Sanchezes so close, yet so far away

At some point during the pregame warm-ups Sunday, Mark Sanchez will hear a whistle from the crowd at Gillette Stadium, the kind of ear-piercing, man-made whistle that turns heads. It won't be a female admirer, it will be his father, doing what he's done since Mark started playing football as a young boy.

"It doesn't make a difference where we are," Nick Sanchez was saying Monday. "It could be a high school game with 4,000 people or the Meadowlands with 75,000, he'll hear it. It's kind of like your baby's cry, you just know it. It'll take him a minute to find me in the crowd, but he'll see me and know I'm there. It's been that way forever."

Their forever ritual goes like this: The whistle. Eye contact. A wave. And then Nick Sanchez begins his purposeful journey to the cheap seats, where he prefers to watch the games.

The elder Sanchez will be there in Foxborough, Mass., because he's always there for his son. He was in Indianapolis last weekend and New Jersey before that. In two seasons, he hasn't missed one of his son's starts, racking up approximately 93,000 air miles this season alone. He crisscrosses the country, going from his Southern California home to wherever the New York Jets are playing.

They've got a good thing going.

Mark Sanchez is 19-12 as a starter, plus three playoff wins -- the most of any quarterback in Jets history. On Monday, his father was busy searching the Internet, trying to book his flight to Boston for the AFC divisional playoffs. If the Jets win, it'll mean another trip -- Pittsburgh or Baltimore for the AFC title game -- and his dad will eclipse the 100,000-mile mark.

He's the George Clooney of football dads, always up in the air.

"He gets to do what every dad would love to do -- chase his son around and watch him play football," coach Rex Ryan once said. "It's every man's dream."

Nick Sanchez's dream was born, in part, out of regret. His two oldest sons, Nick Jr. and Brandon, played college football at Yale and DePauw (Ind.), respectively, and he didn't travel to as many games as he had hoped. He made a promise to himself that he wouldn't repeat that with Mark, and he has been there for every step of his son's NFL journey.

This isn't a golden-child thing. In Nick Sanchez's mind, all events are created equal, whether it's an NFL game or a family birthday party or a school event for his grandson. He's close to all three sons, and makes it a point to call them every day. His credo is, "Love 'em 100 times a day."

He was instrumental in Mark's development as an athlete, creating backyard quarterback drills, but he learned awhile ago to step back. On game day, he goes way, way back. Or shall we say way up?

Before the game, after a good-luck embrace with Mark and an "I love you," Nick Sanchez will make his way to the upper deck, heading for the top row -- the Bob Uecker seats. He goes alone, leaving family members behind in their prime seats.

"I bid farewell to them and say, 'I'll see you at the end of the game,'" he said.

He gets weird looks from the ushers and stadium personnel, people wondering why anyone would give up an expensive seat to watch from the nosebleed section. Sanchez has his reasons. Instead of engaging in conversations during the game, he prefers to insulate himself among strangers, remaining anonymous.

"It's somewhat selfish," he said, "but I found it to my liking."

Football parents do quirky things. Former Jets star Curtis Martin's mother, Rochella, attended almost every home game, but she never actually saw the action. She walked the bowels of the stadium during games, afraid to look because she thought she might see her son get hurt.

The late Al Testaverde, father of former quarterback Vinny Testaverde, used to get so nervous that he always stayed home. He didn't watch on TV, either; he usually raked leaves or went to the mall.

Sanchez will look for an empty seat, as far away from the field as possible. Invariably, he'll get booted by the seat holder. No problem. On average, he has to change seats two to four times per game, usually settling in by the end of the first quarter.

He dresses incognito, going as John Q. Fan. He doesn't wear a Sanchez jersey and he doesn't cheer and he doesn't talk back when fans say bad things about his son.

"I've heard Mark referred to in a very pleasing fashion and I've heard his name defamed on a number of occasions," Sanchez said. "It goes both ways. I take in all the sentiments of fans both home and away. It's a wonderful way to watch a game. I can just concentrate on what's happening."

He's been recognized once or twice by fans in his section, probably because he carries a Rose Bowl backpack that bears the emblem of USC, Mark's alma mater. In Lucas Oil Stadium last Saturday night, he remained anonymous until Nick Folk's game-winning field goal as time expired. He thinks he may have blown his cover when he let out a restrained "Yes!"

Sanchez, the antithesis of a Little League parent, tries not to get emotional during games. He stays quiet and keeps his opinions to himself, but he's always there. He has missed only one game in two seasons, skipping the trip to Tampa last season because Mark stayed home with a knee injury.

It's an expensive proposition, making 20-plus trips a year. Sanchez, 62, is no Donald Trump, still working full-time for the Orange County Fire Station No. 6. (Yes, that's why Mark wears No. 6.) If the airfare is ridiculous, he has to fly alone, his wife, Maddy, volunteering to stay at home.

Sanchez has become an experienced traveler, always researching different fares and checking weather reports. Now that it's the postseason, he goes week to week, refusing to plan ahead to the Super Bowl in Dallas. If the Jets win two more games, he will be there, of course, because he's always there.

"I'm not there as a fan," Nick Sanchez said. "I'm there as a dad."

If you happen to be in Gillette Stadium on Sunday, look up. Take a glance to the last row. Look for a gray-haired man in a thermal coat, with fleece-lined jeans, insulated boots and a backpack. He might not be smiling or cheering, even if things are going well down below, but he will be the happiest man in the place.

Rich Cimini covers the Jets for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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