-- Mark Sanchez was the only one who removed his shoes.
On a crisp, sunny Monday, about 15 hours after a devastating home loss to Dallas significantly dimmed Philadelphia's playoff chances, Eagles quarterback Mark Sanchez, dressed in a green and gray ugly Christmas sweater, stood on a stoop in South Philadelphia for the dedication of Habitat for Humanity Philadelphia's 179th new home. After a few short speeches, a lovely gospel song and the presentation of a new flat-screen TV by the Eagles' Connor Barwin (Habitat is one of the team's many Eagles Care charity partners) the teary-eyed new homeowner cut the red ribbon on her front door and invited everyone in for a look at her dream home. Neighbors, kids, politicians, even rude media types like myself, we all traipsed right onto her new immaculate hardwood floors without a second thought.
But not Sanchez.
Before helping to decorate the Christmas tree inside (and answering to Philly fans about the loss to Dallas and the Eagles' playoff plans), he kicked off his gray Nike Air Force 1's, placed them just inside the front door and entered, respectfully, in his stocking feet.
Sanchez, you see, has a soft spot for reclamation projects.
Six months ago, this Habitat home was a wrecked, abandoned, trash-filled waste of space that the world had all but given up on. And today, it's a completely rebuilt, sturdy, impressive looking structure that's once again full of hope and promise -- much like Sanchez.
Taken No. 5 overall in the 2009 draft by the New York Jets, Sanchez promptly led the team to two straight AFC Championship Game appearances. And then, the bottom fell out. Even in a league that routinely chews up and spits out young, can't-miss, franchise quarterbacks, Sanchez suffered through one of the NFL's most precipitous and humiliating downfalls over the last half of the 2012 season. Once the toast of the town, Sanchez -- a victim, in part, of bad schemes, poor coaching, a lack of playmakers and impossible expectations -- lost 12 of his final 18 starts with the Jets, including the infamous Thanksgiving Day Butt Fumble game against the Patriots. A year later, after hurting his shoulder in the preseason, Sanchez was looking for a new team and a fresh start.
He found both in Philadelphia.
Or so it appeared.
After replacing an injured Nick Foles in Week 9, Sanchez went 3-1 as a starter, including a 33-10 win in Dallas on Thanksgiving Day, when he completed 69 percent of his passes and finished with a 102.2 passer rating. Since then, however, Sanchez has once again been plagued by turnovers and indecision, and back-to-back losses against Seattle and Dallas have put the 9-5 Eagles on the outside looking in at the playoff picture.
With Foles' collarbone slow to heal, the Eagles' playoff chances likely rest on the rehabilitated hands and psyche of Sanchez, who agreed to sit down with the Flem File on Monday (after putting his shoes back on).
Flem File: That was a cool event. Very moving. You seemed to be kinda somber when you showed up, but by the end you were having a blast, decorating the tree and everything.
Sanchez: After yesterday, after that loss, something like this, it keeps everything in perspective. I was just talking with my best friend last night about how everything has gone the last five or six years and how last night was a tough night, but it still feels very much like the best things to come are still out in front of me. This team, we're right in the mix. We were in tougher situations in New York and still made the playoffs, so I have no doubt this team can make a real push.
(Sanchez and I walked around the block to my rental car. The plan was to drive him to his truck just a block over. But if you've ever been to South Philly, you know this required a complicated maze of turns, U-turns and double-backs around the area's grid of impossibly narrow, one-way streets. Eventually, we parked by his truck in front of an abandoned, fenced-in, overgrown lot that seemed to be a sanctuary for feral cats. We talked for the next 30 minutes as kids played in the street and neighbors walked by with no clue that the Eagles' quarterback -- and their best hope for a run at the Super Bowl -- was sitting out front on the curb.)
This event seems kind of appropriate to your story: the idea of rebuilding a home or a life. You just don't see quarterbacks get knocked down as far as you did in New York and come all the way back like this. How'd you do it?
I'm a competitor. That stuff has to fuel you. You can't let it change who you are. Of course, that's much easier said than done. There were plenty of times I was sitting at home thinking the same thing. And the first time I went out to throw the ball again after hurting my shoulder, the thing felt like it was 100 pounds. I was just like, "How am I gonna do this?"
What about mentally, too, confidence wise, how did you come back from such a low point?
