Enter the Dragon: Garcia's football dreams come true in Arena League
You took over the play-calling duties from the offensive coordinator last week, and you know the call should be 15-Loaded: take it yourself and jam it in between the center and the guard. You rushed for a league-record 15 touchdowns by a quarterback in 1999 doing just that. But sometimes you think too much.
Last week, against the Dallas Desperados, in your first week back after suffering a broken rib in Week Three, you chose to protect your body. You didn't pull the trigger on 15-Loaded, and had to settle for a field goal. The Dragons lost 33-31. Even up 28-0, though, you aren't safe. This is the high-scoring Arena Football League, eight on eight on a 50-yard indoor field; all passing all the time; where a team that scores 40 just got shut down.
But nobody would think any less of you if you take the easy three, like you did against Dallas. It wouldn't dim your legacy one bit. In 14 seasons you've thrown for 862 touchdowns, second most in an AFL career. In 2006 you were named the 11th best player in league history. But you've also been sacked on artificial turf more times -- 208, to be exact -- than any quarterback in any league, ever. And, after all, you are 37 years old.
Your three kids' initials are scrawled on your sleeve, below the six staples in your left shoulder, and above the screw in your left wrist. There are 13 more screws and two plates in the right leg that shattered when 600 pounds of linemen stepped on it in 2006. Mentally, you feel 25, but, according to your surgeon,
And you have not forgotten that just a month ago you could hardly breathe with that cracked rib, so you stayed up all night reading Eastern philosophy, studying the art of the mind kept empty, the mind ready to respond to any situation, the mind prepared for battle. You know that you have to win with your mind, because who knows how long your body will last. So do you really need to be punching it up the gut right now? With a 28-point lead? Do you have enough Sun Tzu left in your apartment to read if the play goes wrong?
No one sets out to spend 14 years in the Arena League, least of all a kid who smashes
At Grant Union High in Sacramento, where his father,
But Aaron's priority was not evaluating the city of Pullman's cultural capital. It was evaluating Erickson's pass-happy spread offense. That attraction did not surprise Henry in the least. "Aaron just loves throwing the ball," Hank says. In high school Garcia would throw constantly on the sideline while the defense was on the field, a habit his father tried to break. "I tried to get him to relax," Hank recalls. But it didn't work then, and it still doesn't. During any break in an Arena League game, Garcia can be found out on the field tossing with a teammate.
In the spread, though, there are worse things than a QB who wants to throw all the time, as Garcia showed in his redshirt freshman season at Washington St. in 1989. Erickson had already left to coach the University of Miami, but when first-stringer
With Gossen soon to graduate, Garcia's future looked bright. Then along came the biggest blue-chip recruit in the history of Washington State:
But, inside, Garcia was still that kid obsessed with throwing the ball. Instead of hanging up his cleats, he learned a new system and threw for 1,798 yards and 13 touchdowns in his senior season at Sacramento St., keeping himself on NFL radars, if just barely. When he went undrafted, NFL scouts told him to play in another league to gather some film.
Garcia, the son of a Mexican-American father, recalled
Of course, Arena ball isn't the NFL: the field is 28 yards wide and 50 yards long, roughly half the dimensions of an NFL field, and ringed by padded walls into which players are frequently smashed, hockey-style. Receivers can motion directly toward the line, and one of the two linebackers, the "Jack" backer, has to stay in a box that extends the width of the field and five yards from scrimmage, until the quarterback throws. The penalty call for a violation: "Jack out of the box." Not the NFL, but a place to get some film and to play professional football.
And so began, for $600 a week (he was substitute teaching on the side), a storied Arena League career. What Garcia, at 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds lacked in size or arm strength, he made up for in moxie and instinct. In a league where the seven-step drop is too protracted to exist, Garcia mastered the art of throwing before his receiver even begins a cut, and eventually surpassed Perez in career completions, yardage, and touchdowns.
The NFL scouts were watching.
In '02 Garcia nearly caught on with the 49ers, but was displaced in camp by
The right chance, though, never did come around. Fortunately for Garcia, the Arena League grew up as he did. He signed a five-year deal with ESPN in 2006, and he now makes over $100,000 each season. (He didn't like substitute teaching anyway). But that relatively recent development is not what keeps him coming back. "I just don't know what else can drive me the way this does," he says.
So, Aaron Garcia, here you are: 4th and goal on the Rampage two. You don't have to prove your toughness.
See, everybody already knows you're tough. But weren't you just telling
Touchdown New York, and your Dragons are 5-2 since, and into the playoff hunt. "The fact that he even called that play," says Laudano, "you just gotta love that."