FLORHAM PARK, N.J. - Mark Sanchez never imagined he'd one day play against his idol. But on Saturday, he'll get the chance to do so again.
When the Jets face the Bengals for the second time in six days, the rookie quarterback won't just see Carson Palmer, the opponent. He also will see his hero while he was a teenager, his mentor and his confidant standing across the field at Paul Brown Stadium.
"You always have big-time heroes and stuff growing up," Sanchez said Tuesday. "There's always the Michael Jordans, the Wayne Gretzkys, guys like that. But then your local town hero - that was Carson. By a long shot."
Sanchez looked up to Palmer from the start; from their days together in Orange County when he was the ballboy for his brother, Brandon, and Palmer's high school team. Palmer's last season at USC was 2003, three years before Sanchez was a freshman there, but now they're playoff rivals in the NFL.
Sanchez can call Palmer at any time for advice on anything from football, to life, to which gifts he should buy the Jets' offensive linemen. Their friendship also has been strengthened by personal struggles.
Palmer was ridiculed and questioned during his first three years as USC's quarterback.
" 'Maybe this guy's not going to pan out. Maybe he's not as good.' That's what everyone was saying about him," Sanchez said. "And he comes through his senior year and just kills it: wins the Heisman, was the first pick in the draft."
Sanchez has had his share of troubles in his rookie season - from interceptions to mastering the art of sliding to game management. But Palmer believes in Sanchez's potentially bright future as much as the Jets do.
"He speaks his mind. He tells the truth and doesn't hide things," Palmer, 30, said. "I think that's what most people in New York should respect and appreciate about him because he kind of wears his heart on his sleeve.
"He's gone through some tough times, but he's a resilient kid. He's a really good football player, and if people don't think he is yet, they'll see in the future.
" . . . You have to [be resilient] to be a good quarterback in this league. Everybody has had multiple-pick days, but it's how you come back from that. You either have it or you don't, and Mark's definitely got it."
Sunday night's 37-0 victory over the Bengals, which clinched a playoff spot for the Jets, will always be special to Sanchez. But "Round 2," as he called it, still awaits.
"Did I know it would be exactly like this? No," Sanchez said. "But this is pretty special. I couldn't think of anybody else I'd rather square off against. He's a great competitor and a great friend, so those are the best times."