By Robbie Andreu
Linebacker Cristian Garcia earned a place in Florida football lore last July when he rescued a 19-year-old female who was being sexually assaulted outside the Gainesville night club where he worked.
His heroic act generated headlines across the country and led to a national television interview on “Good Morning America” and a trip to the White House, where he was honored by then-Vice President Joe Biden.
Garcia has long since turned his focus back to football and school. He’s hoping if he’s recognized again nationally it’s for his accomplishments on the football field this fall in his senior season.
“I can’t wait to make some plays,” said the walk-on from Miami.
Garcia’s story is already a rather remarkable one.
He’s gone from working on UF’s video crew, to walk-on, to national hero, to starting middle linebacker for the Gators in the Outback Bowl last January.
“It’s been amazing,” he said. “I just take it one day at a time. If you would have told me two years ago, I wouldn’t have believed it. I was leading Swamp Jacks (in the spring). It’s just a great feeling being out here and being able to work with all these guys.”
Garcia is hoping to make his story even better by getting into the regular playing rotation in the fall. Given the Gators’ lack of depth at linebacker and his performance in the Outback Bowl, he’s got a chance.
“That’s definitely the goal,” he said. “That would be huge for me. I have a lot of aspirations this year to make a lot of plays. Definitely get a big role and then definitely have something after college.”
Due to injuries to Jarrad Davis and David Reese, Garcia came from nowhere (well, actually scout team) to start at middle linebacker against Iowa in the Outback Bowl. He more than held his own, recording five tackles, including one for a loss.
He showed up again in the spring, seeing considerable reps with the No. 1 defense with Reese out with an injured wrist.
“It’s been a great experience,” Garcia said. “It’s something I’ve been used to. Anytime somebody gets injured, I’ll hop up from the second or third team. So, they’ve counted on me a lot. It’s been an easy transition. It’s been fun to work with all of those guys. We’ve got a very talented group.”
It’s also a young and still relatively inexperienced group that must replace all three starters from last season — Davis, Alex Anzalone and Daniel McMillian.
Garcia is the old man among the linebackers, the only senior. His maturity, along with his ability to play all three linebacker positions, gives him a chance to see the field often in the fall.
“Garcia, now, he’s a guy who’s played every position out here,” UF linebackers coach Tim Skipper said. “He actually started the last game against Iowa. It’s as if he’s on scholarship. He never skips a beat. He’s doing a real good job. He’s actually one of the more vocal guys. Once you get on this field, scholarship, non-scholarship, none of that matters. The best guys out there are going to be playing. He’s done a real good job.
“I always love vets. You always love vets and you always need them because you never know what happens in that locker room. You need those guys to kind of be there to kind of keep guys’ heads up when they’re having a bad day and those kind of things. Always love to have some vets around.”
As vets tend to do, Garcia started to emerge as a leader on defense in the spring.
“Just being a leader and understanding the defense as a whole,” he said. “I could just really pick apart what the corner is doing and the safeties. Just be able to help everybody and not only make myself a better player, but everybody around me.”
It’s rare for a walk-on to become a leader on a team full of four-star scholarship players. But Garcia is not your average walk-on. He’s proven how he’s going to react under fire, just like he did when he came to the aid of that 19-year-old female who needed his help last July.
“I can keep some of the guys level-headed when they maybe make a mistake,” Garcia said. “I tell them, ‘Keep your head up, this is what you’ve got to do.’ ”
And they seem to listen.
Contact Robbie Andreu at 352-374-5022 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Also check out Andreu’s blog at Gatorsports.com.