Husky center of attention

Interwoven into the fabric of the college football landscape is a common theme. Rosters from programs across the country are littered with players from differing backgrounds and cultures. It's part of the learning experience that collegiate athletics provides.

In some cases, it can be very sobering. Some of the student athletes come from broken homes. Some have had friends murdered and have been involved in illegal activities. And one of the great joys of organized sport is that some, if not all, will find their salvation through their involvement in football. The players, the coaches, the camaraderie, the structure, and the environment all provide welcome escape from the harsh realities of their recent past.

One player who has defied the odds and come through a difficult journey is Washington junior offensive lineman Juan Garcia.


As one of three children, Garcia grew up with no father-figure. He got involved with the wrong crowd early in his life. It was a struggle for him to find a place in the world and carve out his niche. He dropped out of high school at least twice, and came into all too frequent contact with the gang lifestyle in the process.

As Garcia puts it, "Making money in the all the wrong ways."

The pessimist would have written Garcia off as a lost cause or a "dead man walking." Many young men in his predicament do not live to see their 21st birthday.

One man who saw the potential the quietly intense big man from Yakima, Washington had was former Eisenhower High School head coach Greg Gavin.

"At first I wasn't too up on talking to him and stuff," Garcia admitted. "It was like – ‘Oh yeah, here's this white man trying to get on me and tell me how to do things and live my life', but eventually I saw that he really cared about me and wanted what was best for me."

So a door opened for young Juan in his prep years. Even though Gavin showed Garcia the love that few had in his young life, Garcia still had problems sticking to the straight and narrow.

"I dropped out my sophomore year and came back late in my junior year so I was still considered a sophomore," Garcia said shaking his head. "That fourth year is when I came back because my coach kept telling me, ‘if you stick with this, it's your ticket out. It's because of football', so I played that fourth year."

That turned out to be a terrific and fateful decision.

"I had a good season and there were colleges calling after that. I started getting stuff from Eastern Washington University, and some other colleges.

"They were like ‘Yeah we like you and we want you to come play for us' and then they looked at my grades and that changed to, ‘Never mind' Then when I talked to (Gavin's wife), I asked her, ‘what if I come back next year and get my grades up?' I was just thinking I wanted to go to college, like a junior college or something like that, so she helped me out on that point. Then I applied for another year and they gave it to me."

That fifth year proved to be providential as he dominated the Big 9 conference and became the offensive lineman of the year. One man who took note of Garcia was then-Husky offensive line coach Brent Myers.

"I guess it was after my last year of high school," Garcia said. "I wasn't heavily recruited and my only offers were from Eastern Washington and Nevada and some other small schools."


"I sent game film to Washington and coach Meyers, in the summer, came by and talked to my high school coach. He introduced me to him and (Meyers) said he had a film back there and he never really looked at it. One day he put it in and he saw me play and he went and got coach (Keith) Gilbertson and coach (Rick) Neuheisel and it took them ten minutes to get back and try to find me, wherever I was at, and to offer me a scholarship. Coach (Rick) Neuheisel called me out of class and I almost cried that day."

Getting called out of class was a big thing for Garcia, mainly because he didn't always attend it, but as chance would have it his attendance that day was a turning point in his young life.

"I'm in class and coach (Dan) Eyman comes up to me in class and he said ‘Coach Neuheisel wants to talk to you'. I said ‘Coach Neuheisel? Why does he want to talk to me?' And I was like ‘yeah right this has got to be some prank', but I went along with it.

"I get on the phone and it was coach Neuheisel. I was speechless. He was like ‘hey Juan, I want you to be a Husky and I've got a scholarship here and if you want it give me a husky bark'. I was like ‘Woof woof' and he said ‘Tell everybody you know you're a Husky'. From then on, it was like I now had a shot at life."

Garcia had a goal to strive for and people that cared about him.

As a college head coach at two major universities, Neuheisel has had his share of players from difficult backgrounds. In his stints at both Washington and Colorado before that, he saw his share of tough streets and neighborhood thugs. However Garcia's story still sticks out to the former Husky head man.

"Juan doesn't come from a lot," Neuheisel, now an assistant coach for the Baltimore Ravens, said regarding Garcia's less-than-pristine home life. "There were a lot of sacrifices made and no matter what, he was going to find a way to make it work. We were very excited about Juan.