People always talk about it being such a rocky road in New York, but people seem to forget that the first couple of years, we had the world by the tail. We're knocking on the door of the Super Bowl, and in one of those games we're winning at halftime, and if we can hold on we're going to the Super Bowl. We were so close, and then: boom. Second year, so close, again, and then: boom. People forget about stuff like that, the good stuff. That's just the way it goes.
New York is sensationalized media. That whole market is just sensationalized. It's best or worst. There's no in between. There's no one who is just an average player. You're either a bum or you're Babe Ruth, Derek Jeter or Joe Namath -- and that's it. I mean, there were people trying to run Eli Manning out of town after one bad season. Geez Louise, this guy's won two Super Bowls for you. So, you can't ever let that outside opinion affect you. And you can't harbor it inside you, either, because that can be deadly, too. You just have to let it go.
People have always had such a strong reaction to you, both positive and negative. Do you sense that? Why is that? Is it a weird thing to handle?
You know what's funny? I've never met someone in person that has said anything negative to me. Maybe one time at the airport a guy drove by and was like, "Screw you. Go Giants!" But that was like one time. Everyone else, on the street, it's always like, "Hey man, hang in there. Good luck." On the radio or when someone writes an article, it's very different, I know. But everybody I met was just incredibly nice. It was always, "Hang in there. Good luck. We know you're a fighter. We know you'll make it back. Hope you heal up." All the negative stuff? I never really experienced it in person. Other than getting booed at a game.
OK, but at the end in New York, it was pretty bad. This league ruins a lot of young quarterbacks, and it was as bad as I've seen. Did you ever just want to quit football? Did you ever think about saying, "You know what? Screw this, screw all of you, I'll just go do something else"?
Being hurt was the hardest thing, because it's all taken away. Everything you love and everything you work for is just gone. You're watching games from home and watching games from the training room, and that hurts more than anything -- more than any loss, more than any interception. That's what was tough. I love playing this game, and that kind of tests you when stuff like that happens. It's like, alright, how much do you really love it? What are you willing to sacrifice for it? Are you gonna handle all the crap that people are saying about you? Are you really gonna do all this rehab? After all that, now I'm actually lucky to be in the spot I am. To be in coach Chip Kelly's system and to be surrounded by the kind of players that I am and now we're right thick in the middle of a playoff race? I mean, this is everything you could have ever dreamed of.
After the Dallas win, I have to say, I was impressed by the way you just diffused the whole Butt Fumble thing with a little bit of self-deprecating humor. Most athletes just don't have that. It's a different scale, I know, but I feel like the Buckner play in Boston became such a big thing over the years because he was so uptight about it.
That's just the way I am. Being self-deprecating -- No. 1, it's funny, and it says, "Hey, get over yourself." The Butt Fumble? So what? People screw up, and that happened to be a huge screw-up on a huge holiday when everyone is watching football. So it's like, "OK, so what?" You still gotta play ball. Going into the  Thanksgiving game, I had some butterflies because of that whole experience, and I hadn't played on Thanksgiving in a while, so it was just like, "What are you going to do? Are you gonna be too scared to play?" Well, that would be even more embarrassing, and if that's the case you shouldn't be in this position. Or, are you gonna go ball out and have fun? Because that's what you should do. That was my attitude.
Where does that come from?
Look, all my family and friends know: When I'm home, I'm just a normal guy. I'm Uncle Marky. Tio Mark. It's like, "Hey, help us with the dishes. Take out the trash." There's no special treatment. If anything, when I go home, it's more like, "What happened on that throw? Why'd you throw that ball too far out in front of [Zach] Ertz like that?" And I'm like, "I know. I was there. Thank you. I don't really need to be coached at home, but thanks." But that's the way it has always been with my brothers, so that other stuff is no biggie.
I have three brothers, and they would have never let me live down the Butt Fumble. At every Thanksgiving for the rest of my life, it would have been, "Please pass the mashed potatoes ... cough, cough ... Butt Fumble."
That's kinda been a weird thing. No one close to me has mentioned it, until I said something about it after this last Dallas game. It was kinda like, "Oh, he's been getting a hard time about that, so maybe it's just too soon." Earlier in the season, though, during camp, we do this drill where you go through all these late-game situations. You don't have any timeouts, or you need to get out of bounds -- you know, red zone or two-minute situations. Well, one of them is centering the ball. If you're on the left hash and the kicker wants it in the center of the field, you have to get the ball, tuck down, glide across the line and then just fall down. So I did it and I ran right into the back of the lineman on purpose, and then I laid the ball on the ground as a joke and -- no one really got it.
