Michael Sanchez pays it forward

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- They use little red wagons to tote the sick patients around the Arkansas Children's Hospital, a nod to childhood innocence and fun so often lost amid the sterility of the hospital.

Zoe didn't need the lift. The toddler instead stuffed her wagon with stickers, fake tattoos, whatever she thought might bring a smile to the sick kids stuck in the hospital.

That she was one of them, suffering from cancer, didn't seem to matter. Her bald head may have signaled that she too was sick, but it was no match for her sunny disposition and eternal optimism.

Zoe was bringing her wares from room to room when she first spied Michael Sanchez.

Within seconds, she fearlessly scrambled onto his lap to play with his wavy hair.

"She kept saying, 'Oh, I really like your hair,'" Sanchez said. "I know it sounds corny but I kept thinking that if I could just do something. She was so sick and here she was, trying to help the other kids. I just wanted to do something to make a difference, to maybe make people more aware."

That something now grows quite literally on the Arkansas senior.

Inspired by Zoe, Sanchez is growing his hair out for Locks for Love.

He needs to have eight inches of his hair to make the donation to the organization, which makes hairpieces for children with cancer. That will make for some seriously bad hair days during the Razorbacks' season, not to mention some merciless ribbing from his teammates. Rico Suave and Tom Brady already have been mentioned.

But Sanchez is determined and will go to whatever lengths -- hair gel, headband or ponytail -- to get his tresses to the proper length.

"Trust me, this isn't about style points," Sanchez said. "People might think I want attention, and I guess in some ways I do. Just not for myself."

Rarely does Michael Sanchez make things about himself. From a ridiculously athletic gene pool -- his grandfather, Al Bunge, was an All-American at Maryland; his mother, Kim, played at Arkansas; his father, Bert, ran track at Arkansas and his sister, Krista, played basketball at Oklahoma -- Sanchez was blessed with skill and size.

Named an all-state player his senior season at Har-Ber High School in Springdale, he had his pick of basketball schools. When he chose to play for then-coach John Pelphrey -- a Springdale kid choosing to stay home -- it was viewed as a turning point for Pelphrey and a good omen for the Razorbacks.

Well aware that the spotlight would shine especially bright on him since he had opted to stay home, Sanchez accepted it with ease. To him, it wasn't pressure. It was something far more important.

"I think it's a responsibility," he said. "But it's a good responsibility. These are the people who have been with you your whole life, the ones who are truly in your corner. You don't want to let them down."

Sanchez never has, either, behaving as a model citizen who already has his undergraduate degree and is at work now on a master's in engineering.

Unfortunately, his feet have let him down. Plantar fasciitis derailed part of his sophomore season, and a stress fracture in his foot cut his junior year short. Consequently, Sanchez's numbers have never quite added up. His first season, before the injuries, ranks as his best, when he averaged 5.9 points and nearly five boards per game.

But if the measure of a man stretches beyond statistics, few ever will find fault with Sanchez.

He has spent his entire Arkansas career helping others. From food drives to Book Hogs (the Razorbacks' youth reading program) to summer camps to hospital visits, he never says no.

"He's got a service heart," said his mother, Kim. "He'd do anything for anybody."

Michael and Krista were raised to be giving people and taught to do the right thing, but they also were sometimes recipients of others' kindness.

Money didn't always flow freely in the Sanchez home -- there were, Sanchez says, garage sales to raise money for AAU trips or a week's worth of tortilla and bean dinners to save extra cash for the kids.

Kim, who thought she'd be a coach at the collegiate level, instead pursued a career in motherhood. She tutored for extra cash or ran basketball clinics, dragging her son along with her.

"He'd be in the back of the room doing the same drills we were," Kim said.

His parents never delivered an overt message of service, but it got through anyway.

"I think we're put on this earth to help other people," Sanchez said. "I'm a big believer in paying it forward. If someone wants some of my time, I'll give it to them."

Abby Sheets can attest to that. The 11-year-old has been a regular at Razorbacks games for years, driving the four hours from her Hot Springs home with her parents or, more often, her aunt Sylvia and uncle Gerald Braziel.

For whatever reason, she was taken with Sanchez and, after three games of watching from the sidelines, finally worked up the courage to ask for an autograph.

