- Elizabeth Merrill
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OMAHA, Neb. -- It is time to go. The late-summer chorus of cicadas has given way to longer, quieter and more comfortable nights, only Jeff Garcia won't let anyone sleep. He is standing in the middle of a freshly painted high school field, firing footballs, swatting a freckled fist at time. The bus drivers want to go home. It's past 9 o'clock on Monday night, and their engines are running. The team wants to go home, or, to the place they know as home, the Holiday Inn. Garcia keeps throwing.
When will he get the hint? A guy is standing at the edge of the field, holding up blue bottles of Gatorade, shouting, DRINK IT ON THE WAY OUT. Garcia doesn't budge. The stadium lights are cut, and he finally jogs off the field, grabs his iPod and climbs into one of the last seats on the bus. And the Omaha Nighthawks football team takes off, down a two-lane road, until tidy suburbia houses give way to the projects and a swath of industrial land and the team is back at its workout facility.
Maybe, in the dark, with another city rolling past him through a tiny window, the average 40-year-old would wonder what he's doing here, in Omaha, Nebraska, on a yellow school bus full of players that the NFL didn't want. By tomorrow, his 2½-year-old daughter Presley will be on the phone again, and she'll ask when Daddy can come home so they can play. Garcia will tell her he doesn't know.
His wife, Carmella, is eight months pregnant and needs him; football, for much of his life, has given Garcia every indication that it doesn't want him, at least as a long-term solution. Eight teams, three leagues and 40,000 passing yards, and everywhere Garcia goes, he isn't expected to last.
If he makes it through November in Omaha, and has a chance to move on, the good people in the corn belt will no doubt applaud him. That will mean that Garcia has made it back to the place he believes he's always belonged.
First, he's got to get through summer. The buses roll into the Kroc Center, the workout digs for the newest team in the United Football League. Last weekend, the Nighthawks' facility was used to hold a cat show. Today, it holds Garcia's "locker," which consists of a chair covered in workout clothes that sits in a 3x3 space in a gymnasium.
"It's different," Garcia says. "[But] I don't need to be put on a pedestal and chauffeured to practice every day. Financially, I don't need to be playing. But this is what I know. This is what I love to do.
"If physically and mentally it just wasn't there for me anymore, I wouldn't still be trying to hold on. And I'm not trying to hold on. I feel like I have all the ability in the world. I look at myself like I can still improve every single day."
A proud father
Come hell, high water or splintery seats, Bob Garcia will be there Sept. 24 when the Nighthawks open the season at Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha. He is calling from Gilroy, Calif., the garlic capital of the world, and notes that the town has a festival every year and puts garlic in everything from wine to ice cream. "You taste it," Bob says with a chuckle, "and that's about it." At no point in the conversation does he offer up that he just had hip surgery, the 11th major operation on a body that has endured heart attacks, hip replacements and an aortic aneurysm. No, the Garcias have an unspoken tenacity, and, come late September, Bob plans to stand when his boy throws for a touchdown.
The family has been through so much. You can't hear it, through Bob's persistent, proud-father voice, and the family doesn't talk much about it. How Bob and Linda Garcia lost their twin daughters before Jeff was born, how Jeff was 7 when his brother Jason drowned on a family camping trip, how a family that endured so much pain was hit with even more a year after Jason's death, when daughter Kimberly died after she fell out of a truck.
Jeff Garcia figured if he could please his parents, maybe it would take away some of their pain. He'd tell them that before every football game, he thought of his brother and sisters. He played for them.
"I tell you," Bob Garcia says, "it's been a great experience having him for a son. We couldn't ask for anything better."
But watching him play hasn't always been easy. Through the lenses of Bob, head football coach at Gavilan College in Gilroy, father of Jeff, his kid was all-world. He saw how hard Garcia worked, how the critics made him push even harder. And there were a ton of critics. They said he had a weak arm and a body too small to be an NFL quarterback. (Garcia is listed at 6-foot-1 and 205 pounds).
So he went undrafted out of college, wound up in the Canadian Football League as the Calgary Stampeders' third-string quarterback behind Doug Flutie, and, just the way Bob predicted, eventually became a Canadian rock star. Every NFL tryout involved a measuring tape and a long, skeptical look at Garcia's arms and digits. "Measure his heart," Bob told one evaluator in the late 1990s.
The rest of the story can be found in a number of old NFL bio pages. He came home to play for the San Francisco 49ers in 1999, replaced Steve Young and became one of just eight quarterbacks to throw 32 touchdowns in back-to-back seasons. He had high points, like when he rallied the 49ers from 24 points down to beat the New York Giants in the playoffs in January '03, and some lows that eventually led him to be cut the following year.
He bounced from Cleveland to Detroit to Philadelphia, caught fire in the '06 season when Donovan McNabb was injured, but was out the next year when McNabb was healthy. He went to Tampa Bay, made his fourth Pro Bowl, and was cut a year later.
The final act might have been the most maddening. He signed with the Oakland Raiders last year, got frustrated in his role as a mentor to the underachieving JaMarcus Russell and asked to be released from his contract in September. Then coach Tom Cable benched Russell in mid-November, giving the job to Bruce Gradkowski, who rallied the Raiders while Garcia sat at home.
"I made my decision; I had to move on," Garcia says. "But it made me think, 'Did I make the right decision?' Bruce is my guy, and I was so happy for him when he finally got on the field because he showed what the team was capable of when they had a quarterback who had the desire and the commitment and the energy to play at a high level.
