ON THE last day of August, David Garrard came to work and fell asleep. It was a steamy Friday in north Florida, and the Jacksonville Jaguars had finished their preseason schedule the previous night with a home game against Washington. There would be no practice this day, only meetings; Garrard, a six-year veteran and the backup to Byron Leftwich at quarterback, crashed across the length of a couch in the team lounge and drifted off. ¬∂ Garrard will say now that what transpired next still feels like part of whatever reverie he was having in his exhaustion. A voice shouting in his ear, Hey! Get up, get up, get up! We've got meetings. Teammate BobbyMcCray offering him congratulations that Garrard didn't yet understand. Quarterbacks coach Mike Shula frantically sending him to see head man Jack Del Rio, who told Garrard the news that had leaked out around the team complex while he napped: Leftwich would be cut; Garrard was now the Jaguars' starting quarterback. Garrard conducting a tearful cellphone conversation with his pregnant wife, Mary, while he was stuck in traffic. "My whole world did a one-eighty," says Garrard. "And it was like I was still asleep on that couch."
So here is how the dream continues: The Jaguars win 11 games and make the playoffs as a wild card. Supported by a thunderous running game (ranked second in the NFL), Garrard throws 18 touchdown passes and just three interceptions. His quarterback rating of 102.2 is higher than that of Peyton Manning, Tony Romo or Brett Favre.
And then last Saturday night in the cold mist and fog at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, at the end of a long, humbling night, Garrard made a single play that can define a season—a career, even. He saved the Jaguars' win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, a 31--29 victory that was Jacksonville's first in the playoffs in eight years (so long ago that Tom Coughlin was coach) and earned the Jags a divisional-round trip to New England, the next team in line to try to halt history.
With 1:56 left in the game the Jaguars trailed by a point and faced fourth-and-two at Pittsburgh's 43-yard line. Garrard was largely responsible for the predicament. Jacksonville had led 28--10 in the third quarter, but he had subsequently been terrible: three for 10, with two sacks and an awful interception that led to the Steelers' go-ahead score with 6:28 left. Now the play call came into his helmet headset: Gun Trips Left QB 40 Base, Jag-speak for a quarterback draw. The 6'1", 245-pound Garrard had wanted to run the play on the previous snap—"I can fall forward for two yards at my size," he says—but offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter had gone with a quick sideline pass to tight end Marcedes Lewis that Garrard underthrew.
January 14, 2008
Garrard took a two-step drop, froze, then ran through a massive hole on the left side. Improbably, he juked Steelers safety Tyrone Carter—"Skills!" shouted wideout Ernest Wilford in describing Garrard's halting, heavy-legged move—and rumbled to the 11-yard line, 32 yards in all. Four snaps later Josh Scobee kicked the game-winning 25-yard field goal into a silent wall of Steelers fans at the closed end of Heinz.
For Garrard, 29, the victory was a large step on a patient climb that began long before his apprenticeship with the Jags. He was a 14-year-old eighth-grader in Durham, N.C., when his mother, Shirley—a nurse who'd raised her children as a single mom since her divorce when David was seven— died of cancer at age 49. Garrard's oldest brother, Anthony, who had just begun community college and was working part time at a Domino's Pizza in Durham, was left to help raise David and his younger sister, Adrianne. (Another older brother, Quincy, was away at college.)
"My mother was a loving, affectionate, hardworking person," says Anthony, now 37 and a truck driver in Durham. "I tried to just preserve what she was doing. David was a responsible kid; he did his chores. He went to school. He worked out." (David laughs. "My brother was 6'2" and in the Army Reserve," he says. "I didn't have any choice about doing what he told me.")
Garrard played four years at East Carolina and was drafted by the Jags in the fourth round in 2002. A year later they took Leftwich seventh overall. Garrard started just eight games in four years, and while he waited, he also became ill. In early 2004 he began experiencing severe stomach problems marked by pain and vomiting. He was diagnosed with Crohn's disease, a chronic intestinal inflammation with no known cure. He controls symptoms by receiving intravenous Remicade for 3 1/2 hours once every eight weeks. "It's still a part of my life," Garrard says of the disease, "but it's in remission."
A year ago Leftwich went down with an ankle injury. Garrard started the final 10 games of the season (the Jaguars went 5--5), but Del Rio, trying to squelch any media frenzy, named Leftwich the starter in February. Just as Garrard began to turn his attention away from Jacksonville—"I figured I would get a chance somewhere else, eventually," he says—Del Rio cut Leftwich, fearing that his immobility had at last made him expendable and praising the even-tempered Garrard's solid preseason. Del Rio told the team about the move in a quick meeting, and the room was silent. "It was a shock," says Wilford. Adds offensive tackle Khalif Barnes, "Byron had friends on the team."
Minutes after Del Rio's announcement, veteran defensive tackle John Henderson stood all of his 6'7", 335 pounds in front of the locker room and demanded support for Garrard. "I told everybody, 'This happens in the NFL at this time of year,'" recalls Henderson. "'You lose your friends. But this'—and I pointed to David—'is our quarterback. Get behind him.'" The team rose and clapped, embracing Garrard.
He has rewarded them with steady, smart play. "There are times during game preparation where you mention something you want to do against a certain defense, and you might only mention it once all week," says Koetter. "David has been money on those all year long." Specifically, Koetter notes a key red zone completion to tailback Maurice Jones-Drew in the Jags' regular-season win over Pittsburgh in which the Steelers showed a defensive look that Garrard and Koetter had talked about just once.
On Saturday the Jags built a lead by sacking Ben Roethlisberger four times in the first half and intercepting three passes, one of which cornerback Rashean Mathis returned 63 yards for a TD. Jones-Drew returned a kickoff 96 yards to the Pittsburgh one and later scored on a perfectly timed 43-yard pass from Garrard, who completed only nine throws. But when the game was nearly lost, Garrard made the play of his life.
The reality is that he will need more just like it in Foxborough. The dream is that it's sweet just to have the chance.