Garcia cautiously optimistic about gridiron return

SEATTLE -- He'd sold some pot. He'd broken into a few cars. Beaten up a few rival gang members, too. Juan Garcia had had some good times being bad. But it slowly dawned on him that two paths lay ahead. One ended in jail or worse. The other, according to vague whispers, twisted off toward a foggy place called opportunity.

Garcia isn't sure what changed inside him and persuaded him to reject the gang lifestyle before his junior year of high school, then provided the necessary drive for him to become Washington's All-Pac-10 center. He calls it more of a process than an event, much like the rehabilitation he's undergoing in the hopes of returning to the field in 2008 after a severe foot injury put his career in jeopardy.

Nothing in Garcia's life has ever come easy. His comeback will be difficult, but not nearly as arduous as, say, announcing to a roomful of hard cases that he wants out of his hometown Yakima, Wash., gang.

"One day I went over to [a gang member's house] and I said, 'I'm done. I don't want to gangbang. It's not for me no more,'" Garcia said. "They were like, 'You're a little bitch. Yeah, whatever.' And I go, 'Naaah … I'm serious, even if I have to get jumped out, I don't want none of this anymore.' And then an older guy goes, 'Get the [expletive] out of my house.'"

"Jumped out," by the way, is earning a gang discharge by accepting a pummeling.

It's fair to say the distance between that moment and his enrollment at Washington's leafy campus as well as the academic and athletic honors Garcia has collected is considerable.

"It's an incredible story, really," Washington offensive line coach Mike Denbrock said. "If you had a poster boy you'd want to put up about the way a guy can change his life regardless of the circumstance he's been dealt, Juan would be that guy. Coming from the situation he comes from, and that he still deals with, quite frankly."

Garcia's parents are from Mexico. His father has been out of the picture since he was 4. His mother, Maricela Alcala, made ends meet by following the seasons and picking fruit. He was raised speaking Spanish. It's still the first language at home, which Garcia said changed 27 times by the time he turned 18.

Garcia spent most of his teenage years getting into trouble. He briefly dropped out of high school as a sophomore.

"In those neighborhoods, you become your own jail -- it's a vicious cycle," he said. "I look back and I don't know how I ended up getting here. I never dreamt of going to college. All my best friends were gangbangers."

Football, however, offered him a chance to get out, which led to his change of heart with his gang membership. That meant months of harassment. That meant months of laying low and avoiding former hangouts. That meant getting the windows of his car smashed. That meant moving to another area.

It all seemed worth it when Washington offered a scholarship. But remember, nothing comes easy for Garcia.

He was admitted as a partial academic qualifier. Then the NCAA clearinghouse took issue with high school classes he took in Spanish. When he finally was allowed to enroll, he nearly blew his opportunity by getting arrested in Yakima. Caught drinking a beer in a friend's car, he tried to run away from the police -- and flipped to the ground an officer who tried to tackle him.

Garcia wondered whether his dream was blowing up in his face.

"Every time something good would happen, something bad would happen," he said. "And there's always that temptation to go back to [gang life]. That, 'This is who you are.'"

Former Huskies coach Keith Gilbertson announced a zero-tolerance policy and what Garcia termed "dorm arrest."

Garcia started to find his footing socially and academically, but a new form of adversity arrived: injuries. In the spring of 2004, he tore apart his ankle so badly there were questions whether he would play again. He tried to come back the following season, but his ankle wasn't fully healed, and for good measure, he blew out his shoulder.

Still, Garcia didn't buckle. He added 40 pounds to his 6-foot-3 frame and won the starting job in 2006. Word was the nasty streak that a teammate once described as "for-real street scary" now came out only on the field, where Garcia was a powerful 315-pounder who finished his blocks.

Oh, and he won the team's Academic Excellence Award.

When the 2007 season ended, the Huskies' captain had started 25 consecutive games, earned second-team All-Pac-10 honors and made himself into an NFL prospect. His dream of purchasing his mother a permanent house was within reach.

Nonetheless, after the NCAA granted him a sixth year of eligibility -- and administrators decided not to fire coach Tyrone Willingham -- he opted to return. He wants to play in his first bowl game. He also wants to help Willingham retain his job.

"We know that if we don't win, he's probably out," Garcia said. "We have to win because we're sick and tired of losing. That, and we stress it with the younger guys that they don't want to go through a coaching change. That's misery."

Speaking of misery, during a scrimmage this spring, Garcia felt a strange snap in his lower leg that turned out to be a Lisfranc injury in his foot. Surgery would end his chances to play in 2008. He decided to bet against the odds and hope the foot would heal on its own, which would allow him to return by midseason.

Early returns are cautiously optimistic, but a fuller picture won't be available until the end of the month.

"It's still a little iffy, but it's a little better than they thought it would be at this point," he said.

It's just another challenge for a guy who's seen more than his share. Garcia's transformation is about more than football, though. Back in Yakima, his old running buddies don't know much about the Huskies, but they acknowledge who Garcia has become. Guys who previously threatened him now shake his hand with respect.

"Some are dead. Some are in jail. Some are heavy drug users," Garcia said. "And some are regular working guys who stopped gangbanging, but they are like, 'Man, I should have gone to school. That could have been me.'"

Ted Miller is a college football writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ted at tedmillerespn@gmail.com.