Stephen Garcia: Re-Lives The Past, But Looks To The Future

Photo: Courtesy of Flashnick Visuals

By: Matt Carli

On Saturday October 1, 2011, Stephen Garcia was the starting quarterback for the South Carolina Gamecocks against the defending National Champion Auburn Tigers. Shouldering the load of losing his grandfather earlier in the week it would prove to be a challenge for Garcia to keep a clear mind. In the end, he would have more to lose than just a game. Garcia made a costly life decision that week that ultimately ended his career with the South Carolina Gamecocks. Just ten days later on October 11, 2011 it was announced that Stephen Garcia had been dismissed from the football program.

Entering his senior season, Stephen Garcia was solely in charge of what the future would hold. He was poised to make a run at the all-time leading passing record of 9,953 career yards, held by Todd Ellis. After an impressive junior campaign where Garcia threw for 3,059 yards and 20 TD’s, another terrific season would put Garcia in the conversation as possibly the greatest Gamecock quarterback of all-time.

Garcia’s career was overshadowed by his off-the-field behavior rather than what he accomplished on the field. One season removed from an SEC Championship appearance and a storybook season, Garcia found himself on the outside looking in at the most successful season in Gamecock football history.

Not since Steve Taneyhill  had South Carolina fans been so excited for a young quarterback to take the reins. Garcia, a native of Tampa, FL, brought a swagger with him to Columbia that Gamecock fans hadn’t seen since the home-run swinging, long-haired quarterback of the 90’s, Taneyhill. Garcia’s long hair and animated personality left the fans imagination as open as far as his arm could take them. Before he even took his first snap in Columbia, he was already being compared to iconic 90’s quarterback, Taneyhill. Was it because they both had long hair? Or was it because Garcia possessed that same fire that and determination to win that Taneyhill had?

“Back then, I was just totally immature. I tried to be a normal college kid and just fit in. But, I couldn’t do that. I was a starting quarterback for an SEC team and I didn’t really want to realize that all eyes were on all me at all times.” Garcia said.

The bright lights of Williams Brice Stadium and the demands of legendary head coach Steve Spurrier proved to be more difficult than Garcia had expected.

Garcia and Spurrier publicly drew more attention for their clashing of personalities rather than for what they were accomplishing on the field. Together, they went 20-14 with Garcia as the starting quarterback. Spurrier, an old school coach, has a certain level of expectations that he requires of his starting quarterbacks. Garcia’s bold personality seemingly challenged the “Old Ball Coach” throughout their five-year relationship.

 “Obviously we had our head-butts during my five-years; most of it was deserved by me” says Garcia. “It was more about the little things; the clean-shaved face, if I didn’t wear a collared shirt and shoes to class, he would get upset with me… I wish I would have just been a little bit more mature and maybe said, you know coach, maybe you’re right. I think my career at South Carolina would have ended a lot differently.”

During Garcia’s tenure at South Carolina, he garnered more attention for the trouble he found himself in. Collectively, Garcia endured five suspensions throughout his career. Five suspensions that today he accepts full responsibility for.

Prior to the 2011 season, Garcia found himself in trouble once again as he was suspended for his behavior at an SEC leadership conference. He was benched in favor of Connor Shaw for the season opener against East Carolina University. After being down early 17-0 to a far less superior ECU Pirates team, Garcia entered the game late in the first half and ignited a spark to the offense in what would result in a 56-37 victory for the Gamecocks.

Several weeks later against the Auburn Tigers, Garcia went 9-23 for 163 yards with 1 TD and 2 INT’s in a sloppy 16-13 loss, ending the Gamecocks young undefeated season. That week proved to be more difficult for Garcia. A culmination of the loss of his grandfather, a poor performance against the Tigers, and a costly life decision, Garcia found himself being summoned to Athletic Director, Eric Hyman’s office.

“I hate to use that as an excuse, but it was pretty rough. It was a tough few days, a tough week and then on top of it we lose. It was just a culmination of things that ultimately led to a poor judgment choice.” Garcia said.

Garcia was informed by AD Eric Hyman and a team doctor that he had failed an alcohol screening and that he was being dismissed from the program. As part of a mandated behavioral agreement between Garcia and the university, he was barred from consuming alcohol.

“When I got called for the test and had to go in there, I was honestly kind of surprised. I was like ‘are we still doing this? … I just thought to myself, ‘man this is not going to be good.’ Later on in the week, I got the call to meet with the A.D. (Hyman) and he told me that I wasn’t part of the team, or whatever else he said, I honestly just kind of blacked out as he was talking. I just couldn’t believe that my career at South Carolina was over. After everything that I’ve been through and everything that I’ve done, that was it. It was so bad the way it ended.” Garcia said.

The test came as a surprise to Garcia. He was being tested weekly from April of 2011, when the agreement was set in place by the university, up until the start of the season. Garcia began to prove that he was exercising better judgment and tests started becoming less frequent. That week Garcia decided to have a drink and his fate was sealed. When Garcia was called for the test, he was already aware that the results would not be going in his favor.

