He soon began
playing football in the street with his cousins, and in seventh grade he played
his first organized ball at school. "The first time I played on a practice
field, I was like, Man, this is what I want to do," Garza says. He loved
the idea of working with so many teammates. "The big draw to me was being a
part of something," he says. It didn't hurt that Garza was good. Already
6'1" and 170 pounds, he started at fullback in his first year of junior
high and at tailback the following season. At Rio Hondo High, he moved to the
offensive and defensive lines, starting on the varsity as a freshman. "That
happens when you play on a team with 30 people on it," he says.
Those summers in
high school, Garza would work the local cotton harvest, operating a machine
that stamped down the cotton and packaged it. His schedule was brutal: He
worked seven days a week, starting at 8 a.m. and sometimes not finishing until
1 a.m. He would often work 100 hours in a week. The pay was $5 an hour, with
nothing extra for overtime. He learned a valuable lesson: Become good at
something else. "I can't do this for the rest of my life," he recalls
telling his cousin Humberto, who worked alongside him. "I have to go to
college and try to find a better way to live."
himself to football with the same doggedness that got him through the summers
baling cotton. He went to the weight room every day during the school year. He
didn't get any scholarship offers, but he did get an invitation to walk on at
Texas A&M-- Kingsville, 100 miles from Rio Hondo. Though just a Division II
school, Kingsville has a history of producing NFL players, including such
greats as Gene Upshaw, Darrell Green and John Randle. Garza won a starting job
by the end of his freshman year, in 1997. Jaime Hernandez, then a student
assistant and now the Javelinas' offensive line coach, recalls that he wasn't
particularly impressed with the quiet freshman's size or physical gifts, but he
did note how Garza was always the first one in the weight room and never needed
to be pushed about learning the playbook. "I couldn't tell you we sat there
and said, 'He's going to make it to the NFL,'" Hernandez says, "but we
knew if he kept working like that he would have at least a chance."
at Kingsville. He met his future wife, Ashley, a volleyball player. As a senior
he was a Little All-America. In the spring of his junior year, he competed in
track and field, winning an NCAA championship in the shot put. Rio Hondo
declared Dec. 2, 2000, to be Roberto Garza Day and threw a parade in his honor.
Garza rode down the main drag--all five or six blocks of it--in a convertible
with his mother and father, part of a procession that included floats and fire
trucks and the high school marching band. "It was surreal," Garza says.
And with NFL scouts talking to him, he sensed this parade might never end.
selected in the fourth round of the 2001 draft by the Atlanta Falcons and spent
his first three years mostly as a reserve before becoming a starter in 2004.
That year the Falcons' running game blossomed, and Atlanta reached the NFC
A free agent at
the conclusion of the season, he should have been in a position to reap the
rewards of that success, and at first it appeared he would. The Baltimore
Ravens made a three-year, $7 million offer. But then a physical revealed that
Garza had no ACL in his right knee, the result of knee surgery the previous
year. Concerned about Garza's durability, the Ravens withdrew their offer.
other teams waned, and Garza worried that he might never play again. Then Chris
Ballard, a former Kingsville assistant who was working as a Bears scout, put in
a good word with Chicago. Bears offensive line coach Harry Hiestand reviewed
tape of Garza and saw that the missing ACL didn't seem to limit him on the
field. The Bears signed Garza to a one-year, low-risk deal for $596,160. In
2005, playing with a knee brace, Garza was impressive while appearing in all 16
games, starting seven. Last January the Bears signed him to a six-year, $13
million contract that included a $4 million signing bonus. Asked why the team
felt comfortable investing in Garza, Hiestand says, "It's pretty simple.
He's a guy you can count on every day. He comes to work."
The NFL is the
most popular league in America, but of its nearly 1,700 players, only a couple
of dozen are Latin American. Garza has accepted his role as one of the game's
Latino ambassadors, and it goes well beyond the tapings of Yarda por Yarda.
Most prominently, Garza served as a spokesman for United Way, appearing in
commercials that air in both Spanish and English. On Cinco de Mayo in recent
years he has been a guest of President Bush's at the White House and a grand
marshall at Chicago's parade. He often speaks to Hispanic youth, and last year
he put on an event at a Chicago YMCA called F�tbol Americano con Roberto, a
skills clinic attended by 200 children. "I'm not trying to be an idol,"
says Garza, "just somebody the kids can look to and say, 'He did it, I can
do it as well.'"
The demand for
public appearances is only going to go up because of the feverish interest in
the Bears' 7--1 start, for which Garza and his linemates deserve much of the
credit. They have kept Grossman upright after his last two seasons were
derailed by injury, and that must continue if the Bears expect the good times
to keep rolling. "The feeling we have here in Chicago, it's hard to compare
to any other feeling," Garza says. "I think what's special about
Chicago is that the Bears have been here since 1920. There have been
generations of people following the Bears. This is a Bears town. They love
their Cubs and their Sox and they obviously love the Bulls, but when you get
right down to it they love the Chicago Bears."
The feeling is
mutual for Garza. After five years of living in apartments, he and Ashley
bought their first house, in suburban Libertyville, not far from the Bears'
practice facility. With Chicago as his adopted home, he often has occasion to
send packages to his father, and therein lies a problem. A few years ago Rio
Hondo decided to further honor its native son by changing the name of the
street where his parents live to Roberto Garza Drive. That means that when
Garza sends a FedEx home, the employee behind the counter sees the same words
under Recipient's Name, Recipient's Address and Sender and is sure the form has
been filled out incorrectly. So Garza has to explain who he is, where he came
from and how he got here. It's a story he never tires of telling.