LB Cristian Garcia continuing Rudy-like narrative with Gators scholarship

GAINESVILLE, Fla.  — Cristian Garcia has told the story before, but it’s even more impressive now.

Following a Rudy-like narrative arc, Garcia spent the 2014 season working on the Florida football program’s video staff while attending Santa Fe College across town. He ultimately was accepted into UF, earned a spot as a walk-on with the Gators’ scout team in 2015 and worked his way up to actually playing in the final game of that season before later finishing the 2016 campaign as a starting linebacker in the Outback Bowl.

And now he’s a full-fledged scholarship football player, receiving the news from Florida coach Jim McElwain on Sunday afternoon.

“I was so excited. I’m so grateful for it. I really wish it could be all the walk-ons, but I’m very honored that it was me. I’m just so grateful that Coach Mac did that for me,” Garcia said after practice Tuesday.

George Wynn, Florida’s director of football operations, had told Garcia he had somebody who wanted to meet with him after practice Sunday. So after dinner he met Wynn and they headed over to McElwain’s office, where the head coach made it official.

“Coach Mac sat me down and he was like, ‘I just want to let you know I’m putting you on full scholarship,'” Garcia recalled. “I told him I was so grateful, and he’s like, ‘Don’t be grateful or thank me because you earned it. I didn’t give it to you.’ It was just such a fulfilling moment.”

Garcia tweeted a screenshot of his bank account showing a balance of -46 cents prior to receiving the scholarship money.

As word spread, Garcia’s teammates took to Twitter on Sunday to express their support for his accomplishment and the work he’s put in to get to this point.

“They were all so excited for me. I think the one that stuck out to me was Vosean (Joseph). He may have been more excited for me than I was,” Garcia said. “We’re close friends. I mean, he hugged me, he picked me up. For the past three days, he just yells at me every time he sees me, ‘Scholly, scholly!'”

Said McElwain:  “We’ve got a lot of guys that deserve that. And in this particular year, just where our numbers were, that kind of shows where we’re at now at roster balance. It’s well-deserved. He’s a guy that obviously played critical for a us a year ago, and not only that, but you’re talking about a guy that does it right. The guys really respect him, and he’s going to be a big part of what we do.”

Garcia touched on his story after that 30-3 Outback Bowl victory over Iowa, when Florida’s defense was so thinned by injury that he drew the start at middle linebacker and finished with 5 tackles.

He elaborated on the details of his journey Tuesday, and again, it’s worth the retelling.

While the goal was always to get to this point, to be a Division I scholarship football player, that wasn’t an option coming out of high school in Miami.

So he spent the fall of 2013 playing for Malone University, a Division II program in Canton, Ohio, and then attended Florida Tech in the spring.

That wasn’t where he envisioned himself, though. Of course, he also hadn’t dreamed of working in a football program’s video department watching other players practice while he couldn’t.

Every day he’d help set up the cameras in the towers around the practice field, film the drills and then bring the equipment back down and organize the video for the Gators.

Garcia admits there were some depressing moments during that stretch, but he maintained hope.

“I remember when I was on the video team, I’d watch the walk-ons put on their scout jerseys and I would tell my buddies, ‘I’d wear that jersey with pride and give it my all every day.’ Not knowing that I’d ever be on the field or earn a scholarship,” Garcia said.

One step at a time.

First, he had to get on the team in any capacity.

He arrived for the walk-on tryouts just prior to the Gators’ 2015 season opener when he was told he wouldn’t be able to take part.

“Before I tried out we had to get a sickle cell blood test. I had one from my previous school, and I thought it would work out, but the trainer told me that I couldn’t and I wasn’t going to be able to try out. I was devastated,” he recalled. “This was about 5:30 in the morning. I was crying outside of the building, it was still dark out. I went back upstairs to George Wynn and I begged him, I begged him to let me try out.”

He got his chance after all and made it through the tryouts. All of a sudden, Garcia had a locker next to star cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, whom he says treated him with respect from the first day.

Earning respect on the field was a different challenge.

Garcia’s breakthrough on the practice field came leading up to Florida’s Citrus Bowl loss to Michigan. With a number of seniors not going through some of the workouts, he got his chance.

“It was my first time getting reps not on the scout team. I had been honing in on the defense all year just waiting. I was literally salivating like a lion who hadn’t eaten in two weeks. I was ready to pounce,” Garcia said. “I gave it my all those three practices and from then I jumped up off the scout team.”

There was still a long way to go, though. He says this time a year ago he was still struggling just to earn a role on special teams.

To that point, his only headlines at Florida  — and well deserved — had come off the field as he was credited with   preventing a sexual assault over the summer in 2015. He even  appeared on ABC’s Good Morning America to discuss the story.

On the field, he would get into all 13 games last fall, mostly as a special teams contributor, before seizing his next major opportunity.

With starting middle linebacker Jarrad Davis done for the season with an ankle injury and his freshman replacement David Reese sidelined with a pair of fractured wrists, the Gators needed somebody with experience making the calls at the Mike linebacker spot for the Outback Bowl. In came Garcia.

And now as a fifth-year senior, he has a legitimate spot on Florida’s depth chart.

With freshmen linebackers Ventrell Miller and James Houston suspended for the season opener and fellow freshman Nick Smith recovering from knee surgery, the Gators don’t have much behind their top four linebackers Reese, Joseph, Kylan Johnson and Jeremiah Moon.

“What I see for myself is like a 1B. David Reese and Vosean will be the starters, but I expect to be right there behind them and backing up every position at Mike, Sam and Will. You’ll see me on defense this year and I’ll just play wherever they need me,” Garcia said.

While his teammates applauded McElwain for awarding Garcia a scholarship, the move came as a surprise to at least one Florida player  — but for a very complimentary reason.

“I kind of thought he was on scholarship already,” offensive lineman Fred Johnson said. “I didn’t know he wasn’t. I was like, he’s good. They threw him into the fire the Iowa game. I didn’t even know he was a walk-on. Congrats to him and his work ethic and what he does every day.”

As for the obvious comparison to the movie Rudy, about the famed walk-on at Notre Dame who attended nearby Holy Cross College while waiting to get into his school of choice, walk-on to the scout team and finally play in a real game, yeah, Garcia has heard that one a time a two.

“Yeah, definitely, you’ll have people chant ‘Rudy’ or the typical cliche things. But yeah, it’s very similar I guess,” he said.

Garcia’s story is pretty impressive in its own right, though.

The post LB Cristian Garcia continuing Rudy-like narrative with Gators scholarship appeared first on SEC Country.

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