- Rich Cimini, ESPN Staff Writer
- 0 Shares
FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- When Mark Sanchez wants to get away, he goes underground -- for real. He goes to the basement at Mark Brunell's house, where he can forget about being The Quarterback and just be ... well, he can just be.
Sanchez plays video games with Brunell's two young sons, JoJo and Luke. They have dodgeball wars, firing basketballs, bouncy balls, any kind of balls at each other. There's a mattress in the basement and they flip it, creating a makeshift fort.
On Saturdays during the season, they play knee football, with JoJo pretending to be a star defensive player on the New York Jets' upcoming opponent. He will yell, "James Harrison!" or "Troy Polamalu!" and crash into Sanchez -- one sack he doesn't mind taking.
"I instruct my kids: Do not hurt the starting quarterback of the Jets or else there will be a lot of people upset with the Brunell family," says Brunell, 40, claiming he's too old to partake in the good-natured, basement brawls.
Sanchez and the boys will play until Brunell's wife, Stacy, yells "Pizza!" -- and they all go running upstairs for her homemade pie. It's the ultimate play date, with only one rule: Homework must be done before the fun starts. Sometimes that calls for a quarterback sneak, Sanchez completing assignments for Luke, 9.
"I'm down there, writing multiplication tables," Sanchez says. "Stacy starts grading the papers because they do home schooling, and she's screaming at me because she sees my writing and knows it's not Luke's."
He pauses and smiles.
"I've kind of been half-adopted," The Quarterback says.
Sanchez has two big brothers back home in Southern California, and now he has one in New Jersey, too. He and Brunell have known each other for only 13 months, but they've developed a close relationship that stretches beyond football.
They've vacationed together on the beaches of St. John in the Virgin Islands and they've spent time together in the woods of Northern New Jersey, hunting deer. (Sanchez says he's the spotter, not a shooter.) Most of the time, they're at the Jets' facility, talking football, watching football, playing football.
There's a generation gap, 16 years between them, but it works. It works because Brunell, who had a wonderful run as a starting quarterback in the NFL, is willing to share 17 years of NFL wisdom. He knows his end is near, and he's doing whatever he can to help his young protégé -- a willing pupil.
This was an arranged marriage, a decision by the front office last year to add a stabilizing influence into Sanchez's world. He endured a rocky rookie season in 2009, with no experienced players in the quarterback room to lean on. The organization reached out to Brunell, who decided to keep playing after winning a Super Bowl ring in '09 as Drew Brees' backup in New Orleans.
"He means the world to Mark," quarterbacks coach Matt Cavanaugh says of Brunell.
Brunell, with his graying temples and his gray, Favre-esque stubble, looks the part of the resident sage, save for the Mission Viejo High School cap -- Sanchez's alma mater -- he likes to wear. He refers to Sanchez as "a great kid," sounding very much like the elder. Indeed, Sanchez was only 7 when Brunell broke into the league with the Green Bay Packers in 1993.
Put it this way: Sanchez grew up with a John Elway poster on his bedroom wall. Brunell? He actually beat Elway in a playoff game, in 1996, one of the most memorable wins in Jacksonville Jaguars history.
Brunell possesses a coach's knowledge of the game, but sometimes it's his easygoing personality that helps the most.
"He stays so level-headed during games," Sanchez says. "He has a calming presence when everything is spinning out of control. When you're not having a good game or practice is going too fast and you're just not right, he's got this way about him."
Sanchez credits Brunell with helping him through two potential disasters last season. The first came in December, when the Jets visited Pittsburgh and Sanchez suffered an injury to his throwing shoulder in the first quarter. Turns out the real Steelers hit a lot harder than JoJo in the basement.
He said Brunell talked him through the game, helping him manage the pain and the game. Sanchez recounted the initial sideline conversation.
Sanchez: "Dude, this thing is hurting."
Brunell: "Real bad?"
Sanchez: "I don't know, I've never felt like this."
Brunell: "Do you want me to warm up?"
Sanchez: "Just stay loose, just in case."
Brunell checked with Sanchez after every series, offering encouragement. "You're throwing good," he kept telling Sanchez. It turned out to be one of his most efficient games of the season, a turning-point victory that propelled the Jets into the playoffs.
Three weeks later, in an AFC wild-card game at Indianapolis, Sanchez needed a halftime pep talk after a sloppy first half that included a bone-headed interception in the red zone. He was frazzled by his lack of accuracy, now admitting, "All I could hit was the ground."
In the locker room, Brunell looked him in the eye and, according to Sanchez, told him this:
"Clean slate. Start over. You've got these guys. Lead these guys. They're looking right at you. How are you going to respond?"
Sanchez pulled himself together, making a couple of big throws to lead a last-second victory over the Colts.
No doubt, those moments will arise once again this season. The Jets are one of the favorites in the AFC and Sanchez, anointed a team captain by Rex Ryan, faces greater expectations than before -- if that's possible.
The coaches are demanding more consistency from Sanchez, a 54 percent career passer -- about 10 points below their goal for him. On the positive side, he has improved his decision-making, cutting his interceptions from 20 to 13. There's no doubt that Brunell's experienced eyes have helped Sanchez see better.
"Nah, that's just Mark and his maturation process," Brunell says. "He's becoming a better player and not making as many big mistakes."
During the season, Sanchez and Brunell spend eight to 10 hours a day together at the Jets' facility. In the hyper-organized world of the NFL, that's not unusual. But this isn't a "see-you-tomorrow-morning" relationship. Brunell, family guy, invites Sanchez, eligible bachelor and GQ coverboy, into his world.
"They're like my family now," Sanchez says. "When we have Thanksgiving or Christmas and my family isn't here, I always have a place to go. It's a pretty cool relationship."
Sanchez doesn't like hunting, but he'll tag along with Brunell just for the camaraderie. They get decked out in camouflage outfits, pack sunflower seeds and beef jerky and head into the woods. In this setting, their on-the-job roles are reversed: Brunell is the guy with the gun, Sanchez is the right-hand man, the eyes and ears.
"We go out and sit, just hang, start talking," Sanchez says. "We talk about stuff and hopefully see something -- or, hopefully, not see something. If I see something, I won't tell him."
Sanchez prefers the beach over the bush, and he arranged for a quarterback vacation after last season's crushing loss to the Steelers in the AFC Championship Game. Sanchez, Brunell and Kevin O'Connell (no longer on the team) enjoyed a week in St. John, a couple's retreat that allowed them to decompress after a long and taxing season.
"I never get tired of the guy," Sanchez says. "He's fun to be around."
It's not unusual for him to hang around Brunell's house on Saturdays, doing the family thing. Before facing 300-pound defensive linemen, he hangs with Luke, JoJo (12), Jacob (16) and Caitlin (20). Sanchez is "a kid at heart," according to Brunell.
Sanchez can't imagine not having Brunell around.
"I don't know where I'd be," he says. "I wouldn't have homemade pizza, that's for sure."
Mark Sanchez and Mark Brunell share a special bond on and off the gridiron.