That began a three-year friendship that, Sylvia Braziel says, has changed her niece's life. Abby, whose bedroom is adorned with Razorbacks posters and who celebrated her birthday with a photo cake featuring a picture of her and Sanchez, has turned her grades and her attitude around.

"I can't tell you what an influence he's been," she said. "She told him she got a bad grade and he just said, 'What's that about?' All of a sudden, she's on the horn, making sure she's doing everything right. People don't realize what a big influence they can have on a kid's life by doing simple things.

"Michael got down to eye level with her and focused on her. That's all a kid wants -- a little bit of your time and attention. Here's Michael, a college kid. He gets it."

Sanchez was in ninth grade when his beloved grandfather, Albert Sanchez -- "Poppa" to his grandson -- died from cancer.

The two were extraordinarily close. Albert had the luxury of owning his own business, so he could make his own schedule. Usually he made it so he could spend time with his grandchildren or watch their sporting events.

"Oh my goodness, his passing really affected Michael," said Bert Sanchez, Michael's father and Albert's son. "They had such a neat relationship."

Sanchez was playing at an AAU tournament in Dallas -- against a team that included O.J. Mayo, in fact -- when Kim got the call that Poppa probably wouldn't live through the night. As soon as the game ended, they hightailed it for Springdale, a six-hour drive.
They got as far as Sherman, Ark., about an hour and 45 minutes from home, when the phone rang again.

"They said he wasn't going to make it more than a few minutes, and so we put Michael on the phone," Kim said. "It was rough on him. But I remember at the funeral, I was so worried about him. It was the first time he'd lost someone he was close to. He went right up and kissed his Poppa on the forehead."

What stayed with Sanchez, though, wasn't the long car ride or even the funeral. It was his Uncle Robert's small act of kindness. When Albert Sanchez initially was diagnosed and began chemo, Robert shaved his head in support.

"It was small, but it made such an impact on my grandfather," Sanchez said.

Years later, Sanchez was in Little Rock training when he decided to visit the Arkansas Children's Hospital.

That's when he first met Zoe, the little girl who loved to play with his hair.

A big believer in paying kindness forward, Sanchez watched as she brought a smile to the other sick kids in the hospital. He remembered his uncle, grabbing the clippers to buzz his hair.

He decided that his own contribution, even a small one, would be just as important and, after getting an OK from current Arkansas coach Mike Anderson, began growing out his hair.

Of course what Sanchez didn't know -- and what most guys don't know -- is that sounds easier than it actually is.

"Yeah, it's a lot of work," he laughed. "I have all these products now. It's wild."

Not to mention, at times, hilarious.

Kim Sanchez swears her son has been filching her hair bands and headbands -- "They've all disappeared," she said -- and Bert Sanchez recently discussed the value of braids.

With his son.

"Obviously I think what he's doing is really cool, and it makes a statement," Bert Sanchez said. "But I noticed it's starting to get in his way. I told him maybe he should use a braid or something because the last thing he needs is to worry about where his headband went during a game."

He's got plenty of other things on his mind. Arkansas has an old face as its new coach. The state universally embraced Anderson, but the players had to adjust to an entirely new style of play.

They may not have loved the 5:50 a.m. preseason workouts or the grueling conditioning to prepare for Anderson's adaptation of Nolan Richardson's 40 minutes of hell, but they have been willing.

The young Razorbacks, who are 5-3, will remain a work in progress this year. Leading scorer and rebounder Marshawn Powell is done with a knee injury. But the players have bought in to Anderson's system, and more, to his vision.

"We kind of know why we're doing what we're doing," Sanchez said. "That wasn't the way it was before. Now I feel like there's a purpose."

Michael Sanchez believes in doing something with a purpose and doing something not because you want to, but because you should.

He could have walked out the Arkansas Children's Hospital door and promptly forgot about Zoe. By simply showing up and meeting with the children, he'd done a good deed.

Instead, inspired by one child, a little girl whose last name he never learned, Sanchez went to great lengths to make a difference.

That's great lengths figuratively.

And great lengths literally.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com. Follow Dana on Twitter: @dgoneil1.