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Jeff Garcia: A man too small to be in the NFL, won division titles with 3 different teams

Maybe the former 49ers quarterback just got a raw deal in all this. But he’s not bitter.

The American Flag Football League hosts their Launch Game this Tuesday to begin promotion for their 2018 launch. Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jeff Garcia is involved in the league, serving as a broadcaster, and he took some time to chat with us.

As you might expect, it was an opportunity that couldn’t be denied. Garcia carved out his own success in the NFL during the days of Steve Mariucci, helping rebuild the team after Father Time had deteriorated the once strong roster that won Super Bowl XXIX. We asked the questions you’d expect: thoughts on the coaching change, Terrell Owens, and of course, Colin Kaepernick.

The most fascinating one was one that was never intended. While he talked about the good ol’ days under Mariucci, going to the playoffs, and the rebuilt 49ers team consisting of him, Terrell Owens and others eventually being broken again, the topic of how he got a career in the NFL in the first place almost never got asked.

He wasn’t supposed to be in the league at all—well, if you listened to the scouts. Criticized for his size, Garcia went undrafted into the NFL and instead had to settle for the second best: the Canadian Football League, beginning as third string backup.

“I got to the point in Canada in the Canadian Football League with Calgary, even after that 5th season where we won the Grey Cup, I was MVP of the game and had been a four-time CFL All Star. I pretty much believed the NFL just was not going to happen. I was going to have a life in the Canadian Football League. And if that was how it was, I was going to make the most of it. I wasn’t going to pout about it, I wasn’t going to say ‘I should be down south’.”

By the time his football playing career was over, he’d have taken three different teams in the NFL to the playoffs and made four Pro Bowl appearances. Originally thought of as not being a fit for the league, Garcia played in the NFL as a quarterback for over a decade. A majority of that time, he would be starting.

“It’s unfortunate I had to do it with six, seven different organizations.”

Five years after beginning his career in the CFL, he went to the San Francisco 49ers—the team where he found the most consistency. Garcia signed with the 49ers in 1999. The plan was for him to be the backup to Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young.

“I really thought he [Young] was going to be my mentor. I really believed he’d be the guy I’d get to learn from that year and maybe another year before I would step onto the field, which was what I did in Canada with Doug Flutie being our starting quarterback.”

The hopeful mentorship would never happen. On September 27, 1999, in Week 3 against the Arizona Cardinals, Steve Young suffered a concussion that would end his career.

“All the sudden opportunity presents itself and you’re either ready or you’re not.”

The man who idolized the likes of Steve Young, Ronnie Lott, and Joe Montana as a kid, now had to follow in their footsteps on one of the bigger stages in the league, Monday Night Football.

“What’s going through my mind? It’s not so much that I’m not physically prepared it’s am I mentally prepared? Do I know the game plan? Am I going to spit the plays out in the huddle? Am I going to execute the plays correctly. We didn’t have to do a whole lot, fortunately to win that game.”

Garcia, a person who was almost settled with not being taken in the NFL, found himself alone to figure the game out, and his hopeful mentor was retiring. Named the starter, Garcia would only go for five more games, before San Francisco’s coaching staff, led by Steve Mariucci decided they had seen enough.

“There’s always moments where thoughts creep into your mind like ‘do I really belong here’?”

Struggling against the Pittsburgh Steelers, in a rainy, mucky day at Candlestick Park, Garcia went 7-of-18 for 39 yards, and was pulled in favor of Steve Stenstrom.

“It made me really doubt if I belonged in the NFL.”

Stenstrom didn’t fare much better. Named the starter the following week against the New Orleans Saints, Stenstrom failed to get anything going. Within three games, Jeff Garcia was once again named the starter.

“It took a benching and watching another quarterback struggle as well for me to realize it’s more than just a quarterback. You can’t put it all on your shoulders. You’ve gotta do your best, but you gotta get the guys around you involved as well. I came back for those last five games I was a far different quarterback.”

Those last five games, Garcia would throw eight touchdowns to three interceptions. He would get the starting nod for the following season, at least temporarily. The 49ers would draft Giovanni Carmazzi in the 2000 draft — a decision that involved former 49ers Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh.

Garcia would start all 16 games that year, throwing 31 touchdowns with only 10 interceptions. Carmazzi wouldn’t see the field. The following year, Carmazzi was released, while Garcia would take the 49ers to the playoffs. One year later, Garcia would take them to an NFC West title and mount a comeback in the Wild Card round, to the tune of 25 unanswered points, beating the New York Giants.

The person people said was too small to be in the NFL, and wondering if he himself should be in the league was now proving he could hang with the big time. Unfortunately, the stability Garcia had was about to end. Steve Mariucci, who had been the head coach at San Francisco when he started, was fired and replaced with Dennis Erickson. The firing was the foreshadowing of another rebuilding project. One Garcia wouldn’t be a part of.

“We had a team that was growing together, a culture that had bought back into what Coach Mariucci was coaching. It was too bad it got broken up before it reached it’s full maturity. I think we were headed in the right direction. Mooch was fired after that ‘02 season. After the ‘03 season, myself, Terrell Owens, Garrison Hearst, Derek Deese, Ron Stone, a number of guys were let go. It hurt the team.”

The 49ers wouldn’t return to the playoffs until three coaching staffs later, when Jim Harbaugh arrived in 2011.

Garcia would go on to win two other division titles — With the Philadelphia Eagles in 2006, filling in for an injured Donovan McNabb, and another in 2007 with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He never sniffed a Super Bowl, but he wasn’t supposed to sniff a backup job when all of this began.

“That’s a big part of it, being able to prove people wrong. It’s always been something that I’ve had to deal with. I’ve always had to battle. There’s always skeptics, there’s always been people judging, saying I’m not this, I’m not that.”

His career now over, Garcia stands outside the NFL, but remains involved in football. He’s providing color commentary for the American Flag Football League. Despite the commentary, he still practices with the teams and is ready to jump in at a moments notice. The son of a coach, Garcia tried to get himself back into coaching with the 49ers in 2017, when they fired Chip Kelly and General Manager Trent Baalke. The 49ers never gave him a phone call. But like everything, there’s no resentment.

“I can look at it with resentment, or I can look at it as a blessing in that it doesn’t take me from my four kids and my wife.”

Garcia had the tools to certainly take teams somewhere. In San Francisco, the change in coaching and philosophy led to the change at his position. In Philadelphia, he was keeping a seat warm. In Tampa Bay, after taking the team to the playoffs and going to his fourth Pro Bowl, the team would release him following a rotation of quarterbacks in 2008.

Three division titles. Four pro bowl appearances. No Super Bowl ring. Would San Francisco have had stability at quarterback had they kept him around? Perhaps. Could they have sniffed a Super Bowl by keeping the pieces of their post-1994 team rebuilding project in place? No one can predict.

But as Garcia says, “Life just goes on.”