Unlikely Local Legend
The NFL’s Jeff Garcia started accomplishing the improbable at an early age in Gilroy.
Thursday, January 25, 2007
The role of underdog is not new to Jeff Garcia. He knew it as early as 9, when he was a quarterback for the Gilroy Colts.
Garcia’s undersized Colts faced the top-seeded Santa Teresa Bulldogs in the Gilroy Police Athletic League playoffs. “It wasn’t an evenly matched game as far as physical prowess was concerned,” Garcia says, “and they were calling us garlic pickers, whatever names they could think of.”
Garcia led his team to a gritty 16-14 win. “In the end,” he says, “we had the last laugh.”
This type of Garcia-against-the-odds redemption would recur. And recur—though underestimated at every conceivable level, Garcia has responded with uncanny resilience each time. Earlier this month his most recent coup landed the Philadelphia Eagles QB on the cover of Sport Illustrated.
Between PAL and the NFL Garcia had plenty of chances to accumulate underdog experience. Ignored by recruiters from big-name college football programs, he spent a year at Gavilan College and then transferred to San Jose State. His school record for total offense still stands.
On NFL draft day, he watched 224 other players get picked instead of him, despite a letter from Bill Walsh to each NFL team recommending Garcia. Garcia simply responded with a championship: He headed to the Canadian Football League, where he led the Calgary Stampeders to the 1998 Grey Cup and was named the game’s MVP.
After five years in the CFL, he was signed by 49ers GM Bill Walsh as a back up, succeeded Steve Young and quickly converted low expectations into three straight Pro-Bowl seasons. Despite that success, his hometown team cut him for salary cap reasons. After tumultuous seasons in Cleveland and Detroit, his career was left for dead. As a 36-year-old free agent, most everyone felt the overachiever’s career had been punctuated. For Garcia, it was merely an opportunity for another comeback.
He signed a one-year contract with the Philadelphia Eagles to back up superstar quarterback Donovan McNabb. When McNabb went down with a leg injury in November, Garcia’s first start for the Eagles was a 45-21 trouncing at the hands of the Indianapolis Colts. At 5-6 and in second-to-last place in the NFC East, the Eagles season was flat lining. Philly fans booed him relentlessly. Even diehards fans began making vacation plans for playoff time.
But Garcia resuscitated the team. Behind his fiery leadership and broken-play improvisation, the Eagles rallied to win five straight—and a stunning division title—earning Garcia the SI cover spot. In the playoffs, Garcia led an Eagle overtime drive to beat their I-95 rival New York Giants (before the Cinderella story ended in New Orleans with a 27-24 loss to the Saints, who fittingly enough were constructing a miraculous comeback of their own).
Garcia credits his father for instilling his mental toughness.
“Just thinking about where I am today, the life that I’ve lived and the experiences I’ve been a part of,” he says, “I attribute so much of that—if not all of it—to my father and what he represents and who he is.”
Bob Garcia, who coached Jeff in that “garlic-picker” PAL playoff game and later at Gavilan College, grew up working the fields of Gilroy. The son of immigrants from Jalisco, Mexico woke up before dawn daily to pick prunes, tomatoes, lettuce, and berries.
“Growing up, the most important thing for us was food on the table,” Bob says. “My dad left when my mom was pregnant with my little sister. Everyday we would get up at 5am, go out in the field and pick all the crops you can think of.”
Bob’s rise from poverty to college football coach inspired his son. “To see him go on from that and get through college and earn a graduate degree,” Jeff says, “it makes me proud.”
But the most moving act of resilience was a group effort between the two Garcias and the greater family. Bob and Linda Garcia’s oldest son Jason drowned during a family camping trip at the age of 6. A year later, Jeff’s younger sister Kimberly sustained fatal head injuries after falling out of the bed of a truck. Jeff was just 8, and his family had already buried two kids. (Bob and Linda also lost premature twins at birth.)
The family could have sunk into sadness and reticence. Instead, they grew closer. Jeff and his father formed a tightly-knit bond, seeking refuge together under stadium lights, as Jeff became at fixture at Gavilan’s home games.
“Jeff became my ballboy,” Bob says. “He was always there on the sideline, in the locker room when I was giving my pre-game speech. Then he was at home when I’d bring back the game film, watch it and break down every play.”
The Garcia football heritage extends back another generation. His grandfather, Red Elder, was a star at Kansas State and a longtime coach at Gilroy High. Bob played under Coach Elder in high school, and later married his daughter.
That family legacy is now well-represented at GHS. Jeff’s generous donations to the school led to the opening of Garcia-Elder Field in early 2005. The name symbolizes not just a personal donation, but 50 years of family football in Gilroy.
“Jeff’s help was instrumental,” says Jack Daley, athletic director at Gilroy. “Without his generosity, we would have never completed the project.”
Jeff has given back to his community in other ways too. He’s made several contributions to the Hispanic Scholarship Fund, and served as a spokesman. “It was so important for me to give back to the Hispanic community, to let them know I’m very much a part of them and have much love for them.”
The career underdog has also helped his college team make a comeback. In 2001, after years of futility and countless losing seasons, SJSU was on the brink of having to abandon their football team altogether when Jeff donated funds that led to the construction of a new weight-training facility and the Jeff Garcia Hall of Champions.
John Ralston, Garcia’s coach during his days at San Jose State, is quick to emphasize the significance of his contribution: “Now we have a facility that many NFL teams don’t have.”
The new facilities have helped turn around the program. This year the Spartans finished third in the Western Athletic Conference and won the New Mexico Bowl.
Garcia’s supportive attitude is illuminating. It shows that despite his success in the face of so many doubters, Garcia seems much more eager to help out than to gloat, that he’s never forgotten the circumstances from which his family came or the community that allowed his ascension from local peewee to proven NFL quarterback.
That makes his father far prouder than any of Jeff’s on-the-field accomplishments. “It’s not what he’s done to become a better player,” Bob Garcia says, “it’s what he’s done to become a better person.”