Thursday’s Outback Bowl represents the second coming of the savior of South Carolina’s football program. While Stephen Garcia’s original arrival was of biblical proportions, all associated with the program only can hope this new start is met with much more caution.
That might be easier said than done. There are too many elements to Garcia’s tale this week that point to a storybook conclusion. He and the USC team practiced at Garcia’s alma mater, Jefferson High School, where he used the same locker space as he did during his glory days as a Dragons quarterback.
The Outback Bowl is played at nearby Raymond James Stadium, where Garcia grew up attending games of the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers and where he earned MVP honors in the Hillsborough County all-star game following his senior season of high school.
As even Garcia said this week, everything has been painted into the perfect picture, with the exception of an outstanding performance by the quarterback on Thursday and a USC victory over Iowa.
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Garcia long ago was named starting quarterback for the game, leading to speculation that coach Steve Spurrier was as concerned about promoting ticket sales as he was with winning the game. A better theory has it that Spurrier sees a fresh start for a young man whose painful maturation has operated in parallel universes on and off the football field.
By returning to where it all began, Garcia can count Thursday’s game as day one of the remainder of his life at USC. He can begin to demonstrate he is more willing to work hard at learning his craft under one of the game’s best teachers. From this point, he also can show he has learned from his numerous poor decisions and that maturity indeed comes with being a father at age 20.
Mike Fenton was Garcia’s football coach at Jefferson High. As he leaned against a practice-field fence earlier in the week and watched his former pupil take snaps, Fenton said Garcia’s growing maturity is recognizable.
As far as Fenton is concerned, that growing-up process began this past summer. Expelled from USC and charged with completing hundreds of hours of community service in Tampa, Garcia carried a detailed workout schedule to Fenton’s office at Jefferson High.
“He had a schedule, and he was here every day and we watched over it,” Fenton said. “We documented the hours and the whole nine yards.”
The nine yards included mostly weight training and conditioning, with Garcia throwing to Jefferson High receivers during the final 30 minutes of the three-hour daily workout.
Garcia worked equally hard at being a father to his 14-month-old son, Memphys, named after a penguin character in the 2006 movie “Happy Feet.” The time in Tampa, whether during the summer or on Christmas break, is treasured by Garcia.
“It’s definitely tough not being able to see him every day,” Garcia said of his son, who received a USC jersey No. 5 — Garcia’s number — from his father as a Christmas present. “Amanda’s doing, excuse me, a hell of a job. It’s pretty tough being her and raising a kid.”
Amanda Rosedoom is Garcia’s girlfriend. She works as a secretary at Hammer & Howell Construction and shares a Tampa apartment with a friend to make ends meet.
“It’s pretty tough being away from them,” Garcia said. “It’s fun (being with Memphys). He’s a great little kid. He’s all over the place right now. That’s an added pressure, but I’m excited about it. I’ve been excited about it since I found out.”
Fenton is not alone in noticing that the responsibilities of being a father have helped Garcia. Garcia’s father and his USC teammates have recognized a change in his lifestyle.
“You have Memphys, you’re not just a student or a football player, but a father,” Gary Garcia said. “He’s not 18 anymore, not wide-eyed coming from a career he had in high school.”
Kenny McKinley is a USC senior wide receiver who has developed into one of the team’s leaders. He sees the same happening for Garcia, despite the rocky start at USC that included two arrests, one citation, two suspensions from the team and another from school.
“I’ve seen him grow up,” McKinley says. “I never see him out on the town (in Columbia) or anything like that. He comes to practice ready to practice every day.”
By missing spring practice twice, Garcia found his way into a Spurrier doghouse that appeared to have no escape hole, at least for the greater part of Garcia’s redshirt freshman season and this season.
For much of the season, Garcia has come under fire from Spurrier for a lack of dedication away from the field and a lack of quarterback savvy on it. That explains why Garcia was in and out of the lineup, performing spectacularly in a relief role at Kentucky, earning starting assignments against LSU and Tennessee, then not playing a down in the season-finale against Clemson.
To fans, it was difficult to fathom that Garcia was not ready to be Spurrier’s next great quarterback, particularly after he completed 10 of 14 passes for 169 yards and one touchdown against Kentucky. Yet Spurrier continued to insist Garcia did not know or understand the complete playbook.
More importantly, Spurrier had little patience with a quarterback who tended to tuck the ball under his arm and take off running at the first sign of trouble.
Garcia, according to Spurrier, did not allow pass patterns to develop. He also would not stand in the pocket to make a throw and perhaps take a hit from a charging defender.
Fenton finds Spurrier’s comments interesting because he offered the same harsh words for Garcia, albeit in a different context. Fenton said Jefferson High designed many plays to take advantage of Garcia’s running skills, but Garcia’s competitive nature often got the most of him. Garcia often risked injury by attempting to run over defenders and was scolded for it by Fenton.
By season’s end, it appears Spurrier recognized that Garcia represents USC’s future. So he and assistant coach Steve Spurrier Jr. have put Garcia through a crash course in Quarterback 101, 201 and 301 the past three weeks.
In addition to taking all the first-team snaps in practice, Spurrier Jr. prepared a DVD for Garcia that included footage of two Iowa games. Garcia said he studied the DVD daily at home in Tampa over the recent break.
Starting center Garrett Anderson said a new Garcia greeted the team in Tampa for the first day of bowl preparations. Normally, one of the veteran players calls for the start of calisthenics before each practice, but Garcia seized the role once he stepped onto his old high school field.
“I think he’s realizing the role he has here and the opportunity he has here, and he wants to take advantage of it,” Anderson said.
Even Spurrier has taken notice.
“He actually does seem to appear he knows a lot more about what we’re trying to do,” Spurrier said. “He seems to look like he’s capable. When the live action starts, that’s when we’ll find out, when they start rushing and all that stuff happens. To have three weeks taking a whole bunch of snaps has got to help anybody out there.”
Garcia’s performance Thursday should come with a word of caution. This time, there should be better recognition by all that Garcia remains a freshman, one likely to make as many mistakes as stellar plays.
For, while Garcia might indeed be the savior of the program some day, the Outback Bowl only represents the start of the second coming.