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NOW COMES THE HARD PART

5/9/2008
Mark Heithoff

[For more on the Jags, click here]

If you were to visit David Garrard at his Jacksonville home, located in a freshly minted, gated neighborhood blocks from a fancy mall and P.F. Chang's, you'd likely find him relaxing on his leather sectional in front of the TV, watching the Food Network, his considerable frame wedged between a pile of unfolded baby clothes and his overwrought toy dog, Jax.

You might think to yourself that he seems happy, that his hands could palm a frozen turkey and that most NFL quarterbacks don't spend their downtime watching Rachael Ray. But you wouldn't think, not even when Garrard grins and stands to greet you, unfolding his 6'1", 245-pound body like a Transformer, that this is the man who took Jacksonville from overriding apathy to something approaching Jaguarmania last season. Or that he just pocketed a seven-year contract worth $60 million (about $20 million guaranteed), making him the highest-paid Jag ever.

"Romo money," the 30-year-old jokes. "Almost."

He seems too anonymous for that. For the first five years of his career, Garrard was solid but not a star. He was too friendly. Church-friendly. He lacked swagger. And visibility. He had no overripe pop stars cheering for him. He was a hardworking guy. Fine qualities, but hardly the stuff of legend.

Nor was he even a starter. Until last season, Garrard had been a bridesmaid in Jacksonville. Not since his college days, at East Carolina, had he been a No. 1 QB. Then, nine days before last season's opener, Jack Del Rio cut incumbent Byron Leftwich and promoted Garrard to the top job amid much speculation that the head coach had lost his mind. "I think a lot of people were bitter at me for the decision," Del Rio said recently.

"Jack took a chance on him," says Garrard's wife, Mary, sitting next to her husband on the couch. She pauses, purses her lips. "It would have been really hard for me to hitch my cart to a guy who ended the season like Dave did in 2006."

At this Garrard flinches.

He remembers all too well replacing an injured Leftwich in October 2006, then leading the Jags to five victories in his first seven starts (including a win over the Colts). But he also remembers dropping the last three games that year, courtesy of more turnovers than you'll find in a French bakery. His lowest moment came in the season finale, against the Chiefs. "The game was getting away from me, and Jack pulled me out," he says. "I'd never been pulled from a game in my life. Games had never been decided on my failures."

The Jags missed the playoffs, and Garrard decided in the off-season that, given a second chance, he would not fail. He trained and he prepped and he buried his anxieties and he did all of this with no guarantee of unseating Leftwich in 2007. "If I had listened to my agent, I probably would've left and gone somewhere else," he says. "But I had a feeling."

Garrard believes in God. And God told him to stay put. Soon enough, stuff started to work in his favor. First, Del Rio handed him the job. Then, with Leftwich gone and Garrard behind center, the Jags went on to score the most points per game in team history (25.7 ppg) and make the playoffs. Then came the play of Garrard's career. It happened during the last two minutes of a snowy wild-card game at Pittsburgh, with the Jags down by one. On fourth and two from Pittsburgh's 43-yard line, Garrard dropped back to pass, saw a hole and bolted through, carrying for 32 yards to set up the game-winning field goal. It was a breathtaking, how-ya-like-me-now? run. "That play was a defining moment," Garrard says. "I'd had a few turnovers, and I needed to step up. That play changed the way people saw me. It changed the way I saw myself." Garrard adds that when he called Mary after the game, she just kept screaming into the phone, "Ka-ching! Ka-ching! Ka-ching!"

This is not to say that Garrard suddenly views himself as The Man, although he is wise enough to know that "when you give somebody that much money, he'd better be something."

"Dave is different from other quarterbacks," says Jags tight end George Wrighster, who roomed with Garrard on the road last season. "He doesn't crave attention. He wants players to get their recognition from winning, not from showboating."

That means no dogfighting, no celebutard girlfriends, no hot tub photos on the Internet. "You see too many players who are in your face," says center Brad Meester. "David is someone you actually want to spend time with."


It should be noted that, 13 years after the Jaguars' debut, Jacksonville has yet to fully embrace its team—or be embraced as a pro sports town. Although the franchise fared exceptionally well in The Magazine's most recent Ultimate Standings (available at espnthemag.com), a Harris Poll taken last year, before the team's playoff run, ranked the Jaguars the least popular franchise in the NFL. Home games have routinely been blacked out due to low attendance—they played to a league-worst 88.5% capacity in 2007—and requests for tickets have increased a modest 10% on the heels of their playoff run. The indifference has run so deep that, in an age when people sell ads on their butt cheeks, owner Wayne Weaver has been unable to secure a stadium sponsor. For now, the Jags plays at Jacksonville Municipal.

