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BILL PLASCHKE

South East High offensive lineman has an instinct to protect

Football gave Jorge Garcia the strength to try to stop an assault at his high school, and now football must give him the strength to move on after his attempt to save a schoolmate's life failed.

October 20, 2011|Bill Plaschke
  • South East High offensive lineman Jorge Garcia at the campus in South Gate.
South East High offensive lineman Jorge Garcia at the campus in South Gate. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

The brave one's right eye won't stop twitching.

"My therapist says that will end when I start sleeping through the night," Jorge Garcia says.

The brave one's mind won't stop wandering.

"Sometimes I'll dream it was me who was killed," he says.

Three weeks ago, Garcia, a junior guard on the football team at South East High in South Gate, was the only student who attempted to save classmate Cindi Santana when she was stabbed in a crowded school courtyard, allegedly by former boyfriend Abraham Lopez.

Santana later died. Garcia was also stabbed and has since been cut deep by the dissonant chords of hero and failure.

Now the brave one must really be brave.

"People say I did a great thing, but I take no pride in it," he says. "I keep thinking over and over again, could I have done more?"

A boulder of a boy with tissue-soft eyes, Garcia, 16, looks like a teenager in baggy cuffed jeans, a blue V-neck shirt and a Disneyland wristband. Yet he speaks like an old soul as he tells his story on the empty bleachers overlooking football practice for South East's undefeated Jaguars.

This is his team. This is what empowered his life-saving attempt. This is what must sustain him after his attempt failed.

"No question, football gave this kid his strength," says his coach, Derwin Henderson. "This is where he's going to come to find it again."

Three weeks ago, Garcia had just picked up homecoming tickets and was joking around with friends in a courtyard when he heard a cry for help.

He said he looked over to see Lopez, 18, holding Santana, 17, in a headlock. The shouts were coming from the school's dean of students, Christina Ordonez, who was trying in vain to break it up.

"I heard somebody yell, 'Let her go! Let her go!' " Garcia says. "Then I heard somebody shout, 'Help!' "

Then, according to witnesses, the 5-foot-8, 240-pound offensive lineman charged alone into the fray. He didn't know Santana. He didn't know Lopez. He knew only that somebody needed help, and so he ran.

Says his friend and teammate Donta Perkins: "He's always the kid who gets into fights protecting women and people who are getting picked on."

Says Garcia: "I don't know why, but when I see danger to someone else, I react."

As if leading a running back through a hole, Garcia crashed into Lopez, then put him in a headlock while Santana reportedly fainted and fell to the ground.

"I had him; the girl was on the ground. If only somebody could have just pulled her away and I could have dragged him off and beaten the hell out of him," Garcia says.

But bystanders reportedly froze, at which point witnesses say Lopez pulled out a knife, stabbed Garcia in the biceps, then wrestled out of his grip and stabbed Santana.

"He stuck me, then he overpowered me," says Garcia, whose white T-shirt was covered in his blood afterward. "I know my arm was bleeding, but I still keep thinking, I work out so hard, how could he have overpowered me?"

Garcia and others eventually pulled Lopez off the girl, but, later that night, Cindi Santana died of injuries suffered in the attack.

Garcia heard the news from the sideline at the Jaguars' football game, which he attended after being fitted with 12 stitches at a hospital. At this point, the brave one couldn't be brave anymore.

"We looked over there and saw him crying and we knew what had happened," Perkins says. "He did his best, he did what nobody else did, he can't blame himself."

He doesn't, and he does.

Garcia has been given standing ovations in each of his six classes. He has been given ovations by fans at football games even though he has not been cleared to suit up again. Classmates line up to touch the fresh scar on his right biceps.

More important, Santana's family has personally thanked Garcia for stunting Lopez's attack enough that their daughter was able to live for several more hours.

"They say that I gave their daughter a chance to tell them goodbye," he says. "That means more to me than anything."

But Garcia has been hounded by his own remorse and the rebuttal from some smart-aleck students who have the youthful nerve to announce to him that they could have saved Santana.

"I say to them, 'Bull, you froze, you all froze,' " he says. "I really want to fight them, but I walk away because I have too much to lose."

Specifically, he does not want to lose his spot on the football team, a difficult acquisition that put him in this position of strength.

As a freshman and sophomore, Garcia failed to finish the junior varsity season because of bad grades, so he showed up in January determined to finally go the distance. He spent the entire winter arriving at school at 5 a.m. to lift weights, then spending afternoons running the cluttered streets of South Gate. He lost 80 pounds, gained giant arms and a neck, and then fought his way through late-summer training camp to make the varsity.

He vomited on the field, yet didn't quit. He suffered asthma attacks, yet kept showing up.

"Football has made me strong," he says. "You learn to stand your ground. You learn not to quit."

When his coach heard that a football player had attempted to save Santana, he was not surprised it was Garcia.

"I thought, 'Of course it was him,' " Henderson says. "It's like he had been preparing all year to do something like that."

Midway through the interview, Jorge Garcia sticks in one iPod earpiece and slowly begins bobbing his head to the rap of Big Sean. You want to hug him and thank him and remind him that courage has no conditions, and nobility has no rules. You just wish he were listening.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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