IRVINE, Calif. – The USC quarterback with the limitless future boarded the transcontinental flight Saturday morning, fresh off an all-night party session in the City That Never Sleeps with soon-to-be-No. 1-overall pick Matthew Stafford, grateful for the courtesy upgrade to first class and the five hours of peace that awaited him.
"I closed my eyes as we were leaving the gate and woke up when the flight attendant told me, 'Sir, you need to lift up your chair' before we landed," Mark Sanchez said about a half hour before the start of the 2009 NFL draft as he sat in the office of Athletes First, his Orange County-based agency. "It was exactly what I needed, and now I'm here in California, which is where I need to be. Who knows -- I might be on a plane going back to New York in a few hours. That'd be just fine with me."
The sleepy-eyed Sanchez, the subject of so much intrigue before the draft, was giving a not-so-subtle hint that he hoped the New York Jets would trade up to get him. When he got his wish -- the Jets sent two picks and three players to the Cleveland Browns to snag Sanchez with the fifth overall pick -- he started celebrating in front of friends, family members, agents and a few reporters like an over-caffeinated Brett Favre after a 60-yard touchdown pass.
As Sanchez raced through the Athletes First lobby with his fingers in the air, pausing to pump his fist emphatically, another ex-USC quarterback with a storied past and an uncertain future was 50 miles north at a community college football stadium discussing gang-tackling and gang colors with a group of inner-city middle schoolers, many of whom needed help putting on their pads.
With his 2-year-old son, Cole, perched atop his shoulders, Arizona Cardinals backup quarterback Matt Leinart had arrived Saturday morning at West Los Angeles College to spend a day presiding over the Urban Youth Football League, a venture he created in the hope of exposing kids from underprivileged areas to football's salving powers.
"This means so much to me," Leinart said as he watched more than 100 kids in various uniform colors go through drills. "When I was a kid I never got a chance to play organized football because I was too big for my age group, as a lot of these guys are. When I finally did get to play, it did so much for me in terms of teamwork and making friends -- it's the coolest sport in the world.
"A lot of these kids come from broken homes. They're great kids but many have no direction, and no role models to look up to. Hopefully, through football, they're meeting kids from rival areas and learning how to be better people who make better decisions."
Leinart choked up as he spoke, and his emotion belied his image as a Hollywood party boy whose football fortunes have been undone by immaturity. Stuck on the Cardinals' depth chart behind the revitalized Kurt Warner, the former Heisman winner and two-time national champion has taken a drastic plunge in public perception.
"I think the perception of Matt has been unfair," Sanchez said of Leinart, a former college teammate from whom he has tried to distance himself. "I'm sure it's been a humbling experience for him, but I know he's gonna be just fine."
If you were to chart the career trajectory of the two ex-Trojans, the resulting graph would look like an "X," with Sanchez's fortunes soaring as Leinart's plummet.
Three years ago, Leinart was the quarterback soaking up the New York limelight before the draft, forging a friendship with fellow quarterback prospect Vince Young -- much like Sanchez has with Stafford -- and being talked up as some lucky franchise's savior. Even though he fell all the way to the 10th pick, then-Cardinals coach Dennis Green described the opportunity to draft Leinart as "a gift from heaven."
Three days before that '06 draft, Sanchez, a redshirt freshman who still ranked behind John David Booty on the Trojans' depth chart, was arrested and booked for sexual assault and was suspended from the team by USC coach Pete Carroll. The L.A. District Attorney's office later decided against filing charges, and Sanchez resumed his career with the Trojans, backing up Booty for two years before an impressive junior season as a starter in '08.
Leinart, who started 12 games as a rookie, struggled early in his second season before breaking his collarbone and was beaten out by Warner in training camp last summer. Dogged by whispers that he lacked commitment to football and was prone to overindulging in the nightlife, Leinart provided fodder for his critics during the '08 offseason when photographs surfaced of him partying it up in his hot tub with several young women.
On the scandal scale this was relatively tepid stuff, but Leinart, who once was romantically linked to Paris Hilton, has grown increasingly sensitive about his image. Those feelings were heightened when Sanchez, in a February interview with the Los Angeles Times' Sam Farmer, seemed to take a shot at his predecessor, saying, "There's a lot that comes with being an SC quarterback. There's Hollywood, there's downtown L.A., there's fun places to go for a young college kid. But at the same time, what's most important to me is being a good football player. I think I learned a lot of that from a guy like Carson Palmer and a lot from J.D. (John David Booty) as well. They've both been hard workers."
Leinart declined to address Sanchez's comment on Saturday, saying only, "I'm happy for him and all the 'SC guys who'll get drafted. We're all family, and we've got to keep the tradition going."
Clearly, those close to Leinart felt stung by Sanchez's slight. "I did get almost an uncomfortable sense that it was a shot at Matt," said Chuck Price, Leinart's agent. "I think he's going out of his way to distance himself, and I don't know why, because Matt won two national championships and a Heisman and, relatively speaking, has had a successful start to his career. Anything Matt has done, he has never come close to harming anyone other than himself. It's unfortunate. Maybe [Sanchez] feels this helps his chances."
