When you’ve been on a long, difficult and at times disheartening journey like Cristian Garcia, you learn the painful lesson along the way that there are no givens, no sure things.
That’s why when he got called into Florida coach Jim McElwain’s office Sunday afternoon, his palms were sweating and the butterflies were wreaking havoc in his gut.
He was anticipating good news — the best news of his athletic career, actually — but he’s been left disappointed so many times that he almost couldn’t bring himself to believe it.
“Obviously, there was nervousness it wasn’t going to happen,” the senior linebacker from Miami said. “My palms were a little sweaty. I was a little nervous. I prayed before I went and it went well.”
It actually went better than well. One of his lifetime goals was realized when McElwain awarded him a scholarship the day before classes began for the fall semester.
“I was so excited. I’m so grateful for it,” Garcia said. “I really wish it could be all the walk-ons, but I’m very honored that it was me. I’m just so grateful that Coach Mac did that for me. He’s a great head coach.
“Since I was nine years old, my goal when I started playing Pop Warner football, it was a dream of mine to get a Division I scholarship. I mean I was extremely bitter after high school when I didn’t get one. I had to go play Division II. I walked on. That was my goal when I got here. It was one of the most fulfilling moments of my life.”
Garcia said his teammates gave him quite the group hug when the news reached the players shortly after his meeting with McElwain.
“They were all so excited for me,” he said. “I think the one that stuck out to me was (linebacker) Vosean (Joseph). He may have been more excited for me than I was. We’re close friends. He hugged me, he picked me up. For the past three days, he just yells at me every time he sees me,
‘Scholly, scholly, scholly’. He’s posted on Instagram, Twitter. He’s a great guy and he was so happy for me, probably more than I was for myself.”
Being awarded a coveted scholarship not only fulfilled a lifelong dream, it ended a most improbable journey that started at Division II Malone College in the fall of 2013, was routed to Florida Tech the following spring and then re-routed to Santa Fe College in 2014, where it appeared his athletic career had come to die.
“It was difficult,” he said. “When I was at Santa Fe College there were a lot of nights I was depressed because I wasn’t an athlete anymore. There were definitely a lot of lonely nights.”
Garcia had a chance to stay close to the game when he was hired to join the UF football team’s video staff in 2014. That’s when he started thinking/dreaming about walking on and becoming a Gator.
“Just seeing them practice every day just made me want to be out here,” he said. “I’d watch the walk-ons put on their scout jerseys and I would tell my buddies that I’d wear that jersey with pride and give it my all every day, not knowing that I’d ever be on the field or earn a scholarship. So, definitely, I have exceeded my expectations.”
While working on the video team, Garcia formed a connection with director of football operations George Wynn, who eventually set up a walk-on tryout for Garcia the week before the start of the 2015 season.
At the last minute, there was a holdup. Garcia needed a required sickle cell blood test, but the one from his former school could not be found and the trainers told him he could not tryout.
“I was devastated,” he said. “This was about 5:30 in the morning, and I was crying outside of the building, it was still dark out. I went back upstairs to George Wynn and I begged him, I begged him to let me try out. He actually pulled through for me and let me do the sickle cell blood test a little bit later, so that was another obstacle that I had to surpass.”
Garcia has knocked down all obstacles since.
At the end of the 2015 season, he saw playing time in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.
Last season, he saw significant playing time on special teams and became a starter at linebacker for the Outback Bowl due to the injuries that hit the linebacker corps in the second half of the season.
Heading into this season, he’s the backup at all three linebackers spots and is expected to see important playing time.
He hasn’t made any headlines for his accomplishments on the field yet, but he has for an act off the field — saving a female from a potential sexual assault last year outside the Gainesville restaurant where he worked. He earned hero status for that — getting an appearance on Good Morning America and an invitation to the White House, where he was honored by Vice President Joe Biden.
Garcia is still hearing from people about that.
“Yeah, every now and then I’ll get asked to do maybe a news story or be interviewed for something,” he said. “I still get something every now and then. Maybe someone will message me on Facebook or Instagram. I still get reached out about that every now and then.”
Garcia is hoping the attention he gets now will be for what he does on the field for the Gators this fall. He’ll have a chance, because he’s going to be playing.
“It’s going to be real fun,” he said. “I expect to play a lot on defense, which I didn’t get to do as much last year. I’m just so excited to play with our guys. I love our linebacking corps. We’re real tight, we’re real close together and I’m just so excited for this season.
“What I see for myself is like a 1-B, because David (Reese) and Vosean (Joseph) will be the starters, but I expect to be right there behind them and backing up every position at Mike, Sam and Will. You’ll see me on defense this year and I’ll just play wherever they need me.
“It’s real different, because last year I was struggling just to get on the field for special teams.”
And he was a walk-on. Now, he’s a proud scholarship player, fulfilling his lifelong goal.
Contact Robbie Andreu at 352-374-5022 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Also check out Andreu’s blog at Gatorsports.com.