What? No way.
Until they saw it on film. Then, our line coach was like, "That was pretty funny. I rewound it a few times and people were laughing really hard." So now, every time we do "center the ball" in practice, I always say to the guard in the huddle, "Careful, dude, I might make you famous."
(Laughing) You gotta be like that. It would be such a shame to let something like that ruin everything. Why? Why? It became a low-hanging fruit for people to grab at. People who didn't know football or who just wanted to say something, it was like, "Yeah, yeah, good one. OK, you got me."
My parents' thing has always been don't let your hat size change. If you throw three touchdowns on Thanksgiving, don't let your hat size change, and when it sucks -- like it did yesterday -- well, too bad. You gotta handle it. This game has made some of the toughest grown men I've ever known burst into tears, literally, just crumble. It breaks your heart. It breaks your heart to lose. It's different than other sports. You gotta put so much time in, and when it works, it's like, mentally, "Oh, that was awesome. That felt good." And when it doesn't work. It's like "Oh, man. What could I have done better or different to change the outcome? What, what, what?" If you care about it, you feel it. And that was everyone in our locker room last night.
What was it like?
We were all saying, "Gosh, we let that one go, man; we really just let one go there -- ugh." Everyone immediately talked about their own shortcomings. I was like, "Ertz, bro, I'm so sorry, dude. I just missed that one. It's gonna kill me on film when I see it." And I watched it today and it was, ugh, it was just out in front of him and I just missed it. And he was like, "We're good, man. I gotta catch that other one, 'cause that was crap. I ran the wrong route. I should've sat down on it" and da, da, da. But that's the kind of team we have. It's always like, "My bad. It's not gonna happen again." We gotta figure it out. By the time the sun goes down and tomorrow comes, there's no moping around the facility feeling sorry for yourself. Can't let it linger. OK, it's a new day. I'm better for that experience. Now, let's move on.
Is there a sense of freedom in having been so low and been through so much in New York -- it's kinda like, "If I made it through that, I can make it through anything"?
I did a radio interview awhile ago, and the guy listed my résumé: two AFC Championship Games, then you go 8-8, then you miss the playoffs, then they blew up the team, things were changing, couple different offensive coordinators, then you hurt your shoulder and now, you're back. Just hearing all those things, it was like the timeline of my life, and it's like, wow, that's a lot of stuff to go through. A lot of football experience, lot of life experience, lot of relationship experience, lot of professional experience. So, yeah, part of me is like, "What else could happen that I couldn't handle?" You gonna throw a big touchdown or an interception? OK, I've been there. The only things I haven't done in this sport is win an NFL [conference] championship game and play in the Super Bowl. So, you know what? Let's go play. That's my attitude. Let's have fun. Let's do it. Because there's nothing that can really -- with all that experience -- that can really affect your mood.
When you hit the prime of your career is when you're still athletic enough to make all the plays you want but you're now smart and experienced enough about the game and everything else, too -- and I'm just getting there. That's the best part of all this: I'm just getting there now. There's so much more to come.
The perception after New York, though, was that you were sort of destroyed mentally by the game, but I'm realizing that wasn't really true and that physically you were far more worse off.
I can't lie, I was worried about my shoulder for months. I wouldn't wish that shoulder rehab on anyone. It's long, it's painful and it's grueling. It hurts being away from the game. So what's happening now, this is the coolest thing that could ever happen. Last year I kept asking the doc, "Is this the way it's supposed to be?" They were like, "Yeah, you're doing great. You're way ahead of schedule, and I was like, "You guys are crazy. How am I going to play when I can't even throw the ball past this car? What are you talking about?" But you trust it and trust it and trust it, and it will eventually work out. And it did.
I've been through the fire and I've experienced so much, so now, just go play and go have fun. That's really where I'm at. There's so much more to come. These next 14 days are gonna make a big difference. I really think so. Whether I end up staying here or going to another team, whatever. These next couple weeks and then the playoff run, it's gonna be huge. It's gonna be fun. This is what it's all about.
No one ever scripts with their friends when they're young: OK, it's the bottom of the third, there's one out and the game's tied 1-1. No one ever says that. It's always the bottom of the ninth, two outs, full count, up to bat with the bases loaded and down three runs. The game's on the line. What are you going to do?
That's always been the situation where I've played my best -- down the stretch, late in the year, cold game. All that stuff. I've got that. Two minutes left? Season on the line? Perfect.
Give me the ball. Let's roll.