On Saturday, Sanchez conceded that, during pre-draft interviews with several teams, he was asked whether he shared some of Leinart's social sensibilities.
"They would ask, 'What kind of guy are you? Are you more like Carson or Matt?' " Sanchez recalled. "It was pretty obvious to me I think Matt's taken a bad rap. Once you put yourself in that position where you're out a little bit, it's hard to change your image. But I think that when Matt gets his chance, he's gonna show a lot of people what a great player he is. He won't surprise me or Carson or John David, but he'll surprise a lot of people when he does."
Comments like that should put to rest the notion that Sanchez is out to trash Leinart, and one of those vouching for the young quarterback's character is Palmer, the former No. 1 overall pick who has flourished as the Cincinnati Bengals' starter.
"Mark was the ballboy for my high school football team," Palmer recalled last week. "His brother was one of my teammates, and Mark was out there with his dad playing catch after every practice -- a little annoying, rug-rat tagalong trying to do whatever we did. So I've known him a long time, and he's a great person.
"Everybody talks about his character, what a good kid and what a hard worker he is, and how he just wants to be great. So many times you hear that stuff about someone before the draft, and it turns out the guy is really an [expletive]. With Mark, those things are really true. Watching him at SC, I never felt he was into the Hollywood people or going to clubs or being a big party guy. That's not who he is."
In the next breath, Palmer insisted he shares Sanchez's belief that Leinart has what it takes to be a successful NFL quarterback. "Matt and I talk a lot, and he's in such a different situation," Palmer said. "The guy ahead of him's a future Hall of Famer, and right now Kurt's one of the best in the league. There's no doubt in my mind that Matt can play. He went out and got his butt kicked early on, like all of us did, and that's when the light comes on. He never got a chance to go out and redeem himself, but whenever that chance comes -- and it might not come this year -- I think he'll take advantage of it."
Leinart, for his part, said he is a more mature person and player than he was coming out of college. "The first couple of years in the league, it's just different," he said. "You grow up, and you learn how to be a professional, and definitely being a parent makes you mature. The hardest part is you have to wait for you opportunity, and when it comes all you can do is take it and run with it. I don't know when that will happen, but I can't wait, because I'm ready."
For now Leinart remains largely out of the limelight while Sanchez, the kid who's supposedly camera shy, gets ready to become the next big thing in the Big Apple. He got some practice in the days leading up to the draft, making a three-day visit that seemed odd given the fact that he'd turned down the NFL's invitation to be one of its official attendees, a move Sanchez's representatives suggested was made in part because he was reluctant to add another trip to his travel-intensive schedule. (A more compelling reason, Sanchez said Saturday, was that he wanted to share the moment with his 92-year-old grandmother, Helen Marmolejo, without making her board a plane.)
The decision to fly to New York last Wednesday was driven by marketing commitments to EA Sports and Sprint, and Sanchez also managed to mix in some pleasure. On Friday night, after learning that Stafford had agreed to a deal with the Lions that will pay the former Georgia quarterback a reported $41.7 million in guaranteed cash, Sanchez sent a text offering to help celebrate.
Soon the two and their respective posses were at the Stillwater Bar and Grill in Greenwich Village, enjoying a spirited and surreal night on the town.
"It was a really small hole-in-the-wall, and it was perfect," Sanchez said. "Surprisingly, there was a TV in the place, and the clips kept switching from [Stafford] to me. People would look up at the screen, then at us, and they'd go, 'I think that's … no, they wouldn't be here. They couldn't be!'"
Then it was dawn and Sanchez was at the airport, ready for his five-hour snoozefest of a flight. Two hours later he was doing a live shot with ESPN's Shelley Smith and getting ready for his big moment. As ESPN and NFL Network camera crews jockeyed for prime position, Sanchez retreated to a side office to huddle with his agent, Dave Dunn, and saw a number with a '973' area code flash across his cell phone. It was Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum, giving the quarterback the news that still had him beaming hours later.
"God, it's awesome," Sanchez said, smiling profusely. "I've wanted this for so long, ever since I met the people in their organization, especially the coaches. Since then it's been this quiet little flame burning for New York. I'm so excited.
"I'm just really thankful that they'd make that move up to get me. That means the world to me. The whole thing is storybook. I couldn't have written it any better. I'm very excited about the big-city atmosphere. They've got a brand-new facility and they're moving into a new stadium in 2010. So it's the right time. This is so special."
As Sanchez prepared to join family members and friends at the ESPN Zone in Anaheim, likely his last stop before yet another transcontinental flight, Leinart was getting ready to come to nearby Angel Stadium.
"It's our second annual 'Angel Night,' " explained Leinart's older brother, Ryan, who runs Matt's foundation. "We take 25 kids who are on the waiting list to get a big brother and bring them to the Angels game, where we match them up with Matt and our friends and treat them to a night at the ballpark."
In a few months both former SC quarterbacks will be suiting up, albeit in very different situations, trying to fulfill their vast promise.
Right now, Sanchez is living a dream. Rest assured, however, that Leinart hasn't given up on his.