Adding insult to insult is the fact that Jacksonville is football-mad. Nearly every car sports a Gators sticker or an FSU flag or a Dawgs license plate or a stuffed "We Miami!" dolphin waving from the backseat. People in Jacksonville talk about football the way people in Vegas talk about dry heat. They just don't talk much about the Jags. "This isn't like Green Bay or Pittsburgh," says Mary. "Nobody grew up loving the Jaguars."

This does not worry Garrard. "Nothing is ever going to bring my spirit down," he says. "I'm always going to be upbeat." He believes he was predestined to be in the exact position he's in now. Garrard says football is nothing less than "a calling." He first watched a game when he was 6 or so, living in East Orange, N.J., when his parents took him to see his older brother, Anthony, play: "I can remember the smell of the grass, all the kids in their uniforms running around. And I remember thinking to myself, This is what I want to do when I grow up."

His clarity of purpose held fast year after year. Even as Garrard excelled at other sports, even through his parents' divorce when he was 7, even as his father evaporated from the picture and even after his mother, Shirley Ann, died from breast cancer when Garrard was a high school freshman. "She taught me to never let anything keep me down," he says. "My mother always had a smile on her face, even in the end. And I'm the same way now."

"Dave smiles when he calls plays," affirms running back Fred Taylor. "I've never seen him upset."

Four years ago he had every reason to be. Garrard was found to have Crohn's disease in March 2004, a chronic digestive disorder exacerbated by stress. He had surgery to remove 12 inches of his intestines. He lost 35 pounds from his 245-pound playing weight. Going into training camp that year, doctors told him to rest—advice he ignored.

"I wanted to do whatever it took to get back on the field," he says. "So I started eating and training."

Before long he was back at his playing weight, and he's had no flare-ups. He spends three and a half hours every other month taking his IV meds, gets what he calls a "wonderful" colonoscopy every year and compartmentalizes the pressure of being an NFL quarterback. "I don't give it power over my life," he says of his illness. "No one knew if I'd make it back. But I did. I knew."

His face falls still for a moment. He is quiet. His hands idle in his lap. "When my mother passed away, my older brother basically put me and my sister through high school and college," he says, exhaling slowly. "Social services tried to split us up, but Anthony did not want that to happen. He was 26, and he put his life on hold to raise us. He had to grow up so fast. I think about that a lot. I don't intend to waste the life he gave me."

So it's no surprise that Garrard feels little pressure to turn Jacksonville into a Jags town—"I think the fans are ready to latch onto a good team," he says, and that a $6.82 million-per-year raise (over his previous three-year, $5.25 mil deal) doesn't scare him. To him, "it's just football."

Dude, it's a $6.82 million-a-year raise.

Garrard pauses, cocks his head. "Trust me," he says, "I don't take football for granted. I work my butt off. But it's still football. The Iraq war is serious. Cancer is serious. Guys get so consumed with football, they miss out on so many things in life."

He shakes his head.

"I don't want to be one of those guys."


He's already spent some of the money. He and Mary bought a new house, in Del Rio's hood. He took a trip to the Masters. He purchased a 41-foot boat he dubbed The Hail Mary! "The little l is a fishing hook," he says proudly, then smiles. "Life is different now. Everything is a little more grand."

The day after he signed his new contract, Garrard got a phone call. It was an old friend, someone he says he hadn't talked to in years, asking for cash. Since then, the calls have kept coming. "It's tough to say you can't do it," he says with a sigh. "I told myself if I ever made it big, I would stay the same approachable person. Money shouldn't change you."

But it does change expectations, and not just from long lost friends. The Jags look to have one of the most difficult schedules in the NFL in 2008. And the AFC South is the toughest division in football. After throwing for 18 touchdowns and only three picks in 2007, Garrard knows all eyes will be on him, waiting to see if he's worth all that money. "David has always had that confidence that if he just worked hard, his turn would come," says Weaver, the Jags' owner. "And today is his turn."

"I'm just going to keep doing what the coaches ask me to," Garrard says of his 2008 plan. "I'm not going to try to be Mr. Magic."

Don't you want to be a star?

There is a long pause. Then the familiar chuckle.

"I want to be up there with the Tom Bradys, the Peyton Mannings. Those guys are just leagues away, it seems. But I believe I can get there. My way."

And for those folks who crave pyrotechnics and drama, who need the theatrics of a diva before they'll leave their couch and hoist a foam finger, Garrard acknowledges he has little to offer. "Sacrifice makes a good player," he says. "Little things when no one's around. Extra field time. Not hanging out at night."

But sacrifice is dull.

"Yup."

He sighs.

"Thinking back on last year," he says, "I was just playing football. Now it's like everywhere I go, people stop me. It doesn't matter where I am, they pretty much know me. I definitely feel like a celebrity. But I don't act like one."

Garrard smiles.

"It's all cool. Until they start booing me on the streets."