SAN DIEGO -- Mark Sanchez was still clutching the game ball he ran off the field with as he bent down and closed his eyes waiting for Jets coach Rex Ryan to finish his postgame remarks. As he shook his head and put his right hand over his face, it was as if he was still coming to grips with the fact that he and the Jets were one win away from the Super Bowl.
"I try not to think about it," said Sanchez after the Jets beat the Chargers 17-14 in the divisional playoffs. "It's amazing."
Although Sanchez is a rookie, he was quick to point out this wasn't his first time at Qualcomm Stadium for an NFL playoff game. He was here last year too, only his view wasn't as good as the one he had on Sunday.
"It seems like a lifetime ago that I was here last year for this game watching [Peyton] Manning play [Philip] Rivers and the Chargers won in overtime," said Sanchez, who will now play Manning and the Colts next week in the AFC Championship Game. "I was sitting way up at the top near the scoreboard. What a special feeling. What an amazing run to be here now."
The run began exactly one year and one day ago, about two hours down the congested freeways of Southern California in Los Angeles, when Sanchez walked into the Varsity Lounge at Heritage Hall for the first of what would become a number of awkward news conferences at the school over the next 12 months.
Back then, Pete Carroll was still coaching USC, Sanchez was preparing for his senior season and there was nothing but lovefests inside of Heritage Hall with the Trojans winning seven straight Pac-10 titles.
What a difference a year makes.
No one could have predicted the domino effect that Sanchez's decision to go pro would cause on both coasts.
Even as Sanchez, scratching his gnarled playoff beard, looks back on it now, he still has a hard time grasping everything that has transpired since that uncomfortable news conference a year ago to announce he was entering the NFL draft.
"It's been a long ride," he said. "It's been a crazy long ride."
Despite being a defensive coach, there was no player that Carroll ever coached who he identified with more than Sanchez. He matched him in every quirky, energetic way. He shadowed his every fist pump, chest bump and impassioned sideline speech. The only thing they didn't agree on during their time together was Sanchez's decision to go to the NFL early.
Carroll had seen plenty of players go to the league early. He wished Reggie Bush well, gave LenDale White a goodbye hug and had no problem helping Winston Justice out the door, but Sanchez was different. Sanchez was supposed to stay and Carroll didn't hide his emotions or sugarcoat his opinion when talking to the media after the announcement was made.
"The facts are so strong against this decision," Carroll said at the time. "After analyzing all the information, the truth is there, he should have stayed for another year. He lost out on a chance to fully prepare himself. The facts are there's a 62 percent failure rate for underclassmen quarterbacks."
Carroll's inability to accept Sanchez's decision and send him off gracefully was the first chink in his armor at USC -- one that would only grow bigger during the course of a disappointing 9-4 season and sudden departure to the NFL himself.
As much as Carroll's comments hurt Sanchez privately, he never let on that it did publicly. Carroll even reached out to him after the news conference and apologized for the way he reacted. In a way, Carroll's comments about Sanchez's projected NFL failure drove him the same way comments from pundits about Carroll's NFL failures drove him back to the pro game.
Carroll can only hope he has an "I told you so" season like the one Sanchez has had.
Sanchez's transition to the NFL was initially as seamless as his transition to USC from Mission Viejo High School. After the Jets made the biggest draft-day trade in their history to move up to the fifth selection to take him, Sanchez rewarded them by opening the season 3-0 and becoming the most talked about athlete in New York outside of Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez.
He was featured in an infamous GQ photo spread, was rumored to be dating the supermodel from said photo spread and had moved into a gated community in New Jersey with the five-year $50 million contract he signed. Life was good for the 23-year-old quarterback.
Then he hit the inevitable rookie wall that came sooner than Sanchez or his ever-growing bandwagon expected. He went 1-7 over the next eight games, throwing 14 interceptions and six touchdowns. Sanchez and the Jets, however, turned their season around, winning five of their last six games to make the playoffs. Sanchez embraced the role of being a game manager the last two games of the season to help the Jets clinch their first postseason berth since 2006 with wins over the playoff-bound Colts and Bengals.
While he didn't score any touchdowns in those two wins, more importantly, he didn't turn the ball over.
Sanchez has continued to grow in the playoffs. He was nearly flawless in beating the Cincinnati Bengals 24-14 in the wild-card round last week, going 12-of-15 for 182 yards and a touchdown for a passer rating of 139.4. After that game, he poked some fun at Carroll, who was on the verge of leaving USC for the Seattle Seahawks.
"I just wanted everybody to know I completely disagree with his decision," Sanchez said. "Statistics show that it's not a good choice."
While he was far from flawless on Sunday, going 12-of-23 for 100 yards with one touchdown and one interception, Sanchez was big when he needed to be. He hit Dustin Keller for the go-ahead touchdown on third down, rolling right before finding his tight end in the back of the end zone. He later hit Jerricho Cotchery on a perfect third-down pass while Cotchery was blanketed by Antonio Cromartie. On the next play, Shonn Greene ran up the middle for a 53-yard touchdown to give the Jets a 17-7 lead.
After the play, Sanchez jumped up and down and pumped his fists in a scene reminiscent of his days at USC. And while Ryan might not be as felt as Carroll, Sanchez has grown as close with his rookie coach as he did with Carroll, slapping him on the behind as if he were a teammate.
"I thought he had a heck of a game," said Ryan. "You judge quarterbacks on wins and losses most of the time. For him, we know he's a rookie quarterback and all that but we look at him now as he's not a rookie anymore. This is the postseason and he's our quarterback."
In the locker room after the game, Sanchez was still trying to soak in the win, sitting in front of his cramped locker and looking at his teammates around him. After he took the tape off his wrists, he threw it at Braylon Edwards, who was talking to a reporter in the corner of the locker room.
"Hey, I'm talking about you Hector," said Edwards, who also calls Sanchez "Telemundo." "I'm talking you up."
Sanchez then told Edwards to put in his iPod mix.
"Put it on Mark 4," he yelled out. "The first one should be an '80s song. You'll know it."
Once Edwards found it, Sanchez got up from his seat and started bouncing around when he heard Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger."
Edwards simply laughed as he watched his rookie quarterback finally acting like a rookie quarterback, dancing to the "Rocky III" theme song in his underwear after the biggest win of his career.
"Mark's definitely got that eye of the tiger," Edwards said. "He's like nobody I've ever played with. I'm glad he's on my team. He makes football fun for everyone."
Arash Markazi is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com.