over to the sideline to greet him with a hug and a kiss on the cheek.

"He's always been in my corner," Mark says. "It's an awesome relationship, so it's hard when he's not here."

As of Wednesday afternoon, Nick was still in Modjeska Canyon, where 75-foot flames burned 11 homes and destroyed a double-wide trailer. Madeline says he called to check in the night before. She thought maybe he'd slept in his fire truck – or maybe not at all.

Other than Tuesday's text message, Mark hasn't been able to communicate with his father, relying instead on reports from family members. As much as he's enjoying his increased role on the team, he said it will be that much more fulfilling when dad is back on the sideline.

And he will be back.

"Oh yeah," Sanchez says, "I'm not worried. He's got a great crew around him. They trust each other with their lives."