Three years ago, Neftali Henderson's football coach took him aside, sat him down and told him there was something he needed to see.
There was this kid out of the University of Southern California and the NFL scouts were buzzing. He was poised, he was accomplished, and he was almost undoubtedly headed to the big show. He was Mexican.
"Oh man, it was amazing," said Henderson of seeing the Jets' Mark Sanchez for the first time. Henderson, a sophomore whose family hails from the Dominican Republic and who plays offensive tackle for Roosevelt High School, recalled the moment coach Joe Vito introduced him to his eventual role model. "It was exciting . . . it's a great influence and it shows that Hispanic people can make it in the NFL. It encourages me to play football."
The NFL listed around 30 Hispanic players in its preseason media guide, but there are even fewer who garner sustained national attention - guys like the Cowboys' Tony Romo, the Chargers' Luis Castillo and, yes, Sanchez.
In addition to leading his team to the AFC Championship Game, Sanchez has given Hispanic children something else to root for, said Enrique Carbajal, an outreach coordinator for the nonprofit Lighthouse Mission who also pastors a small Hispanic-American congregation in Riverhead.
"My kid, he's 11 and he's very excited," Carbajal, originally of Mexico, said. "Sanchez is like him . . . before, he didn't like football. Mark Sanchez is turning into the Fernando Valenzuela of football. In the '80s, all the kids wanted to be Valenzuela."
Indeed, Neftali Collazo, 32, of Brentwood, a former Stony Brook football player who now works as a campus director for special programs and events at Suffolk Community College in Brentwood, said that while Sanchez came about 15 years past his own athletic career, "it's gratifying to know that people like him can make it to that level . . . he's fulfilling everyone else's dream, including my own."
Islip High School senior Alex Gaviria, winner of the Collotta Award, given to Suffolk's top linebacker, agreed. While Sanchez came into the fray long after he took up football, Gaviria appreciates the quarterback's influence on an ethnic community that generally gravitates more toward soccer or baseball.
"It makes me happy to see things are changing," he said. "There may be more Hispanic players willing to try a new sport . . . not just soccer. [Soccer] is in our heritage. We grew up in that culture, but in the United States, they play more football."
That's not to say that American football hasn't made a dent in recent years. Bill Collado, 52, a Brentwood attorney of Puerto Rican descent, said he's had Jets season tickets for four years and enjoys how Sanchez has handled the attention.
"He represents [Hispanics] really well," he said. "It's nice to see him be a positive role model in a way that certainly influences many people."
At the end of the day, though, it's the football, not the quarterback, that keeps him coming back.
"I was born and raised in this country, and I've been a football fan for many years," he said. Not that Sanchez doesn't have some influence.
"He's influenced my wife and daughter to watch," Collado said. "They think he's cute."