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Thursday, October 10, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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NFL

49ers' Garcia finds a balance

Seattle Times staff reporter

The NFL is the most popular sport in the nation among American-born Latinos, according to a recent ESPN poll. More than 25 percent of that population chose pro football, nearly 10 percentage points more than the NBA.

No doubt that Jeff Garcia, the San Francisco 49ers' never-say-die quarterback who is of Mexican ancestry, has at least a little something to do with that. Garcia, the 32-year-old Bay Area native, rose from anonymity to become a two-time Pro Bowl selection. He also raises money for the Hispanic Scholarship Fund, among his various other charity projects.

Garcia and the 49ers visit Seahawks Stadium for ABC's "Monday Night Football."

"He's just a fine player. He's very mobile, very accurate ... a very, very tough guy," Seahawks Coach Mike Holmgren said. "He's not a big man, and he gets smacked around a little bit, but he is the key, in my opinion, to what makes them work."

Garcia is used to taking licks both on and off the field. When he was a child, Garcia's younger brother drowned and a younger sister died in a car accident, events that helped shape his character as he grew up.

The kid from Gilroy, Calif., turned to sports to help ease the pain of the tragedies for his mother, Linda, and father, Bob. Garcia excelled in high-school sports, but no major-college program wanted him. So he went to play for his father at Gilroy's community college, Gavilan.

That led to an opportunity at San Jose State. After one redshirt season, Garcia became a three-year starter. He was deemed too small for the NFL at 6 feet 1, 195 pounds, despite setting the career total-offense record at San Jose State.

Garcia moved on to the Canadian Football League and flourished, leading the Calgary Stampeders to the Grey Cup title in his final season, 1998. In the meantime, Bill Walsh, the Hall of Fame former 49ers coach, was trying to find Garcia a place on an NFL roster. That place turned out to be back home in San Francisco, and Garcia saw his first action the first week of the 1999 season after Steve Young left the game with a concussion.

Two Pro Bowls, more than 11,000 passing yards, 966 rushing yards and 77 touchdowns later, Garcia has become a star at a position full of tradition in San Francisco, where John Brodie, Joe Montana and Young became icons. Last season he became the only quarterback in 49ers history to throw 30 or more touchdowns in consecutive seasons. Garcia also is 2-0 on "Monday Night Football." But the numbers tell only part of the story of a player thought to have only decent arm strength, average speed and a lack of durability.

"I think everything that I've been a part of or able to obtain ... over the past couple of seasons with the 49ers has been incredible," Garcia said. "It was a situation I had to take advantage of."

Garcia, a Reebok pitchman who was named one of the 25 most beautiful Latinos in the United States by the Spanish-language version of People magazine, has used his success to help others.

Fiercely proud of his Mexican heritage — his paternal grandparents are from Mexico and his maternal ethnicity is Irish — Garcia has donated time and money to Latino causes in the Bay Area, which has a large Hispanic population. His annual golf tournament this past summer raised $75,000 for 31 scholarships for local Latino youth. Only now has Garcia been able to find balance between football and his important community commitments.

"Hopefully doing this, we're kind of giving them a push to be able to continue their education," Garcia said of his work with the HSF. "I'm so much the person that hates to say no, and I don't like to disappoint people."

San Francisco Coach Steve Mariucci has made sure Garcia can balance being a team representative in the community while being a field general.

"Jeff's been great, and he's a workaholic," Mariucci said. "He's earned and deserved all this notoriety over the last couple of years, but he's got to be able to (handle) that each offseason."

Jose Miguel Romero: 206-464-2409 or jromero@seattletimes.com.

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