By Karen Billing
His playing days may be behind him but NFL quarterback Jeff Garcia still looks like the competitor who played hard, fearless football. The Rancho Santa Fe resident will cop to the “wear and tear” but is still out climbing mountains, throwing footballs, and doesn’t back down from any challenge. There’s no ink on the retirement papers just yet but he says it’s only because he hasn’t gotten around to it.
“I feel like I’m retired,” said Garcia, fresh off of a boot camp workout. “I feel like it’s time to move on.”
He adds with a small smile: “But it would be difficult to say no if an opportunity presented itself.”
Garcia likely won’t ever stray far from the game he loves and is busier than ever in his semi-retirement. In addition to quarterbacking a young family with four kids under the age of 4, he’s also hosting clinics to shape young football players, helping players in the NFL think about what life means after the game with his company Beyond Wealth, and was recently named to an advisory board hoping to revive the United States Football League (USFL) which last saw action in 1987.
Garcia will serve on the player development branch of the advisory board with Hall of Famer Fred Biletnikoff, former NFL and Chargers executive Jim Steeg, former Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens executive vice president James Bailey, and sports consultant/coach Terrell Jones.
“Jeff’s extensive background and networks with professional football players will undoubtedly help carry out the USFL’s mission of helping our players live successfully and responsibly as positive citizens on and off the field,” said USFL President and CEO Jaime Cuadra.
The hope is for an eight-team league to kick off their inaugural season in 2013 with 14 games and a spring season that stretches from March to June.
Garcia has strong memories of the 1980s USFL, going to Oakland Invaders games and watching the advancement of future NFLers like Steve Young, Doug Flutie and Herschel Walker.
“I remembered the league and I’ve always said there are too many talented football players and not enough jobs,” Garcia said, noting players stuck in practice squad limbo and third string quarterbacks who never get that opportunity to show what they can do in the heat of the battle. “Another league with the right approach, playing in a space and time that’s not competing with the NFL, I think people will embrace it if it’s in the right cities.”
Being all over the country during his 12 NFL seasons, Garcia said he saw the places where people live and die football and who would support an USFL franchise.
He believes the league could not only develop careers of the players, but also the coaching staff, management, scouts and more,
“I think there could be something really special here,” Garcia said.
While he, of course, sees an obvious partnership that could form between the USFL and NFL like baseball’s minor league system and the NBA’s D-League, Garcia said it’s important that in the beginning the league learns to stand on its own two feet without a dependence on big brother NFL.
“If they show in the first four or five years that the league can catch some fire and function in a positive way, I do see a chance of the NFL getting involved,” Garcia said.
Garcia can also bring a unique insight in the development of a new football league as he’s played in many of them, logging time in the CFL and UFL in addition to the NFL.
“I’ve seen things that have worked and things that have not worked,” Garcia said.
To remember Garcia on the field, is to think of him face bloodied without an ounce of quit: Gritty, gutty, hard-nosed, harder worker.
“My biggest fear in playing the game was not getting up from a hit,” Garcia said. “I always bounced up and got back to the huddle.”
Garcia started his football career in the Canadian Football League, playing for the Calgary Stampeders for four years and bringing home a Grey Cup Championship in 1998.
After his success in Canada, he was signed as Steve Young’s backup on the San Francisco 49ers in 1999. Growing up in Gilroy he had always been a Niners fan, wanting to emulate his idol Joe Montana and watching as Young followed successfully in his footsteps.
“It was a dream come true to play for the team — to run into Candlestick Park was the greatest thrill of my life,” Garcia said.
He still remembers the chills he had driving to the stadium for his first start, the fourth game into the season when Young was injured. He said in his five years at the Niners, he feels like he did the quarterback position justice.
After stops with the Cleveland Browns and the Detroit Lions, Garcia landed with the Philadelphia Eagles. It was an invigorating experience to play in Philly and in the NFC conference, where he said all the teams dislike each other and the fans even more so. He loved playing in a city where the mood of the week depends on what happens with the Eagles on Sunday.
When Donovan McNabb went down with an injury, Garcia filled in on a team that was 5-5 with dismal playoff hopes. Garcia brought a spark, leading the Eagles to a 10-6 finish and making it to the second round of the playoffs. He will never forget the excitement and the way the city embraced him during his one-year contract.
“The fans saw me as one of them, a blue-collar grinder, who punched the clock and gave it his best,” Garcia said. “They put my jersey on the Rocky statue.”
From Philadelphia he went to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers where he helped a 3-13 team the previous year win their division at 9-7.
In 2009, he ended up in Oakland with the Raiders, one of his most difficult experiences in the NFL.
“I really struggled to have a positive outlook because there was so much poison in the system there,” Garcia said.
