When center Juan Garcia received the news that he'd severely damaged his foot, suffering a Lisfranc injury during spring practices, he had a tough decision to make. The majority of doctors Garcia spoke with suggested surgery was necessary and thus his college career would be over. However, there was the improbable option of letting the foot heal on its own and attempt a comeback towards the end of the 2008 season. A tough decision for sure, but compared to what Garcia has gone through to get here, this would prove to be a walk in the park.
Garcia grew up in Yakima, WA and was raised by a single Spanish speaking Mother who traveled around picking fruit to make ends meet. Garcia moved more than 25 times before he turned 18 and turned to a life of gangbanging as a teenager as a form of stability. Trouble followed him everywhere and he nearly didn't make it through high school after dropping out as a sophomore. Then something happened and Garcia got a glimpse of what his life might become if he stayed on that path. He left the gangs, found football and finished high school with a Division-I scholarship in hand from the University of Washington.
However, the struggles were not over. He was admitted into college as a partial academic qualifier. Once finally allowed to enroll he found himself in trouble yet again, nearly throwing away the opportunity. Back in his hometown of Yakima he was caught drinking alcohol by police and attempted to flee the scene. During the chase he threw an officer to the ground and thought his college career had ended before it began. He was given another chance but was put on severe restriction by former Husky head coach Keith Gilbertson. He stayed out of trouble and everything was looking up for Garcia before he badly sprained his ankle in 2004 then blew out his shoulder in 2005. But nothing was going to stop him. Once the 2006 season had rolled around, Garcia was a big, strong, nasty veteran with a chip on his shoulder. When last season ended he had started 25 straight games for Washington, garnering all Pac-10 honors, while also earning the team's Academic Excellence Award.
After being granted a sixth season of eligibility by the NCAA, Garcia returned to Montlake this season hoping to help turn around a program at rock bottom. Before he can do that, he first must overcome yet another setback, his Lisfranc injury. But again Garcia will not be stopped.
"I was really surprised how fast he [Garcia] healed based on the nature of the injury," explained offensive line coach Mike Denbrock. "But based on the individual that the injury happened to, I'm not surprised at all, because he's fought through every obstacle that's ever been put in his way throughout his entire life. I'm not surprised by Juan Garcia fighting through that type of injury."
Make no mistake; Garcia wasn't supposed to play until late into the season, especially if you listened to the doctors. The best-case scenario was to be back for the latter third of the season.
"A lot of different doctors [told me I needed surgery]. The one day I remember, after I decided I was going to go for the surgery, it was the spring game and I was doing rehab. I had my foot in the ice tub when five doctors came and they all gave me their opinion. One took his turn, he told me his opinion, then the next guy, then the next guy. I was so mad. So then I had to go watch the spring game all pissed off, and it was a sunny day - I just remember that day. I was just like, no, I believe in God and I'm not getting surgery. But after that, I doubted myself; I was like 'man, maybe I should go get the surgery'. So after three or four weeks of that, it was too late, I just had to let it heal. Even with that, I was thinking I could maybe come back six games into the season or maybe just the last two games."
But after Thursday's scrimmage in which Garcia took 80 percent of the snaps he appears ready to go, much to the surprise of everyone including Garcia.
"The whole time at camp, everyday I was like 'I'm not even supposed to be doing this," explained Garcia. "They didn't expect me to do this until week six.' The whole time, I even doubted myself. Just to show up in camp and be able to do stuff was pretty good." He continued, "That's the thing I was so happy about," explained Garcia. "I did the most things yesterday I had done all camp and I woke up today and it felt good and nothing was hurting."
With every practice comes more confidence and it appears Garcia is nearing where he needs to be mentally before hitting the field August 30th against Oregon.
"Mentally I think he's getting closer and closer and that's really a very important aspect in this whole deal," explained coach Denbrock. "Having enough confidence that his foot is fully healed, that he can cut himself loose and be the type of player that he's used to being is a piece of the puzzle too. That's one of the reasons we've watched his reps and coaxed him along during two-a-days, so that he could slowly gain more and more confidence in his foot and feel better and better about it as time went along, and I think that's been the case."
Offensive coordinator Tim Lappano agrees and he's seeing all the signs that Garcia is nearly ready to go full out.
"You look for whether he can really fire up and get into a guy and get his first step, second step, third step, and fourth step in the ground," explained coach Lappano. "You can tell when you're getting off and you're blocking somebody, if you don't have power in both feet, you're going to see that right off and we haven't seen that. He's getting both feet in the ground and doesn't seem to be leaning on one side or the other, so that's good."
One of the hardest tasks for the coaches is pulling Garcia back. You don't get where he's gotten without a top-notch work ethic. As can be expected, sitting and watching things is not Garcia's style.
"He gets out there before I make it to the practice field, if I'm stuck in a meeting or something, and I catch him running stadium stairs, or I catch him conditioning himself before practice even starts," explained coach Denbrock. "Yeah, I've had to keep a close eye on him or he would just be going crazy out there."
The entire coaching staff and many others have been keeping a close eye on Garcia. In fact, sometimes the big center is amazed at how much they see when he thinks no one is looking.
"I'm telling you, I think they've got spies," said Garcia with a laugh. "After the meetings, I run back to the dorms, so they stopped me from doing that. So I decided to go out there an hour early before everybody shows up so I can run and nobody knows, and they found out about that. I started running on campus where nobody sees me, then one day I come to practice and coach said I need to talk to you, he puts his arms around me and goes, I don't want you running period. I was like how in the hell do you know that? I guess someone saw me in a car or something. I need to get in good shape, so that's the only reason I've been doing this."
Now that Garcia's foot is responding, getting into game shape is the next goal. Because of his experience, Garcia doesn't need that many reps to knock off the rust.
"Experience wise, he's so far ahead of anybody else that is at the position right now and I think that's going to pay big dividends," said coach Denbrock. "I think as his confidence grows that the injury is truly healed, he's going to get better and better and better."
Thought improbably when he suffered the injury, it now appears he should be ready to start the opening game against the Oregon Ducks.
"I'm sure he's going to play," said coach Lappano. "I've seen him play and I think he'll get on that field definitely and play. We've just got to keep our fingers crossed and hope it holds up, but it's held up so far. He's been out there quite a bit practicing and going pretty hard."
Garcia agrees, "It's been a long day coming and I'm not going to say it until Coach Willingham says it. But even if I don't start, I know I can go in there sometime. I think I can do it."
If the comeback is successful, it will be yet another chapter in the amazing life story of Juan Garcia. But is the story just be beginning? Many people believe so and they believe Garcia has a legitimate shot at playing on Sundays in the NFL.
"I think he's potentially an NFL guy," said coach Denbrock. "I get a lot of scouts come through my office asking me questions about him. I think they're intrigued by the fact that here's a kid that's overcome a lot of obstacles in his life and he's still out there fighting and doing it. And on top of that, he's a tenacious, tough football player. In my opinion, he's the epitome of what a Husky football player should be, someone who fights through every adversity put in their way. He leads by example and does all the right things."
No matter what lies ahead for Garcia, he has proven capable of accomplishing anything. Given his track record, you could say it would be shocking if he doesn't play this season and then beyond in the NFL.
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