Enter the Dragon: Garcia's football dreams come true in Arena League
You're Aaron Garcia, quarterback of the Arena Football League's New York Dragons, and here's your dilemma: It's 4th and goal from the Grand Rapids Rampage 2-yard line. You're up 28-0 with 3:19 left in the first half. Even though it's only the sixth game, the season is on the line after three straight losses dropped your Dragons to 1-4.
You took over the play-calling duties from the offensive coordinator last week, and you know the call should be 15-Loaded: take it yourself and jam it in between the center and the guard. You rushed for a league-record 15 touchdowns by a quarterback in 1999 doing just that. But sometimes you think too much.
Last week, against the Dallas Desperados, in your first week back after suffering a broken rib in Week Three, you chose to protect your body. You didn't pull the trigger on 15-Loaded, and had to settle for a field goal. The Dragons lost 33-31. Even up 28-0, though, you aren't safe. This is the high-scoring Arena Football League, eight on eight on a 50-yard indoor field; all passing all the time; where a team that scores 40 just got shut down.
But nobody would think any less of you if you take the easy three, like you did against Dallas. It wouldn't dim your legacy one bit. In 14 seasons you've thrown for 862 touchdowns, second most in an AFL career. In 2006 you were named the 11th best player in league history. But you've also been sacked on artificial turf more times -- 208, to be exact -- than any quarterback in any league, ever. And, after all, you are 37 years old.
Your three kids' initials are scrawled on your sleeve, below the six staples in your left shoulder, and above the screw in your left wrist. There are 13 more screws and two plates in the right leg that shattered when 600 pounds of linemen stepped on it in 2006. Mentally, you feel 25, but, according to your surgeon, Dr. Timothy Mar, your elbow, shoulder, knee and ankle are probably 55. Joe Laudano, your center for the last four years, will understand if you don't run it behind him. "After all those surgeries," he says, shaking his head, "man..."
And you have not forgotten that just a month ago you could hardly breathe with that cracked rib, so you stayed up all night reading Eastern philosophy, studying the art of the mind kept empty, the mind ready to respond to any situation, the mind prepared for battle. You know that you have to win with your mind, because who knows how long your body will last. So do you really need to be punching it up the gut right now? With a 28-point lead? Do you have enough Sun Tzu left in your apartment to read if the play goes wrong?
No one sets out to spend 14 years in the Arena League, least of all a kid who smashes John Elway's California records for passing yards and touchdowns. At its beginning, though, Garcia's football life was idyllic, and he rightfully nursed NFL dreams.
At Grant Union High in Sacramento, where his father, Hank, was an assistant football coach, Garcia threw for 5,800 yards and 57 touchdowns in two seasons -- and kept up a 3.75 grade point average along the way. Coaches from top shelf college programs came courting. To Hank's dismay, his son used his last recruiting trip to visit Dennis Erickson, then the new head coach at Washington State. "I wanted him closer to home," Hank says, "but I was recruited by Washington State [to play baseball] when I was in high school, and I thought, Let him visit. It's in the middle of nowhere. He won't like it."
But Aaron's priority was not evaluating the city of Pullman's cultural capital. It was evaluating Erickson's pass-happy spread offense. That attraction did not surprise Henry in the least. "Aaron just loves throwing the ball," Hank says. In high school Garcia would throw constantly on the sideline while the defense was on the field, a habit his father tried to break. "I tried to get him to relax," Hank recalls. But it didn't work then, and it still doesn't. During any break in an Arena League game, Garcia can be found out on the field tossing with a teammate.
In the spread, though, there are worse things than a QB who wants to throw all the time, as Garcia showed in his redshirt freshman season at Washington St. in 1989. Erickson had already left to coach the University of Miami, but when first-stringer Brad Gossen hurt his throwing hand in the third game of the season, Garcia stepped in and led the Pac-10 in passing efficiency as the Cougars went 6-5.