"Unfortunately, he ran into some off-field problems that have probably side-tracked his progress and then I guess he got an injury, but in Juan, you talk about a fun guy to talk to and a guy who was recruiting you more than you were recruiting him."

Former OL coach Meyers remembers the first time he heard about Garcia.

"(Gavin) was the first person who told me about him," Meyers said. "He told me how tough he was, how good of a player he was, and that although he had some academic things to take care of, but he was a great player.

"He flew underneath the radar because he didn't have very good grades. But he was getting better and that is one of the reasons we took a chance on him. We saw that his academics were improving as we began recruiting him."

What also attracted the Husky coaching staff to Garcia was how driven he was to be successful in a world he had almost turned his back on earlier in his life.

"First and foremost you have to gauge if he is a kind of guy who can compete both on and off the field, because it's not fair to bring in people who can't," Neuheisel said. "I don't think any of us had any question that he would put the effort in. We just believed that given all of the resources that the university had that he would be successful in the classroom, and we knew that he would work to be successful on the field. We felt that it was a good decision for us.

"This was a guy that was going to do whatever it took to get it done and you have to like that resiliency."


Even with his grades improving, Garcia still had some major hurdles to clear. First it was the SAT's and then it was passing the NCAA Clearinghouse's requirements before he would be ruled eligible to attend Washington. Things didn't go smoothly.

"When I got the scholarship offer, I took the SAT's and I was like ‘Man I've got a chance'," Garcia said. "I'm getting ready to go (to Seattle) in the summer and I think I've made it because everybody's telling me I'm in.

"We were supposed to report on August 6th and it's the day before, Sunday, and my mom and everybody had a barbeque because I'm going away and they call me that night and tell me you can't come. That really just breaks my heart.

"Then I think next week. Then they keep telling me ‘tomorrow, tomorrow'. Well, two months later I'm finally thinking ‘Oh it's over, everything is over'. Some of my boys were like ‘See, there's only one way for us' and I was basically thinking I was just setting myself up for disappointment. I almost threw the towel in then."

But he didn't throw in the towel. In fact he ended up coming to Montlake in late September. He was on his way to realizing a dream.

But then another glitch in the system brought him to the lowest point of his pre-Husky experience.

"The Clearinghouse cleared me, but then they told me I had to go home again," Garcia said in disbelief. "It was sometime in October I think. The whole time I never cried one bit. I was just sad.

"Coach Gilbertson called me into his office and told me about some junior college in Arizona and when I left, on my whole two hour drive back home, I never cried up to that point, but on my two hour drive home I balled like a little baby and I didn't care who saw because I was like ‘I cant believe this is happening'."

Eventually, Garcia was allowed back into school, but that wasn't the end of his problems. When he was out with some friends, Garcia had a run in with some police officers. In his words, he "panicked" on a routine traffic stop and after getting in an altercation, he fled the scene.

"I'm sitting in jail, and I was like, ‘what the hell is wrong with this? Why is it that every time something good happens, something bad happens?" lamented Garcia, who knew what was coming next – a meeting with Gilbertson.

"He was pretty furious," Garcia said understatedly. "He brought me into his office and stuff and I thought I was going to be suspended from the team. He sat down and chewed my ass out and said they were going to put structure in my life and they were going to put me under dorm arrest.

"I couldn't leave the entire University of Washington area without permission. All I could do was go to class and football activities, and that was it. Offensive Line coach (Dan) Cozzetto was new to the staff, and every Sunday they made me go to church and said I needed to get some structure in my life.

"I didn't want to rebel. I was just thankful they gave me a chance and cared and stuff and it was good for me too."

Garcia eventually pled guilty to two minor charges, paid some fines and was placed on two-years of probation. That was the end to his legal troubles and it seemed like it would be clear sailing from here on out.

However, finding the playing field proved to be yet another hurdle.

"When we got to spring ball, the thing about that was, when I got here my freshman year, I was nervous and scared," Garcia said. "But once I got here I was like ‘Oh man I can play with these guys' and other guys were giving me respect like ‘Tank' (Terry Johnson). All of those guys were saying things like ‘This guy's got something about him' and that was cool with me.

