COLUMBIA — The moment still seems fresh in Stephen Garcia’s mind, though he has tried hard to erase it. He was meeting in October with South Carolina athletic director Eric Hyman and learning that his time as USC’s quarterback was finished because of another mistake in a career littered with them.
“I kind of blacked out toward the end (of the meeting) because I just didn’t even want to hear,” Garcia said.
Garcia was kicked off the team Oct. 11, three days after the sixth game of his fifth-year senior season and 10 days after he started for the final time — a loss to Auburn that led to coach Steve Spurrier replacing Garcia with sophomore Connor Shaw.
Garcia’s career included 34 starts and 7,597 passing yards, the third-most in school history, but also five suspensions. The final straw was a failed substance test; Garcia said it was just for alcohol.
He was back at USC on Wednesday for the first time since his dismissal, auditioning for NFL scouts at the Gamecocks’ pro day and discussing the errors of his past and his hopes for the future.
More than five years have passed since Garcia first arrived in Columbia, in January 2007, as an early high school graduate. By his own admission, Garcia spent too much time acting like a typical college kid, when a quarterback in the Southeastern Conference is anything but.
“It took me too long to figure it out,” Garcia said. “That’s what I regret the most.”
Now, he is 24 years old and enjoying living back home in the Tampa, Fla., area with his girlfriend and son. His professional football future is much more uncertain than that of former teammates like wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, who did not participate in drills at last month’s NFL combine. Jeffery helped his draft stock Wednesday by running his 40-yard dash in the high 4.4 to low 4.5-second range, according to scouts who spoke to ESPN draft analyst Kevin Weidl.
Garcia’s workout produced mixed results. Four straight throws toward the sideline sailed high, but he connected with Jeffery on a couple others, as well as a well-placed deep ball. The questions about Garcia have always been more about his off-field behavior than his on-field performance, though that, too, was spotty at times during his USC career.
“I’ve just got to talk to and get in front of as many scouts as I can, and let them know me on a personal level, so they can see that I wasn’t the monster that it was portrayed I was in college,” he said. “I’m definitely playing catch-up.”
Nobody who knows Garcia thought he was a monster. Just a kid who made too many poor decisions, often related to alcohol. His final misstep resulted in him having to scramble now just to prove himself worthy of being a potential free agent pickup for an NFL team. He hasn’t played in a game since Oct. 1, save for a low-level all-star game in Florida two months ago.
The realization that he perhaps wrecked whatever pro football future he might’ve had left him despondent when he returned to Florida in October.
“I went home and I just looked in the mirror and I said, ‘What the hell am I going to do now?’” he said. “I thought the dream of playing at the next level was over.”
Garcia, who was listed at 230 pounds before last season, let his weight balloon to 245. Then he decided to start training and take a last-ditch shot at pro ball. He now feels fitter than he has since high school. He said he cut out drinking “completely” and has a chef who cooks him healthy meals, both of which helped him lose the weight.
Garcia has a sociology degree, but said he hasn’t considered a backup plan if pro ball doesn’t work out. He wore a camouflage warmup top Wednesday. He mentioned people joked with him about it, and said, without smiling, “I may go to the military. I don’t really know.”
Whatever happens, he is proud about getting back in shape, and about returning to Columbia five months after his premature departure, still standing, still optimistic.
“It’s unfortunate that it took me this long to finally get my head straight,” he said. “But it’s happened. And yeah, I feel great. I think this thing really turned out well. I hope it turns out better.”