He asked to be released at the end of training camp, a tough decision for him because he felt that he took himself out of the game. Those first few Sundays of the season were hard for him to watch because he felt like he should’ve been out there.
He would play again in 2010 for the Omaha Nighthawks of the UFL (United Football League) “just because I loved the game and wanted to play football” and considered himself done until the Houston Texans came calling in 2011 for him to serve as a backup for their depleted quarterback corps. He was there for the last five weeks of the season, seeing them clinch their first-ever playoff birth as a franchise.
“A 41 year old out there with 20-something guys, I initially questioned ‘What am I doing here?’” Garcia said. “The more I thought about it I was truly honored that a playoff caliber team would want me to be a part of it. It showed the respect I had gained throughout the years I played.”
His respected ability to have a positive influence on developing players is something he is really focusing on now, working with players ages 10 through 23 years old. After all he has learned from the game, it only makes sense for Garcia to share what he knows to help players succeed at any level.
“I love helping them realize their dreams because I feel like I’ve lived a pretty good dream and now it’s onto that next phase of my life,” Garcia said.
He’s teamed up with other local coaches and become involved in leading workouts and running clinics at North County spots, such as the Gonzalez Sports Academy in Chula Vista (named for local product Adrian Gonzalez).
He’s reaching out to players of all ages: He recently traveled to Las Vegas to support players on the UFL’s Locomotives and on Sunday night spoke to young Poway Pop Warner Scholar Award winners, congratulating and encouraging their focus on academic as well as athletic skills.
Next month he is hosting an All-American football camp for offensive players. Registration is still open for the July 21-22 camp at Del Norte High School.
While he has much to share about the game, perhaps the best lesson Garcia can teach goes way beyond fundamentals.
“Nothing was ever handed to me, I had to earn it. I had to have perseverance, dedication and a will that exceeded all others, in a sense forcing people to recognize what I brought to the huddle,” Garcia said.
Athletic talent will only take you so far, being successful takes a strong work ethic, drive and commitment.
Part of Garcia’s endurance and drive comes from overcoming challenges that came early in his life.
When he was just 7 years old, Garcia lost two of his siblings to tragic accidents within 14 months of each other. His younger brother drowned during a fishing trip and his sister fell out of the back of his father’s truck.
The family relied on sports as an outlet and a crutch to help them get over the devastating losses. And going through such tragedies and hardships at a young age shaped the way Garcia would forever approach his life. It didn’t teach him to be afraid or to avoid taking risks but instead taught him to embrace every moment.
“I experienced the worst things you could ever imagine at a young age,” Garcia said. “I realized life is a precious, precious thing and to really take advantage of every day because you never know when if can be taken from you.”
Garcia’s interest in being a mentor and sharing life and football lessons with young players also brought about his Beyond Wealth management business, which he started a year ago.
As a player who has “walked the walk” he wants to reach back and help open young NFL athlete’s eyes to what they’re about to go through and the opportunities they need to take advantage of when they’re going through it.
“I want to help them create opportunities for career number two because the game will not last forever,” said Garcia.
In the highly competitive NFL, a career can end at any time and can last one year or 10 years. The key is preparing these young athletes for their future after the sport, and how they will responsibly make that transition into everyday life.
“It’s not just building a better player on the field but building a better person in life,” Garcia said.
Garcia said in his playing days, he wished he had a mentor who could help him avoid the pitfalls and mistakes that can come with being a professional athlete. So much of it is who the players surround themselves with he said —from the people enjoying their suddenly wealthy lifestyles alongside them to the people who handle finances or legal issues.
“I want them to surround themselves with great people with high integrity who will protect and direct these young men in the right way, to advise and inspire them to be great men in life, contributors in society and learn how to reach other people in a positive way,” Garcia said.
To hear Garcia talk so passionately about the game and its players, it’s easy to imagine him on the sidelines with headphones replacing the helmet, leading men into battle on Sundays. He admits coaching is in his blood—his father, Bob, was a junior college football coach bringing Jeff to the game from a very young age.
“My dad was the greatest coach I’ve ever been around,” Garcia said.
As a 4 year old toddling on the field to being a ball boy at age 8, Garcia noticed quickly how his dad was a father figure to his young charges and how much he gave to the team. Being a coach and a mentor sounds fantastic but it’s that “gypsy lifestyle of a coach” that deters Garcia for now.
“I have a young family. I want to be home at 4:30 p.m., get the grill going and sit down and have dinner with my wife and kids, give them their baths and read to them,” Garcia said.
He’s not ruling out a high school coaching position —he’s got a curious eye fixed on the future Horizon Prep high school program — but for now his huddles are strictly family-oriented.
“Life is now about them and providing the best possible life for them, to be around as a dad and bring substance to our daily family life,” Garcia said.
To register for Garcia’s July football camp, visit www.allamericansportscamps.com