"So I get to spring ball of my freshman year and I was starting. I then broke my ankle. It was my second day of being a starter, and to go from the top all the way to the bottom again was tough. That was really disappointing."

It wasn't just a broken ankle. It was broken and dislocated. Something many who were there will never forgot. Gilbertson even noted that in his many years on the gridiron, it was one of the worst injuries he had ever seen.

"I was blocking Tahj Bomar and it was a run play to my right and out of nowhere I just felt this unexpected pain and my ankle was just dangling and I was just screaming," Garcia said.

An ambulance came on the field to cart the injured big man off the field. With the amount of trauma suffered to the ankle area, many worried that he would never play football again.

If you thought that, then you don't know the first thing about Juan Garcia.

"The next year I was rehabbing and I got my confidence back. I was getting bigger and stronger again and the coaches liked how I was playing," Garcia remembers. "I'm having a good spring ball and the coaches were saying ‘We like how you're playing' and I could tell I was going to get some playing time this past season."

Then on the third day of camp Garcia tore his labrum (shoulder) in a pads drill.

"Here we go again. I can't get a break. It was just really disappointing," said Garcia of being shelved for 2005.

"It's really, really tough. I wake up every day and I ask myself ‘Why?'. It wasn't supposed to be like this. Everything happens for a reason. I was supposed to play for my red-shirt freshman season. My story should not be like this right now. Every day people tell me to keep my head up and that it will make me stronger. Well, I'm tired of stuff making me stronger. I'm strong enough. I've been through a lot of stuff without any results to show for it."


Tangible results, the ones right in front of your own nose, may be tough to see, but Garcia seems to realize that all of this is having a positive effect on his life. Coming from a world full of gang members and violence, Garcia says that giving up really isn't an option. This is his new family, his new neighborhood, and his new niche in life.

"I can't quit," Garcia says emphatically. "I've got nowhere to go. I've been through a lot and so I might as well keep going and get my degree. What keeps me going is my mom (Maricela).

Thinking about his mom gives him perspective when things get tough. "She's a single parent, who raised three kids and she works a 10-12 hour day six days a week. And right now she's at home and she works at a fruit warehouse. I'm thinking of her, I mean things have been tough for me, but compared to her it makes it easier for me to keep going."

Toughness barely begins to describe Garcia. Besides the injuries, disappointments and minor troubles with the law, Garcia's entire frame of mind is all about toughness. Even though he's seen as a "bad-ass" on the field, he gets along with his teammates on and off the field as well. He is a team player and recognized as such.

"That's the only way I know how to play football – nothing but tough," Garcia says with a wry smile. "Just keep your mouth shut and do the work. I've already told a bunch of the younger guys, you can't play on this offensive line if you're soft and I say some other stuff too."

Things that can't be repeated on these pages no doubt.

"He's a very tough competitor, he likes to get in and play physical and mix it up and those are the types of guys we like to play with," current Washington offensive line coach Mike Denbrock said.

"He's great around the rest of the players and he's really well-liked by all of his teammates. Juan is easy to work with and coach and we look forward to great things."

Those great things may be right around the corner in 2006. With the departure of Brad Vanneman, the starting center spot is there for the taking. He will compete with Clay Walker for that job. Washington could really use a tough guy in the interior to bring a gang-fight mentality back to the trenches.

Garcia also sees great things in the near future for he and his Husky teammates, and has a message for all Dawg fans reading this.

"Don't throw in the towel on me yet, because I'll be back," Garcia says looking like he's ready to hit someone. "I know it's a little frustrating because sometimes you get guys who are recruited and stuff and people say ‘That guy's just a fluke' or ‘They wasted a scholarship', but you haven't seen nothing yet. This offensive line at Washington will be back, I can promise you that. Just hang in with us right now and we'll make you proud."

Garcia has already made many people proud, from his mother to his high school coaches, to his former coaches, to his current coaches, and his current teammates. He has survived when it looked at one point a college education was a pipe dream. Those that have followed his story from his high school days in Yakima, it makes you feel good to see him on the cusp of not only a promising football career, but also earning a degree.

As soon as next year, Juan Garcia could be at the Husky center of attention, and for all of the right reasons. Top Stories