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Short story of the year

Despite being only 5 feet 3 in a sport where size usually means everything, quarterback Patrick Vargas will lead Garfield when it takes on arch-rival Roosevelt tonight.

November 14, 2008|ERIC SONDHEIMER | Sondheimer is a Times staff writer.

It's a startling sight, seeing Los Angeles Garfield football players line up after a game to exchange handshakes with their opponents and watching the reaction when 5-foot-3 quarterback Patrick Vargas finally greets his pursuers.

"I shake hands, they look down at me, and it's shocking to them," he said.

Their stunned response: "Are you the quarterback?"

The fact Vargas is playing, let alone completing passes and usually leading his team to victory in a sport that typically favors the physically imposing indicates how special his story is.

Tonight, he'll become the smallest quarterback to start in the 74-year history of the East Los Angeles Classic, a neighborhood game matching Garfield and Roosevelt at East L.A. College that's expected to attract a crowd of close to 25,000.

Vargas, a 150-pound senior, is an A student who uses intelligence, cunning and instincts to succeed.

His father, Ray, who coaches the quarterbacks at Garfield, said, "As a parent, I fear for him. As a coach, I root for him."

Roosevelt Coach Javier Cid, a former Garfield assistant, watched Vargas growing up, remembering him as a tiny 9-year-old running around the field and preparing for the day he'd get to put on a Bulldogs uniform.

"If he would be 6-3, he'd still be great," Cid said. "The fact he's his size is even more amazing."

Vargas welcomes those who underestimate him.

"I've been playing Pop Warner football since I was 7," he said. "I was the smallest out there and just adjusted. Now I'm in high school, I had to adjust again. I'm not afraid. This is just a passion I love to do."

To see how Vargas operates on a field where he comes up to the chin of many players is a sight to behold. He has a simple strategy in trying to release his passes.

"I place it like it's a window," he said. "When the receivers are running their routes, there are little areas where the linebacker shows weakness, so I hit them in that area."

Many of his passes are timing patterns. At the line of scrimmage, he examines the defense and picks out a target. He retreats on the snap and fires the ball long before anyone can reach him and usually before his receiver has made a final cut. If all goes well, the ball will arrive at the same time the receiver reaches his spot, leaving the defensive back helpless.

"It's just a lot of practice," Vargas said. "They have me practice sometimes with my eyes closed."

It's a family affair for Vargas, whose younger brothers, Bobby and Danny, start at receiver and fullback.

"Our mom is laughing, yelling and screaming her heart out," Vargas said.

His line is determined to protect him, and teammates don't take kindly to comments some defensive players like to make.

"They call him midget," center Edgar Rosales said. "They call him all kinds of names. It gets me motivated because I know he's capable of doing anything."

The student body at Garfield found out how big a heart Vargas has when he helped the Bulldogs upset two-time defending City Section champion Birmingham, 29-28, in the season opener. Vargas completed 13 of 17 passes for 144 yards and three touchdowns. With that victory, football players became celebrities on campus.

"It was better than winning the City Invitational championship," Vargas said.

"The whole off-season, our goal was to shock the world and shock the City. We knew beating Birmingham would do it. You could see the joy in everyone's eyes and faces."

And now Vargas gets to start in a game that will probably draw the largest high school crowd of the season in Southern California. It doesn't matter that Roosevelt is 8-1 and Garfield is 5-4. Records mean nothing in this rivalry game. It's homecoming for both schools, with alumni coming from around the nation.

His counterpart at quarterback, Jesse Diaz, is equally impressive, with a 3.8 grade-point average, more than 1,700 yards passing and just one interception for Roosevelt.

Diaz is 6-2, a giant compared to Vargas, but both are examples of how high school sports can bring out the best in individuals. Vargas has dreamed of this moment.

"It's something I wanted to do all my life," he said.


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