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Still standing

Garcia, often passed over despite support from Walsh, is bringing Philadelphia along on his NFL comeback road

December 25, 2006|Sam Farmer | Times Staff Writer

Before he had countless supporters in the NFL, Philadelphia quarterback Jeff Garcia had only one.

Before Garcia showed everyone what he can do, someone was telling people what he could do.

So today, as Bill Walsh fights for his life in the Bay Area, Garcia will be in Dallas battling not just for the NFC East crown, but for his cancer-stricken friend and unwavering supporter.

"I know when I step out on the field, I feel and believe that I'm a representative of him," Garcia said. "That's how I really carry myself, and that's where so much of that inner passion has been reborn in me. I've been given another chance, and I don't want to disappoint. And there are some people that have been in my corner that I'm really enjoying playing for, knowing that there's some gratification coming out of it."

Over the last three weeks, Garcia's corner has gotten more and more crowded. Since losing his first start at Indianapolis last month, he has led the Eagles to three consecutive victories, pulling them out of the muck after Donovan McNabb suffered a season-ending knee injury. In his four starts, Garcia has completed 74 of 113 passes for 853 yards with eight touchdowns and one interception. His passer rating over that time is 108.0.

"He's an exciting player," said Walsh, legendary coach of the San Francisco 49ers, in an interview with The Times last week. "Boy, is he a competitor. The first time I saw him play was right over here when San Jose State played Stanford" when Walsh was coaching the Cardinal, and Garcia was a senior for the Spartans. "We eventually won, but he just tore us apart with his passing and running. We couldn't stop him."

Walsh was even more impressed by Garcia after the East-West Shrine Game, when the quarterback was named the game's outstanding player after entering in the fourth quarter and leading the West to a come-from-behind victory.

But that didn't convince NFL suitors. Garcia was neither drafted nor offered any free-agent deals. He went back to Walsh, who reached out to several contacts in the pros hoping to drum up interest.

"I got in touch with maybe a dozen of the coaches that I knew and said, 'You have to have him. Even as a backup, he can come in and win the game,' " Walsh said.

Still, Garcia's phone didn't ring. At 6 feet 1, and with an average arm, he bore no resemblance to the prototypical NFL quarterback. So he signed with Calgary of the Canadian Football League, where he played five seasons and led the Stampeders to a Grey Cup championship in 1998. He was named the game's most valuable player.

About a month later, when Garcia went back to Gilroy to visit his parents for Christmas, he got a call from Jon Gruden, then coach of the Oakland Raiders, who asked him to make the hour drive north for a private workout. It was a flop.

"It was an overcast, wet, ugly, rainy day," recalled Garcia, 36. "They had me run a 40 and throw the ball to basically equipment managers who were standing in certain spots on the field. And he just was not impressed."

After watching Garcia throw, Gruden took a pass on him.

Said Garcia: "He later told me after the fact, 'You know, I should have watched more of your film before I made a decision. I based it on your one-on-one workout, and it just wasn't something that was impressive enough to make me commit.' And I understood that. I've always had to overcome those stereotypes."

But there was a flicker of hope. Walsh called Garcia and told him he might be getting back into the NFL in a front-office role. Soon after, he rejoined the 49ers as their general manager. Among his first calls was one to that San Jose State quarterback who so impressed him five years earlier.

Walsh, who had already made the decision to sign him, brought in Garcia for a workout with quarterbacks coach Greg Knapp. Garcia looked nothing like the player Gruden had passed on a few weeks earlier.

"I felt like I had prepared myself knowing what I was about to face," Garcia said. "I also had the confidence in knowing Bill was there, and Bill was somebody who would go to battle for me."

Even after he signed a free-agent deal with the 49ers, the battles were far from over. Initially, coach Steve Mariucci and personnel executive Vinny Cerrato saw Jim Druckenmiller, a first-round pick in 1997, as the successor to Steve Young. But Walsh backed Garcia, and the 49ers wound up trading Druckenmiller to Miami. Druckenmiller's career never got off the ground.

When Young suffered a concussion that finally spelled an end to his career, Garcia stepped in as the starter and, after a bumpy beginning, wound up making three consecutive Pro Bowls. But he parted ways with San Francisco after the 2003 season -- "The 49ers let him go because they thought he had become too expensive, which could easily have been dealt with," Walsh said -- and he spent the past two seasons on losing teams in Cleveland and Detroit.

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