As Patrick Sanchez, 19, was sleeping on a cold New Jersey football field each night, he didn’t have much in his possession except a bag and a deeply-seeded belief that with enough hard work, he could play college football, if only given the chance.
The teen was raised by disabled parents and often worked two jobs to help put food on the table and pay the bills. Because of that mighty responsibility, he couldn’t dedicate adequate time to high school football, nor showcase his skills to college scouts trekking through.
So, once he graduated, he took a leap of faith and escaped an unsupported living environment to pursue his dream of playing football at the next level. The only problem was he couldn’t support himself.
“I was working at the movie theater and sleeping on the football field while I was going to the gym every single day, and pouring my heart and soul into training,” Sanchez said.
He knew that to really make it, that kind of routine could only last for so long.
Enter recently retired police officer Steve Pambello, a 35-year veteran of the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey Police Department, who never had a family of his own, but decided to welcome Sanchez into his home and support his football dream on every level.
“In my line of work, I became good at reading people,” Pambello said. “And I could tell, looking into Patrick’s eyes, he was sincere and driven. But he still had to prove himself to me.”
The pair, who were once complete strangers, have lived together for 15 months now, and unequivocally demonstrate that non-familial relationships can be thicker than blood.
Growing Up Fast
Sanchez, who grew up in Union City, NJ, began playing football in seventh-grade with encouragement from his father. He developed a passion for the sport, but didn’t realize at the time that it would provide a necessary distraction for him.
His mother, a part-time teacher and children’s birthday party organizer, was diagnosed with a heart tumor in 2010, and had to undergo rigorous treatment for cancer. His father, who worked in New York City as a waiter, developed two herniated discs in his lower back.
With both parents juggling health issues, Sanchez had to take on responsibilities foreign to most children.
“I had to learn how to cook at a young age, and wash clothes,” he said. “I had to walk to school alone as an 8-year-old. It was lonely.”
He worked multiple jobs in high school to help support his family, and tried to stick with football as much as his schedule would allow.
“Football played a role in making my life better,” he said. “I loved every practice that we had, and I think that’s where my work ethic came from because I wouldn’t be thinking about all the problems at home. I’d be thinking, ‘I’ve got another play to run.’ But, it was tough having two jobs and going to practice as well. I would have to leave early from practice sometimes, and my head coach didn’t like that, but he also didn’t understand that I was having financial issues at home, and I had to help my mother and my father pay bills.”
No one, not even close friends, knew the extent to which Sanchez and his family were struggling. At times, the only meal he eat the entire day was a school lunch.
He played all four years of high school football, suiting up as a quarterback and safety, but he was forced to quit the team during his senior season because of work obligations.
He graduated from high school with mostly A’s and B’s, and his family and friends encouraged him to join the military.
“They wanted me to join because of all the benefits that I’d get,” he said. “They wanted me to get into the Marine Corp., get out and become a police officer, have a family, get married and just retire at 65. But in my heart, I knew that I did not want to do that.”
So, he did a little soul-searching and determined that his path was going to be lined with helmets, pads and footballs. His goal? Play college football, and then, ideally, reach the pro ranks.
“Everybody thought I was crazy, and nobody supported my dream,” Sanchez said. “I knew I had to do it on my own, so when I turned 18, I left the house and stopped communicating with my family.”
After each shift was over at the local movie theater, he hit the gym for hours on end until their doors closed, and then rested his head on the very place he hoped to make his dreams come true.
When Two Worlds Collide
Sanchez and Pambello initially met through a mutual friend who offered the teen a ride home from the grocery store one day.
“Our mutual friend had given me some insight into him that he was a really nice kid and hot into football, but the strange part of the whole story was our mutual friend was like a mentor to him from age 8 until age 18, and out of the blue, and I still don’t know why to this day, he just dumped him,” Pambello explained. “When you’ve known someone a long time like that, that’s pretty devastating. I told Patrick the day we met, ‘If you run into any problems and you need something, just give me a call and we’ll get together.'”
Sanchez was touched by the stranger’s offer, but waited months to reach out to him. When he did, he told Pambello he was on his way to the gym and then going to sleep on the field that night.
“I said, ‘You are not,'” Pambello said. “I told him I have an extra room in my apartment, and I put a mattress down and said, ‘You can sleep right there. It’s warm, dry safe, and we’ll talk more.”
