Before the championship was even decided, some observers at Charlotte's Ericsson Stadium were calling it the most transcendent play in the 41 years of the NCAA men's soccer tournament. As Indiana protected a 1-0 lead with 20 minutes left in last Sunday's final, Santa Clara's Anthony Chimienti lashed a shot that had already beaten goalkeeper T.J. Hannig when Hoosiers sweeper Nick Garcia suddenly transformed himself into a pair of ER lifesaving shock paddles. Throwing his body headlong toward the back of his own goal (Garcia would end up stuck in the net like a tuna caught at sea), he somehow nodded the ball upward in the opposite direction, off the crossbar, and it caromed harmlessly out of danger. Shock paddles attached...CLEAR!
"I thought it had skimmed off my head and gone in," Garcia said, admitting that he didn't know what had transpired in the scramble. Duly saved, Indiana held on for the win and its second straight national title, a trophy it owed mainly to Garcia, the cocksure All-America sweeper whose back-line dominance raised an interesting question: Could the best college player in America be a defender who didn't score a goal all season?
Well, yes. Never mind Garcia's goal line theatrics. Anyone who thinks soccer players can't use their hands hasn't watched him direct the Hoosiers with the panache of a latter-day Arthur Fiedler. Garcia's hands are constantly in motion. He'll thrust them downward to calm his team before an opposing corner kick. He'll jerk them upward to plead for the ball in transition. He'll flap them forward to keep the back line even as it advances upfield. In fact, watching Garcia choreograph Indiana's offside trap calls to mind the scene from The Full Monty in which Robert Carlyle teaches line-dancing by invoking Arsenal's offside trap. "Nick is a puppeteer out there," says Indiana coach Jerry Yeagley, "whether he's behind the team, in front of the team, anywhere."
Or everywhere. Free to roam where he pleases, Garcia splits defenses with unexpected length-of-the-field runs and still makes game-saving stops in front of his own goal. Surely he's the only athlete in the country whose coach compares him in one breath to Jim Hen-son and in another to a world-famous firefighter—"He's our Red Adair"—yet both descriptions fit. In Indiana's 3-2 four-overtime win over UCLA in the semis, Garcia cleared a sure Bruins goal off the line with a lunging leftfooted jab only five seconds from the end of the second OT.
A junior who has discouraged professional interest from Major League Soccer and Europe since high school, Garcia has been a throwback in today's college game. In the three years since MLS instituted Project-40, a program that encourages top young players to skip college and go pro in return for future tuition money, the upper reaches of college soccer have been decimated. Thirty-eight players have taken the Project-40 plunge, or 12.7 a year—compared with the 16 college underclassmen and high school seniors drafted by the NBA last year. " Indiana is a unique situation in which there's a professional environment and you can get quality training day in and day out," Garcia said before Sunday's game.
Nevertheless, Garcia surprised nobody when he announced after the final that he would give up his last year of eligibility to turn pro—in MLS or Europe. " Indiana can only give me so much," he said, "and it's in my best interest to go forward and play with better players, at a higher level."
With that, Garcia took the next step in a soccer journey that began in his hometown of Piano, Texas. Nick was only five when he started practicing with the 17-and 18-year-old boys on a club team coached by his father, Phil. "They'd knock him down, pick him up and dust him off, and then off he'd go," Phil recalls. "He never cried, either. That was when he learned not to have any fear."
Garcia was a national player of the year at Dallas's Bishop Lynch High and has been a mainstay of the U.S. junior squads in international play, serving as a co-captain at last spring's Under-20 World Cup in Nigeria and emerging as a top candidate for the U.S. team at the 2000 Olympics and, perhaps, the 2002 World Cup. He is widely considered to be one of the toughest young players in the country, as he showed with his goal line clear on Sunday—and, unfortunately, his head-butt of Santa Clara's Kyle Smith after Smith crashed into Hannig in the box.
Still, Garcia will have to change a few habits when he starts his pro career. On road trips this year he took along a Beanie Baby monkey named Bongo, and one wonders if hard-bitten German or Belgian footballers will find stuffed animals amusing. Then again, it's a measure of Garcia's talent that weaning himself from kiddie toys may be his biggest professional challenge.