To think he almost didn’t get a chance. One missed tackle, and he could’ve been cut. One awkward step, and his career could’ve ended. One less risk, and he never would’ve made it to Florida. All of it seems impossible now, but for UF linebacker Cristian Garcia, his very title, UF linebacker, almost never was.
When his family and friends reflect on his rise through college football to the pinnacle of the sport, they still struggle to find the right words.
“I believe God has helped him,” his mother, Cristina Garcia, said, “but he completely has done all the footwork.”
“He’s just really special,” his grandmother, Uva Aragon, said. “A very special young man.”
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“It’s miraculous,” said Angel Aparicio, his his school position coach.
The soft-spoken redshirt senior joined the Florida football program in 2015 as a walk-on, and on Sunday, after two years of toil, pain and heroics, coach Jim McElwain awarded him a full academic scholarship to pursue his Masters of Science in Management. For Garcia, it was the latest notch on an improbable roller coaster that seems to have one setting: Up. And it started in South Florida.
Garcia played three years of varsity football at Miami’s Belen Jesuit Prep. as a defensive end and offensive lineman. But his football training started much earlier, about 3 miles southeast of Belen at Tamiami Park. He was 9.
When he started, his coach had a message for the Kolts.
“With a lot of luck, two or three of you will play in high school,” he said, “and with a lot more luck, one will play in college.”
Garcia wanted to be that one.
He also wanted to go to Belen. He told his grandmother, Uva Aragon, from the time he was in sixth grade. That’s when she took him to an art exhibit at the school, and that’s when he told her that some day, he’d go there.
Why? She knew he didn’t have any friends there, so she had to ask.
“Because if I go there,” he told her, “then I know I can go to a good university.”
When that time came, though, Garcia’s only option was Malone University, a small school in Ohio. He’d been recruited by some larger programs, including Bowling Green State, but Malone was the only one to offer him. And he still wanted to be that one.
He came back. After a semester at Malone, he decided he wanted to be closer to home, opting to transfer to Florida Tech in Melbourne. After enduring spring football, summer workouts and preseason camp, he decided he wanted something else. So he packed his car with all the cargo it could hold, sold the rest and moved to Gainesville. He called his mom, Cristina, from the Turnpike and told her he was enrolling at Santa Fe College with the goal of transferring to UF and playing for the Gators. She was livid. And worried.
“I didn’t wanna doubt him, of course. I believe in him,” she said. “But I thought it was such a long shot… I know how great he is, but I was just scared that football would’ve been over if this didn’t work out.”
Garcia knew that, too, but he wanted to prove he could play at a school like Florida. So he spent a year attending classes at Santa Fe and got a job helping the UF football team with video production. When he was accepted into UF in fall, he was at walk-on tryouts immediately.
He almost didn’t make it to the field when he realized he hadn’t taken a mandatory sickle-cell blood test. He sat outside the stadium crying, thinking his quest was over. But eventually, after some begging, he was allowed to have the test done late and participate.
Back in Miami, his mother gripped her rosary and prayed for his success while at her desk. Florida took two players from the 20-or-so hopefuls, and he was one of them.
His reward? Being a living tackling dummy for the next four months.
Finally, he made his debut in the 2016 Citrus Bowl. Leading up to it, he said he was “like a lion that hadn’t eaten in two weeks” in practice, and it paid off. This was everything he’d worked for, he thought. And so did his mom. Another track in that roller coaster.
Then came summer of 2016. While working as a bouncer at 101 Cantina, a Gainesville bar, Garcia intervened when a man took a woman behind a dumpster and sexually assaulted her, according to a Gainesville Police Department report. He was an instant celebrity. He was invited to vice president Joe Biden’s house and appeared on Good Morning America. He never viewed himself as a hero, but it helped make him more known.
He continued to gain recognition when he played in all 13 games in 2016 and made his first start in the Outback Bowl. This had to be the top. From Florida Tech dropout to UF starter.
Then he graduated from UF with a degree in sports management on Aug. 5. He was set to enroll in UF’s MBA program in fall, but while coaches told him a scholarship was coming, it wasn’t guaranteed until Sunday night before classes started. TRIM HERE FOR PRINT That’s when coach Jim McElwain called Garcia into his office and told him he was on scholarship.
“And don’t be grateful,” McElwain told him. “You earned it. I didn’t give it to you.”
His grandmother, who dreamed of becoming a writer before she fled Cuba as a child and went back to school at 35, finally becoming a published author, said that while she’s proud of her grandson, she’s not surprised that he was able to earn it. Whether it was being the one who made it from Tamiami Park or getting into Belen, she said he always chased what he wanted.
Meanwhile his mom, who couldn’t afford UF’s $17,982 MBA program, finally exhaled when Cristian texted her Sunday night and reflected on where he’s gone.
“It’s been a ride,” she said.
Even Cristian admits that. The one who made it all happen knows how unusual his ride is.
“I’ve exceeded my expectations a lot more than I expected,” he said.
And it’s one that his mother and grandmother don’t think is over. Neither does Cristian’s brother, Nikulas, a music major at Miami-Dade College.
“You know what?” he asked his mom at Cristian’s graduation. “I’m never gonna doubt anything Cristian says.”