Chip Kelly looked around at a Mission Viejo High School practice 10 years ago and saw coaches from Southern Cal, Stanford, and Texas. Kelly was the offensive coordinator at New Hampshire, recruiting a different caliber of prospect. They were all watching the No. 1 high school quarterback in the country: Mark Sanchez.
"I just thought, that kid is a really good player," Kelly said. "I wasn't talking to him that day, I'll tell you that."
Kelly signed Sanchez's backup, R.J. Toman, and made other trips to the school while recruiting in California. But that practice was when Kelly first saw the player who, 10 years later, would be his starting quarterback for the Eagles. Sanchez's first start will come Monday night against the Carolina Panthers as he replaces the injured Nick Foles.
Toman laughs at the serendipity. It would not have been a stretch to believe Sanchez would become an NFL quarterback. It was more far-fetched to think that the offensive coordinator from New Hampshire would become his coach.
"As far as being totally intertwined with Chip, no, I could never see that coming," Toman said.
When Sanchez considered signing with the Eagles, he called Mission Viejo coach Bob Johnson to talk about the opportunity.
"Remember that New Hampshire coach who ended up recruiting R.J.?" Johnson asked.
"I think I remember him walking around," Sanchez said.
"You know that was Chip, right?" Johnson replied.
"Get out of here!" Sanchez said.
"He was asking about you back then, but he knew you were going to a bigger school," Johnson said. "But he would ask about you, so I think he saw something in you a long time ago and I think he still does. So it might not be a bad fit."
Kelly's evaluation of Sanchez is based on more than an afternoon in Orange County. Before the Eagles signed Sanchez in March, Kelly watched his game film. He spoke to Sanchez's coaches from high school and college to understand how Sanchez learned and how he would fit in.
"I've been very familiar with him for a long time, coached against him when I was at Oregon and saw what a great athlete he was at the quarterback spot, saw his arm," Kelly said. "And I saw it in high school, saw it in college and saw it in the NFL when we looked at film. . . . He's a hell of a quarterback and we're excited that we've got him."
Sanchez was a rising star in New York, handpicked by a new coaching staff in 2009 to be the Jets quarterback. He started from day one and helped the Jets to the AFC championship game in his first two seasons. Sanchez checked off enough boxes to draw comparisons to Joe Namath.
His next two years were filled with turnovers and underachievement as his teammates and offensive scheme changed. Sanchez missed last season with a shoulder injury and was released in March.
Kelly observed during the summer how well Sanchez fit in the locker room - that he was "a really good teammate." He also did not arrive with pretense and accepted his spot behind Foles, which was important considering his stature before.
"I wanted to come in and keep a low profile and play my butt off and establish myself on this team in any way I could," said Sanchez, 27.
Wide receiver Brad Smith, who played with Sanchez in New York, remembers the onus on Sanchez as the face of the franchise at a young age - with the nickname "The Sanchize," to boot.
"From my memory, he was the starting quarterback - you expect to see that guy," Smith said. "But it was cool that he was able to still be the same hard worker, the same focus, and not be the starter. . . . Sometimes, it's forced and you've got to act, but he was natural."
But Sanchez knows how to function as the alpha male while fitting within the framework of a team. He threw Thanksgiving parties for players and Jets staffers, inviting their families so the team could be together for the holiday.
He mentioned the Jets trainers by name last week when he discussed how rewarding it is to be playing again. When Jets coach Rex Ryan's son broke his collarbone in August, Sanchez's was the first text message he received. When the mother of a Jets employee died, Sanchez sent a message and called him to offer support.
He quickly became popular in the Eagles' community-relations office. It hosts community-service events every Monday and Sanchez has attended for seven weeks, the most on the team. His Mondays included afternoons playing board games at the Ronald McDonald House and working with a Pop Warner team. He spent his first Monday as a starter helping plant a garden at Strawberry Mansion High.
Even the September 2011 GQ cover that Sanchez has been razzed about comes with context. He agreed to it after the clothing company that outfitted him donated $25,000 to Tuesday's Children, a charity for families affected by Sept. 11. Sanchez matched the donation.
There was enough ammunition for Sanchez to be a lightning-rod figure in New York, from the Page Six gossip to the oft-mocked "butt-fumble" on national television. But the Eagles have been ecstatic about Sanchez since he arrived, and they found someone who has grown from his New York tenure.
"You mature over time, you have experiences, you learn from the good and the bad," Smith said. "Just being around him off the field, you can see that. Just talking to him, the stuff he's doing in the community, you can see the development."
Sanchez customized his office at his Philadelphia home. He plugs his iPad into a projector to break down game film. The walls are covered by white boards, which Sanchez fills each week. He draws the formations and the motions of the offense. He lists the opposing team's depth chart.
"It's a place where I can go in and study and draw stuff and write down some questions, play my music," Sanchez said.
Sanchez used the room to digest the Eagles offense before training camp. He spends most of his time at the team's facility, although he still watches practice and studies opponents when returning home each day.
"It's a couple hours a day, depending on the day," Sanchez said. "It finalizes everything I got from the building. Some guys don't like to take stuff home. I like to finish the whole thing at home and sleep good."
The coaching staff has been impressed with Sanchez's preparation and how quickly he adapted to the offense. Kelly mentioned the "copious notes" Sanchez keeps and the player's hours at the team facility. When Sanchez needed to enter last Sunday's game against the Houston Texans after Foles broke his collarbone, Kelly remarked on how prepared he appeared for everything in the offense.
Sanchez ran into Toman on a Southern California beach this summer. During a volleyball game, Toman raved about how much Sanchez would enjoy playing in Kelly's offense. The message was that it's a quarterback-friendly system in which Sanchez could thrive.
We will learn whether Sanchez can overcome the turbulent end to his Jets tenure during the next two months. Sanchez hopes to be a "better version of myself," and it comes because of the unlikely union between Sanchez and the coach who was intrigued 10 years ago.
"Biggest thing for me is I'm glad Chip had an opportunity to see Mark at a young age to see that, and then to see him in college," Toman said. "It's cool to see how he's grown, and now he's in Philadelphia and with Chip, and they're working together. And the connection that happened with Chip so many years back came full circle."