“The thing about that is, I had to take an alcohol test once every week and it was at random from April throughout the summer. So I would do that once every week from April until the start off fall practice or the first day of camp. We agreed that if I fulfilled my end of the contract that we would re-structure the “agreement”, that was what we called it. But that never happened. I didn’t get drug tested for probably a month and half. It was from fall camp until the Auburn game, which was the only time I had gotten tested. It was pretty weird that of all weeks, it was that one. But either way it still doesn’t make it right that I chose to make those decisions.” Says Garcia.

Two days after his dismissal Garcia found himself back home in Tampa, Florida. He spoke briefly with Coach Spurrier via text message after his dismissal but was never given the chance to formally address his teammates regarding his situation. Garcia did not attend any games after he left the program and watching the team on TV was far too difficult.

Garcia said “I tried watching a few of them and it was just… painful. Trying to watch the team that I felt like I had spent pretty much the last four years helping build, yah know the program with that group of guys. It was really tough trying to watch from the couch. I kept in contact with them, but that was as far as it went.”

Garcia is now living with his four-year old son and his girlfriend, the mother of his son. Garcia is embracing the role as family man these days. While attending South Carolina, he was separated from his family. He admitted that if his girlfriend and his son were closer to him, he probably would have done things a lot differently.

Garcia said “Looking back, I wish my son and girlfriend had been up there with me (in Columbia.) I’m living now with him and my girlfriend in Tampa. We’ve been dating since 2006 and have been through a lot of bad times and a lot of great times. I realize now that I always have to pairs of eyes watching me at all times. I just have to set the right example for my son and focus on being a good boyfriend. I just really wish they would have been there with me, things would have been completely different.”

After being dismissed, Garcia stepped away from football. He wasn’t sure what direction he was going with his life, but, after several months, the passion for the game came back and his desire to pursue football at the highest level.

“I took the next few months to figure out what I was going to do with my life. I wasn’t sure if I was going to continue playing football or not. I called Josh Cooper (Cooper Speed-Strength School); I worked out with him in high school. I told him I wanted to start training and get this thing going and he was all for it. We hired an agent (Chris Martin, OTG Sports Management) and got the ball rolling, so to speak.” Garcia said.

With his new outlook, Garcia is more prepared than ever. He’s even returned to action recently by participating in “The Battle of Florida”, a college football all-star game. Garcia entered the game as a reserve but impressed on the two of his three completions as they went deep for scores and helped  the North squad to a victory. Overall, Garcia went 3-8 for 106 yards and two TD’s.

Garcia also recently participated in the NFL Regional Combine held at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers facilities. Garcia’s performance at the Regional Combine earned him an invite to the Super Regional Combine that will be held in Detroit at Ford Field on March 30-31st  Garcia was also granted the opportunity by the University of South Carolina, to participate in the school’s Pro Day on March 28th. Garcia’s status for his participation remained in question because of the way things ended with the university. Garcia’s situation was similar to 2011’s controversial participant, former tight-end Weslye Saunders. Saunders was also dismissed from the football program after allegation of improper benefits had surfaced.

The next few weeks are critical for Garcia’s future, both on and off the field. Not only does he face the challenge of impressing scouts in his physical drills, but he has to be prepared to face the tough questions that are going to be thrown at him. Garcia will be challenged by NFL ownership, coaches and scouts regarding his troubled past. Garcia has come to terms with the decisions that he made during his time at South Carolina and is completely prepared to prove why he can be a productive quarterback at the NFL level, but more importantly why he can be a reliable and responsible NFL quarterback.

Garcia said “At the Battle of Florida game, the first person immediately came up to me was a scout for the Atlanta Falcons. I talked to him for maybe 20-25 minutes and yah know went through all the war stories. I was honest and up-front with him. He told me ‘when you meet these guys, do exactly what you did here with me tonight. Be completely honest with them, we already know what happened and I appreciate you being honest. We just want to hear it come from you and get a feel for who you really are. As you know, you already have the perception of having an alcohol problem.”

Losing it all forced Garcia to understand the true consequences of his actions. Now 24 years old with a family and with the opportunity to play in the NFL, he is staying sharp and proving his value.

“The main thing I’m going to try and do with these scouts, coaches and owners is kind of expressing myself on what really happened and what I’m doing to better myself. I think they really want to know that I’m living with my son and my girlfriend. I’m working out harder than I ever have and I’m in the best shape that I’ve been in since I came to South Carolina. It’s been a complete 180 from when I was at South Carolina to now.” says Garcia.

Stephen Garcia is potentially the biggest mystery of the 2012 NFL Draft. His 6’2’’ 215lb frame along with his strong-arm make him a very draft-able quarterback. Garcia has proven that he can produce on the field. It’s a matter of who is willing to accept Garcia for the decisions that he made and who is willing to accept that is he has truly matured from them. Garcia is extremely grateful for the opportunities that he had with the Gamecocks and is ready to prove his value as an NFL quarterback.

As Garcia looks back on everything, he remains positive towards the University of South Carolina and the fans. He remains thankful for the opportunities that he was presented during his time in Columbia.

Garcia said  “I just want to say thank you to all the fans that made it a wonderful journey while in Columbia. It was terrible the way it came to a conclusion, but I really am thankful for all the love and support. Once a Gamecock, always a Gamecock.”