With Gossen soon to graduate, Garcia's future looked bright. Then along came the biggest blue-chip recruit in the history of Washington State: Drew Bledsoe. A flame-throwing freshman in 1990, Bledsoe would go on to be the first pick in the 1993 NFL draft, and play in four Pro Bowls. Garcia was immediately shipped to the bench behind Bledsoe, and after a sedentary sophomore season, it was time to go home. A crestfallen Garcia transferred to Division I-AA Sacramento State and thought about quitting football entirely. "I was really considering just getting my degree and moving on," he says.
But, inside, Garcia was still that kid obsessed with throwing the ball. Instead of hanging up his cleats, he learned a new system and threw for 1,798 yards and 13 touchdowns in his senior season at Sacramento St., keeping himself on NFL radars, if just barely. When he went undrafted, NFL scouts told him to play in another league to gather some film.
Garcia, the son of a Mexican-American father, recalled Mike Perez, a rare fellow Hispanic football player, who was a star quarterback for San Jose St. when Garcia was in high school. Perez was drafted in the 7th round in 1988 by the New York Giants, but never played in an NFL game. Instead, in 1995, as Garcia faced an uncertain future, Perez was busy etching his name in the Arena League record books. For a boy like Garcia, who grew up tossing the pigskin and listening to his grandfather give bilingual sermons in the Catholic Church in Sacramento, Perez was a role model.
Of course, Arena ball isn't the NFL: the field is 28 yards wide and 50 yards long, roughly half the dimensions of an NFL field, and ringed by padded walls into which players are frequently smashed, hockey-style. Receivers can motion directly toward the line, and one of the two linebackers, the "Jack" backer, has to stay in a box that extends the width of the field and five yards from scrimmage, until the quarterback throws. The penalty call for a violation: "Jack out of the box." Not the NFL, but a place to get some film and to play professional football.
And so began, for $600 a week (he was substitute teaching on the side), a storied Arena League career. What Garcia, at 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds lacked in size or arm strength, he made up for in moxie and instinct. In a league where the seven-step drop is too protracted to exist, Garcia mastered the art of throwing before his receiver even begins a cut, and eventually surpassed Perez in career completions, yardage, and touchdowns.
The NFL scouts were watching. Kevin Swayne and Mike Furrey, two of Garcia's favorite targets, were plucked by NFL teams and had productive years in the league. Swayne spent three seasons as a contributor with the Jets and is now back with the Dragons, and Furrey, still with the Lions, led the NFC in receptions in 2006.
In '02 Garcia nearly caught on with the 49ers, but was displaced in camp by Cade McNown, a first-round NFL draft pick in 1999, after he was cut from the Dolphins. Garcia also narrowly missed on a shot with the Seahawks in 1996, when Dennis Erickson was the head coach. "His size might have hurt him, but so many of the great ones are six-foot," Erickson says. "Given the right chance, he probably would have been a great NFL player."
The right chance, though, never did come around. Fortunately for Garcia, the Arena League grew up as he did. He signed a five-year deal with ESPN in 2006, and he now makes over $100,000 each season. (He didn't like substitute teaching anyway). But that relatively recent development is not what keeps him coming back. "I just don't know what else can drive me the way this does," he says.
So, Aaron Garcia, here you are: 4th and goal on the Rampage two. You don't have to prove your toughness. Mike Horacek, now a receiver on the Kansas City Brigade and your favorite target back in 2000, still remembers the playoff game when, late in the 4th quarter, you rushed out of the training room so quickly you didn't even get that aching wrist on your non-throwing arm checked out until after the game. (It turned out to be broken).
See, everybody already knows you're tough. But weren't you just telling Isabella, your 9-year old little girl, that the only way for her to play soccer is full tilt? And right there, on your sleeve, the "I" for Isabella is staring up at you. So that's that. You make the call: 15-Loaded. And when the Mike linebacker shoots the gap you're headed for, it's a good thing all your chips are in, because you need to leap right over his head.
Touchdown New York, and your Dragons are 5-2 since, and into the playoff hunt. "The fact that he even called that play," says Laudano, "you just gotta love that."