That night, the two talked about Sanchez’s background, aspirations and plan going forward.
“Of course, in the back of my mind, I knew what I was doing when I was 18 and 19,” Pambello said. “You couldn’t print those things. He told me he wanted to make these sacrifices today for even bigger rewards in the future. So, I kind of thought, ‘Well, that’s just talk, but let’s give him a chance.'”
Another Step Toward Playing College Football
Pambello invited Sanchez to live with him indefinitely, as long as Sanchez backed his words up with action steeped in dedication. The first step was to get him set up with the essentials.
“He had a bag with two changes of clothing. He’d wear one, wash one and rotate,” Pambello said. “So, we went out to the local sporting goods store and picked up about 40 or 50 pairs of everything — shoes, shorts and t-shirts.”
Then, knowing that whenever Sanchez would meal prep back home, his family would eat the food, Pambello put him on a solid nutrition plan.
“We went to the food market and filled up the cart,” Pambello said. “I said ‘you tell me what you need, but you’re going to do the work.'”
The same went for supplements. And, right out of the gate, Sanchez was on point.
“Sure enough, every single day, he was up, went to work, went to the gym and was home, and not hanging out with the pals drinking,” Pambello said. “I thought, ‘maybe there’s something here. I knew he had the skills and the talent, but he had no professional direction and no opportunity to ever make that dream come true.”
In the meantime, Sanchez lined his bedroom walls with photos and posters of some of the greatest athletes of all-time, so “they’re the last thing I see before going to sleep, and the first thing I see when I wake up.” Instead of watching T.V., he opted for listening to motivational speeches.
“The whole trick was to remove all these obstacles that were facing him, and as long as he kept showing that he had the determination and the will, I was willing to help him,” Pambello said.
Feeling more confident that Sanchez was the “real deal,” Pambello decided it was time to line him up with elite-level training.
“He picked a place in Hackensack, NJ. It was nice, it was flashy, it was a big gym and they had some good programs, but they didn’t impress me,” Pambello said. “So, I turned Patrick down, and he was disappointed because he probably thought it was too much money, but that wasn’t the case. I told him, ‘We’ll find someplace better.'”
They ended up coming across the NY Sports Science Lab in Staten Island, NY, which housed a team of sports scientists, exercise scientists and biomechanists on the cutting-edge of science and evidence-based methods to help athletes reach the pinnacle of human performance.
“We went there for orientation, and from the minute we stepped in, we knew this was the place I needed to be,” Sanchez said. “He signed me up right then and there for the best program for me. He didn’t care how much it was or what we had to do.”
The only hurdle was the towering commute from Weekhawken, N.J. to the facility. With Pambello wrapping up his career as a police officer, he wasn’t able to shuttle Sanchez to and from NY Sports Science Lab, so Sanchez took two buses, a ferry and a subway train three hours each way four days per week for months in order to train.
He went from 150 pounds to a 215-pound “monster,” and then trimmed down to 185 pounds of lean muscle, according to Pambello.
His strength, endurance, speed and reaction time have improved greatly because of his hard work.
“I think if he gets the opportunity, he’s going to knock them dead out there,” Pambello said.
Not a ‘Sheep’ But a ‘Lion’
The plan going forward is for Sanchez to continue training, of course, but that goes beyond training his body.
His mind is taking just as many reps, as he studies to take the SAT and enroll at Rutgers University, where earning a degree in physical therapy or sports management is the goal, all while walking-on to the football team to help their secondary with a kind of fierceness that could reroute a 4-8 Big Ten team.
“I’m not a sheep, I’m a lion,” Sanchez said. “I’m going to shock them with my work ethic.”
As for Pambello, he’ll be there every step of the way.
“I’ve kind of graduated into teacher, mentor, sponsor, mother, father, a little bit of everything,” Pambello said. “I told Patrick, ‘You know what you’re going to be? You’re going to be the smile on Mona Lisa’s face. Nobody knows why it’s there but her. You’re going to explode onto this football scene and they’re going to say, ‘Who is this kid? Where did he come from? Why don’t we know about him?’ And when he walks onto that field for the first time, I’m going to feel like the proud father of the son I never had.”
How’s that for being given a chance?