"Bruce reminds me a lot of me as a young guy. He's a very motivated individual. He's the type of guy like me who, for some reason, they don't want to take seriously. But he keeps popping up, and he keeps showing up, and he keeps doing the right things."
Bob Garcia began to wonder if his son was just plain snakebitten. He wondered, jokingly, if Raiders owner Al Davis had put a curse on Garcia.
If it ended right there, Bob told his kid, that would be more than fine. He lasted 10 years in a league he wasn't supposed to play in, won a couple of playoff games and proved a couple of talent evaluators wrong.
At 39, with money in the bank, a family at home and a body that was still fully functioning, that would be fine.
'I love the game too much'
Thing is, it wasn't fine. Garcia had the NFL Sunday Ticket, which meant any professional football game could be beamed into his living room. He'd watch the morning games from his home in Southern California, staring at the quarterbacks, critiquing every play. He'd sit there, watch and stew all day.
"Finally," Garcia says, "I got to the point where [I said], 'This is not healthy for me, and it's especially not healthy for my family. I am very fortunate to have a beautiful wife and two beautiful children. Let me enjoy that, and count it as a blessing in a sense that I get to see them every single day.'"
Garcia tried to enjoy it but found himself waiting for the phone to ring. He waited all that autumn and into the winter. He went to the gym to work out his aggressions.
"It was a lost feeling," he says. "I just didn't really know what to do with myself because everything I've known and everything I've strived for has been related to football and being on the field."
Had his body given out and made the decision for him, Garcia is convinced that moving on would've been easy. But what if his arm has a few seasons left? His agent contacted all 32 teams this offseason. Garcia says he was on the Vikings' short list of available quarterbacks if Brett Favre had decided to retire last month, and if a few quarterbacks go down early this season, Garcia's name surely will be circulated.
But Garcia didn't want to spend another year waiting.
"I love the game too much," he says, "to just sit at home and let myself wither away in a sense."
How they got to Omaha
They all have their backstories of how they got here. Jeff Jagodzinski was a successful coach at Boston College before he got fired for interviewing with the New York Jets without his athletic director's permission; Hollis Thomas was a bruising 340-pound defensive tackle before he was suspended for eight games for violating the league's substance abuse policy; and Ahman Green, a former Green Bay Packers star running back, has returned home to Omaha. Maurice Clarett, one of the newest members of the team, has the most cinematic story of all. He arrived in Omaha last weekend after serving 3½ years in prison.
Some are using the UFL as a way to get back, others are grasping to hang on. The average UFL player makes about $50,000 for an eight-game season, says Nighthawks general manager Rick Mueller, but marquee players like Garcia are compensated better. He declined to elaborate.
"Everything is just like the NFL," Mueller tells his players. "The only difference is your paycheck."
Mueller truly believes it. Like Garcia, he hasn't had the most impeccable timing over the past few years. He was the vice president of player personnel for the New Orleans Saints until 2008, when the team fired him and restructured. A year later, the Saints won the Super Bowl.
But he says he has no regrets, no inferiority complexes, and, in a perfect world, hopes the UFL can "complement" the NFL and serve as somewhat of a developmental league. Mueller plans to send video of each Nighthawks game to NFL teams this fall and hopes Garcia gets picked up in late November when his work in Omaha is finished.
"I mean, I'm surprised he's not there [in the NFL] now," Mueller says. "I'm happy to have him, but he's an NFL quarterback."
There are others who have bigger plans, too. Thomas, who's 36, wants to use the UFL season as a way to stay in shape in case a team calls. He says he doesn't care about cramped locker space or living in a hotel.
He dreads the day when the crowds stop cheering and he's at home, with no structure of practice, meetings and team gatherings.
"I'm a fat person, so if I sit still for a long period of time nobody's going to want a fat, out-of-shape guy to come back," Thomas says. "Coming out here and getting the opportunity to play will get me in good shape. When the time comes, I'll be ready."
They just want to play
They're hungry. Jagodzinski sees it in their eyes, in the middle of two-a-days, when the sun beats down and a swarm of men gathers around a Jugs machine, laughing and egging each other on like schoolboys.
These guys, Jagodzinski says, aren't here because they have to make a payment on a Bentley or reach a workout incentive. They're here because they want to play football.
The first team meeting, Jagodzinski told the team he'd do everything he could to help them get where they want to be. Maybe it's no farther than the Kroc Center. Maybe it doesn't matter.
"A year ago, if you would've told me I'd be in Omaha, I would've said, 'No way,'" Jagodzinski says. "But I believe God puts me where he wants me. I've got something, maybe with one of these players, that I can influence. I can come here and have fun coaching again.
"You know what this is? It's a league of opportunity. For Jeff, for myself, for really everybody who's out here."
Garcia says he has two or three more seasons left in his body, and Bob and the family firmly believe it. For now, they'll settle for eight weeks.
"I don't need to be coddled," Garcia says. "I don't need to be stroked. I just want to go out and compete and win football games, and I'll give everything I have to do it. I'll put my body on the line for my team. Why that is not embraced by the decision-making people, I have no idea.
"A lot of those guys who are making those decisions have no clue about what it's like to actually be on the football field. They're the number-crunching-type people, they're the statistic-type people where they're looking at a piece a paper and going, 'Wow, he's 6-4 and 225 pounds, he looks good. Maybe we can make him a good quarterback.' You either are or you aren't at this point in your life."
Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached are firstname.lastname@example.org.
Will Jeff Garcia's road to Omaha eventually lead from the UFL back to the NFL? The journeyman quarterback says he still has games left to play.