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Bear Necessity
Bill Syken
November 13, 2006
From football in the street of a South Texas border town, guard Roberto Garza has worked his way into a prominent role on Chicago's resurgent offensive line
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November 13, 2006

Bear Necessity

From football in the street of a South Texas border town, guard Roberto Garza has worked his way into a prominent role on Chicago's resurgent offensive line

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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."

Garza committed 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."

Garza prospered 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.

Garza was 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 Championship Game.

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.

Interest from 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.

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