UW guard gets second chance
Seattle Times staff reporter
UW spring game
April 22, 12:45 p.m.
at Husky Stadium
For a few minutes the other day, discussion in the Washington locker room strayed from draw plays and pass routes to the immigration rallies that swept the nation earlier this week.
Junior guard Juan Garcia hesitated to join in, understanding it's a complicated and heated issue.
His mere presence spoke loudly enough.
"There are so many good people who want to come here and better their lives for their children," Garcia said later.
His mother and grandparents, for instance.
Together, they emigrated from Mexico long before Garcia was born, finding whatever work they could in fields up and down the West Coast before eventually settling in Yakima, hoping to chisel their own piece of the American Dream.
That memory has driven Garcia as he has confronted a constant stream of adversity — questions from the NCAA Clearinghouse after signing with UW, 10 days in jail after briefly relapsing into his old life after finally being admitted, and serious injuries that have sidelined him the past two seasons.
"I don't care how tough things are — nothing is tougher than the things she's been through," he said of his mother, Maricela Alcala.
Garcia doesn't want to say that things finally appear to be smoothing out. He's thought that before only to find bitter disappointment. Last August, for instance, he was in the mix for playing time only to suffer a torn labrum during a routine drill that sidelined him for the season.
But as spring drills enter their final stages, Garcia is atop the depth chart at one guard spot, ready to finally play a key role for the Huskies.
"I think he's getting back to being the player he thought he could be," said UW coach Tyrone Willingham.
Garcia is also on track to earn a degree in history with thoughts of being a teacher and coach someday.
"In a year he will graduate," said Greg Gavin, Garcia's coach at Eisenhower High School in Yakima. "Now if he can just stay healthy and play, that will be incredible. He's just a really great kid."
One who Gavin felt simply needed some direction when their paths first crossed a few years ago.
Garcia's older brother, Ilifonso, had played for Gavin, then entered the Army and later fought in Iraq (he is now home, training to be a police officer).
When Juan joined the team as a sophomore, Gavin saw enormous potential and a kid willing to work — if only he could pull himself away from the sordid influences of Yakima's east side, where gang activity is a sorry resident. Garcia readily admits he was being sucked into it and says "football was my way out."
Gavin and his wife, Cheryl, also a teacher at Eisenhower, became mentors for Garcia, whose real father was never in the picture. Greg Gavin got Garcia into the weight room, and Cheryl Gavin made sure he was taking, and passing, the right classes. When prom time came and Garcia needed a tux, the Gavins helped out.
"I was a troubled kid, but they saw something good in me," Garcia said. "I wouldn't be here if it weren't for them."
Garcia said a turning point came his junior year when a friend was killed in a gang fight.
"Just over something stupid — colors," he said. "I didn't want to be in gangs anymore. I didn't want my mom crying because of me."
Garcia quickly became a standout lineman for Eisenhower, though he suffered a broken foot that slowed his play as a junior.
Gavin recalls a game against Pasco that Garcia played despite the injury. Afterward, he got a call from Pasco's coaches telling them Garcia was running the stadium steps after the game.
"He was just that determined he was going to make it," Gavin said.
He had a standout senior year and Oregon, Washington State and Fresno State came calling. But Garcia wanted to stay as close to home as he could and chose UW.
Clearinghouse problems delayed his arrival — the organization questioned a few classes he took for students who speak English as a second language. He ultimately enrolled as a partial qualifier and has two years of eligibility left since he is on track to graduate.
Garcia then got in his own way.
The weekend after starting classes at UW and with the Huskies on the road — and Garcia unable to accompany them — he returned home to Yakima and spent a night with some of his old friends.
A car he was in was pulled over for racing another car. The police report said a trooper ordered Garcia out of the car after seeing him appear to put something underneath his seat. Garcia said in court it was a beer. When the trooper tried to handcuff Garcia, Garcia flipped him to the ground and ran away. He was caught after a short chase.
"He panicked," Gavin said of Garcia, whose blood-alcohol content was measured at just .021, far below the legal limit of .08. "He saw everything he had worked for disappearing before his eyes and he just lost it."
Says Garcia: "I was just scared. I wanted to get out of the situation I was in. I didn't want to hurt anybody."
He spent the night in a county jail with inmates who were being transferred to a federal prison.
"My roommate was in jail for murder," Garcia said. "I remember lying in bed thinking my roommate the night before was [UW safety] Chris Hemphill, a high-school All-American. Now I'm rooming with a murderer. How did that happen? Just one bad decision can change your life."
He eventually pleaded guilty to two gross misdemeanors and was sentenced to 10 days in jail, two years probation, and ordered to pay $753.29 in restitution and attend alcohol and anger-management counseling.
Then-coach Keith Gilbertson thought about kicking him off the team.
"I remember asking God to give me one last chance, and I'll make the best of it," Garcia said. "It seemed like I was getting chance after chance, and I was blowing it. I wanted just one more."
Gilbertson gave it to him, though not without some tight strings attached. One more slip of any kind, Gilbertson told him, and Garcia was gone. He had to stay on campus and could return home only for official vacations.
"My wife said, 'That's it, Juan,' " Gavin said. "He's been squeaky clean ever since. He could have said, 'The hell with you,' and he'd be on the east side of town or who knows where. But he worked his way through it, so we are actually as proud of him for doing that as anything else."
Garcia was beginning to show the potential that made everyone work so hard for him his first spring at UW in 2004 when he suffered a broken fibula and a dislocated ankle during a drill. He had finally recovered from that when the shoulder injury knocked him out last August.
He admits the injuries caused him to question "how much I love the game and to question myself."
But then he'd remember the afternoons picking cherries with his mom because she couldn't afford a babysitter.
"If I give up now, what have I got [to go back to?]," he said. "I might as well suck it up."
Now he talks excitedly about Washington's upcoming season. The offensive line, he knows, is viewed as a huge question mark. But he likes the group's chemistry and vows to do his part.
"If I can just get through camp injury-free and I can play, I've got something in store for the fans," he said. "I know they've been looking for that mean offensive lineman. I'm not saying I'm a mean guy, but that's my style of play."
His mom, who has since earned residency papers, still has little understanding of American football. But she comes to his games when she can, understanding at least that this is why her family made that trip all those years ago.
"My mom came here and she didn't know English and raised three kids," Garcia said. "One is still in high school [younger brother Omar, a junior who plays football at Eisenhower], one is about to become a police officer and joined the Army and fought for America in Iraq. And one is at the University of Washington.
"That's why people want to come to America, why they call it the land of opportunity."
Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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