Part of ink tapestry that is Atlanta United defender Gregory Garza — the one tattoo among the two dozen or so he counts as his favorite — is the wind-blown gypsy inside one forearm.
A gypsy soul, that’s how Garza sees himself. A citizen of the whole, wide soccer-playing world. Just give him a hard, round ball and some level ground on which to chase it, and he’ll gladly make a home around that.
Currently, Garza can and does give fluent interviews in any one of three languages — English, Portuguese and Spanish. In this, he feels terribly limited. “I wish I knew something else,” he said. “Hopefully I’ll get a chance to play somewhere else and learn another (language).”
Is he from Grapevine, Texas? That is where he was born and began a thoroughly American upbringing that even included those games in which throwing a ball was not considered a mortal sin.
Or is he Brazilian? That is the country he came to regard in the same way a pilgrim does Jerusalem. He knew at an almost spiritual level he had to travel there and steep himself in the real meaning of soccer. Never mind that he was only 12 at the time.
Portugal was the setting for some of the best times in his hurry-up-and-get-to-the-point life. It is where he went off to at 16 to begin playing for pay. And where he got married at 18.
Mexico also claims a piece of Garza. That is his father’s heritage. That is where he played for another four years in the border town of Tijuana, and where his son was born.
And look where the whims of soccer have led him now: in the heart of the American South, where they know real football is played padded and angry and yet where the appetite for his version, futbol, has caught Garza delightfully surprised.
So, just where is home?
“There is no place I can call home,” Garza said, and seemingly quite happy to say it.
This new class of professional athlete inhabiting Atlanta is unlike any of the established breed. Their backgrounds are exotic and a little quixotic; and to get to their stories chances are you must go through customs. In Garza’s case, he contributes a worldview that you can’t find in, say, the green room at the NFL draft.
Some introductions are necessary.
Garza excels at the humble craft of defense. He scores about once every Leap Year (he figures he has four goals as a professional, the most notable being one that lifted his Tijuana club to the league semifinals in 2012). He puts in a lot of miles in a game, but unless his Fitbit read-out becomes an official MLS stat, there are few other ways to quantify his contribution.
Since Atlanta United signed him on loan from his team in Mexico, Garza, 25, has proved himself suitably recovered from the kind of hip ailments that should befall only an 80-year-old man or an 80-pound dog. Already through seven games he has been named twice to the MLS team of the week. And, OK, there are a few numbers that we are compelled to mention should they mean anything to you: Entering Sunday’s home game against D.C. United, Garza leads Atlanta United in touches (573) and interceptions (15).
It’s Garza’s style of play that should set him apart, especially for those who like their football with a side of contact. No secret that he’ll throw all of his 150 pounds into his $150,000-a-season job. Just look at his mug. Currently working on his fourth broken nose, he looks like he’s auditioning for the cover of Ring Magazine.
Garza figures one of the more American things about him is the way he plays this most international of games. It’s what he calls the “American mentality” that many players from here bring to soccer.
He explains: “People always ask me about that when I’m out of the country — the American mentality are guys who never want to lose, even if it’s in training or doing something silly.
“Americans stick out like a sore thumb. Those are the guys who are going to leave absolutely everything on the field. We’re probably not as talented as some of those other countries but Americans are always going to work the hardest. They are always going to want to be first in any kind of testing that we have.”
This part-time American in particular was certain about what he wanted in life at an age when most of us have trouble deciding between the puffy or the crunchy Cheetos.
The first of Garza’s tattoo collection, acquired when he was just 16, is a Portuguese saying — “Se Deus Quiser” — which roughly translates to If God Wills. But it was Garza himself who did a lot of the hard work charting the course of his life.
At 12, while traveling to Brazil with a Texas team put together by his Dallas-based, Brazilian-born soccer trainer, Garza impressed the head of a Sao Paulo soccer academy. His message to the boy: You have something special; you should stay here and train.
“He would have stayed right then if I let him,” said his mother, Jane Garza.
Reflexively, his parents said no. Of course you’re not going off to a foreign land to play a foreign game. But their son kept at them. He could not let go of the call to this soccer mecca. Worn down, his parents decided to reorder their lives to conform to their son’s dream. Jane Garza would go away with the family’s only child. Martin Garza would stay with his job in telecommunications sales and keep the home in Texas running. They’d make it work for as long as it worked for their son.
The neighbors certainly didn’t get it.
“People would tell us all the time, I can’t believe y’all are doing this,” his mother said. “This is crazy. This kid is 12-13 years old and you’re leaving your home and your husband and family just for this kid to play soccer?”
Imagine the culture shock. Neither Jane nor her son spoke a word of Portuguese. Upon arriving, the kid who was so singularly talented in Texas discovered an entirely different standard in Brazil. And here there was an entirely different motivation to play, as the children of poverty viewed soccer as a salvation.
“It was a religion for them to play. For me I was a guy who came in and had to learn that concept,” Garza said.
The kid never wavered. Like a cultural sponge, he soaked in the language and the lifestyle. If Garza missed the whole goofy teenager stage of life, he never let on.
“I made that huge decision at such a young age. Besides growing professionally and growing in soccer, it really made me grow up as a person. I grew up pretty fast,” he said. That meant finishing an accelerated high school program at 16, at which time he turned pro. And off he and he mother went to Lisbon. He’d marry just two years later and complete college degrees online in international business and sports management.
Now, all this soccer did not go unnoticed by his body. When Garza was all of 23, he was in so much pain that he couldn’t get on the floor to play with his son. At the worst of it, his wife had to help him get from sitting to standing. Doctors went in and removed bone spurs from both hips, and remodeled the joints. They stitched up a series of sports hernias, too.
He was close to a year away from the game, transitioning from wheelchair to crutches to relearning to walk in the pool. The experience left Garza a largely forgotten defender until this start-up in Atlanta came along and threw him a lifeline.
“After the surgery, I wasn’t sure I was going to be the same player I was before. Wasn’t sure I’d have the same abilities on the ball, to really dance on the ball like I learned in Brazil,” Garza said. The last few months have reassured him.
A here is a soccer gypsy stumbling upon some of his wildest experiences yet. Professional soccer. In Atlanta. Playing to a sold-out house. Surprisingly competitive.
“My wife and I really didn’t think it was going to be this big. It’s something that has really blown us — all of us — out of the water,” Garza said.
There is a certain philosophy one adopts when casting one’s fate to the trade winds of soccer. As Garza puts it, “You bleed the (color of the) jersey you’re wearing — sometimes literally.”
Thus far, that seems to be translating nicely into something Atlanta can understand.
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