"For a long time I felt like I was robbed of childhood experiences," says Jeff, who has two other sisters, Jen�, 22, and Melissa, 21. "I thought I had missed out on those special moments that siblings share. Who knows? Maybe my brother would've been one of my receivers in high school."
As Jeff grew up, Linda began referring to the family as the Garcia Five. His parents and siblings continue to be Jeff's main support group. Linda is the soft-spoken matriarch whose two brothers coach football and whose father, Maurice (Red) Elder, was a star halfback and defensive back at Kansas State in the 1930s. Bob is emotional and candid, a man who spent 20 years (including 13 as the head coach) winning with unwanted players at Gavilan Community College in Gilroy before retiring in 1990. As a ball boy for several of those teams, Jeff watched his father motivate undersized offensive tackles into believing they could conquer any challenge. "Jeff is quiet by nature, but if you could gauge the emotion in him, it would be way off the charts," Bob says. "He has so much confidence in himself."
No Division I school offered Jeff a scholarship, so he spent one year playing for his dad at Gavilan before moving on to San Jose State, where he set the school record for career total offense and earned MVP honors at the 1994 East-West Shrine Game. Still, no NFL team even invited him to training camp. Walsh, who was the Stanford coach at the time and had watched Garcia excel against his teams twice, tried to help. He contacted 14 friends around the league to try to sell the quarterback as a potential backup, but nobody would give him a look. So in the summer of '94 Garcia caught on with the Calgary Stampeders of the CFL.
He began as a third-stringer, but after Doug Flutie sustained a season-ending elbow injury midway through the '95 season, Garcia got his chance. In his second start, a 51-26 win over the Edmonton Eskimos, he threw for 546 yards and six touchdowns. In five years he passed for 16,449 yards and 111 scores and led the Stampeders to the 1998 Grey Cup.
Even though Garcia never talked about it, those around him knew he was itching for an opportunity to play in the NFL. "There was no doubt he was an NFL player," says Flutie, who signed with the Buffalo Bills in 1998. "I remember him asking me about it when his contract came up [in Canada]. I told him he had to take a shot at the NFL because the guys down here were no different from him or me. It's just that they got a shot and we didn't."
Walsh, who had moved back to the Niners in January 1999, gave Garcia a shot. Making his first NFL start while subbing for the injured Young on Oct. 3 of last year, Garcia engineered a 24-22 win over the Tennessee Titans, completing 21 passes in 33 attempts for 243 yards and two touchdowns. But his production went downhill, and the Niners lost 11 of their next 12 games. Because of limited opportunities in training camp, Garcia wasn't prepared to run the team's complex offense. He threw five interceptions and one touchdown in the three games following the Tennessee win and irritated his receivers by scrambling instead of waiting for plays to develop. "When Jeff got in the huddle," recalls San Francisco fullback Fred Beasley, "his actions basically said, If you don't know what you're doing, don't ask me, because I'm learning here, too."
Garcia also carried too many burdens onto the field. He wanted to please Walsh, his family and the fans back in Gilroy who stopped by his parents' home with footballs to be autographed. Above all, Garcia wanted to prove he belonged. "Jeff had so many expectations on him that in the little time he had he was trying to make everyone see he could play," says Niners wideout Terrell Owens. "He had a lot of pressure on him. We were losing, and he was trying to pick up where Steve left off."
Garcia's fortunes didn't improve until after Mariucci benched him during a loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Nov. 7. Though Garcia was crestfallen enough to question his abilities, two days later he told his father that "the weight of the world has been taken off my shoulders." Jeff's spirits were lifted when he watched a tape, compiled by San Francisco quarterbacks coach Greg Knapp, of the positive plays he had made during the season.
Garcia slowly realized that he wasn't solely to blame for the 49ers' woes, and he displayed more confidence when he returned to the starting lineup on Dec. 5. He threw for more than 300 yards in three of the team's final five games. "Jeff was so apologetic initially because he was replacing Steve Young," Walsh says. "He would admit his mistakes. You never apologize as a quarterback. Even if you are wrong, never say it, because once you go public, that's when the trouble starts. With Jeff it was just a matter of his overcoming the Joe-Steve history, and to do that he had to play."
This year Garcia wasted no time building on his momentum of 1999. During the off-season he studied film and refined his mechanics with Knapp three or four days a week. The Niners also tailored their West Coast offense to fit his talents, giving him free rein to move around the pocket more, and installing the shotgun. Over the course of the season Garcia has executed more effectively and shown better judgment. "He used to have eight to 12 plays a game where you would say, "That's not right,' " says 49ers offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg. "Now he has two to five. The very best in the league are right around that mark."