DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Tampa Bay quarterback Jeff Garcia shook hands with new Hawaii coach Greg McMackin during the NFC's Pro Bowl practice session at Kapolei High School yesterday. McMackin was an assistant coach with the 49ers when Garcia played there.
The Pro Bowl provides an opportunity for ex-teammates and coaches to reunite
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The Pro Bowl makes for strange lockerfellows.
2008 Pro Bowl
When: 11: 30 a.m. Sunday
Where: Aloha Stadium
TV: KHON Ch. 3
Radio: KKEA 1420-AM
For example, the Bucs' Jeff Garcia and the Cowboys' Terrell Owens are reunited. The former 49ers quarterback and receiver combination had a falling out when things weren't going so well a few years back in the City by the Bay. Now they're both here to play for the NFC on Sunday.
"Everything's fine with T.O.," Garcia said yesterday after practice at Kapolei High School. "We're teammates again."
Garcia also had some time to chat with new Hawaii head coach Greg McMackin, who was an assistant with the 49ers while Garcia was there.
"I'm proud of him, I'm excited for him," Garcia said of McMackin. "I hear there's a chance that Dick Tomey could be coming out this way, also. That, I'm not so excited about because he's done an outstanding job at San Jose State and I just hope he realizes that university (Garcia's alma mater) really needs him and hope they can keep him. But if he comes back to Hawaii I know Hawaii is getting a great man and a great personality."
McMackin, who attended yesterday's NFC practice with several UH assistants, had nice things to say about Garcia.
"He's a great player, a great competitor and a leader," McMackin said of the nine-year NFL veteran. "That was part of San Francisco's downfall. They let 11 starters like Jeff Garcia, T.O., Julian Peterson, go for salary-cap reasons. And I don't think they've recovered. The thing is it took all the leaders. They still have Jeff Ulbrich and some guys, but if you don't replace those guys with equal guys, it makes it kind of tough."
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The funny thing about the resurrection of Jeff Garcia's career is many people didn't think he would have a long NFL life span in the first place.
Garcia was a diminutive guy from a relatively small school, so he went undrafted out of San Jose State in the early 1990s and headed north to Canada. He played five seasons in the Canadian Football League and had to lead Calgary to the Grey Cup championship before his hometown San Francisco 49ers took a chance on him in 1999.
All that was quite an achievement for the undersized, underrated Garcia -- just to get to the NFL after taking the long way home.
Then, stardom. Five seasons with the Niners led to the playoffs twice and three Pro Bowls. He started every game for three years, and earned a reputation for passing accuracy and savvy leadership.
But the 49ers let him go after 2003, his first season with less than a 60 percent completion rate. After playing 11 games with Cleveland in 2004 and six with Detroit in 2005, it appeared Garcia's career might be over at age 35.
The Eagles picked him up as a backup to Donovan McNabb. With McNabb hurt for much of 2006, Garcia played, and he played well, leading Philadelphia to the playoffs. He did the same at Tampa Bay this past season.
Now he's the oldest player in the Pro Bowl. Garcia turns 38 this month.
How does a guy who wasn't even supposed to be an NFL quarterback in the first place, manage to thrive; and at an age when nearly all of the players thought to be better than him are long gone?
"I can't afford to focus on what I don't have," the 6-foot-1, 205-pound Garcia said. "I can focus on what I do have. I'm not the 6-4, 6-5 guy with the rocket arm. But I know I can mentally do smart things on the field and physically I have enough athletic ability to make those things happen when I make decisions. I just try to build on that.
"From a competitive standpoint I don't think there's anyone who competes harder than myself, and from a durability standpoint I feel like I've been able to withstand. And that's because I take tremendous pride in doing what I need to do to play at the highest level."
As he nears 40, that means a more conservative lifestyle. That fits in well with Garcia's plans off the field, as he recently married and his wife is expecting their first child.
"Your body doesn't respond as well as it does five or six years ago. But my life has changed from what it was five or six years ago. So many things have changed in a positive way and make me more stable in my life," Garcia said. "I'm probably not burning the candle on both ends like I was five years ago. So it allows me to be more focused. I know that working out is a priority for me. I don't allow myself to get out of shape because I know it's too difficult to get back into shape. I never allow myself to really slip as far as the tuning I need as a quarterback."
DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Buccaneers quarterback Jeff Garcia, an NFC Pro Bowler, has revived his career despite being in his late 30s.
And neither will Jon Gruden. The Bucs coach tells Garcia he wants him in Tampa "another four or five years." And he doesn't mean as an assistant coach.
"Being around Coach Gruden, his high energy for the game forces you to rise to his challenges. ... To be with Coach Gruden at this time is probably perfect, because he will not allow me to be content with what happened in the past," Garcia said. "He will force me to grow, and I like that, because I like to be challenged and I think I can continue to grow as a quarterback."
Garcia said he feels fine physically, and intends to continue playing as long as he enjoys the game.
Of course, he wants to take Tampa Bay farther than the first game of the playoffs. The Bucs had the misfortune of running into the New York Giants in the NFC wild-card game. He was intercepted twice in the loss to the eventual Super Bowl winners.
"A team that came together at the right time. We saw in the first week of the playoffs how tough their schemes are to recognize," Garcia said of the Giants. "Their defensive line was outstanding at putting pressure on and containing the running back. The defensive backs did a good enough job to prevent a big play from happening. It was a combination of a team finding ways to do what it had to do to win football games."
His take on Giants quarterback Eli Manning's Super Bowl MVP performance:
"He played mistake-free football, he was smart, he was accurate with the ball. He didn't turn the ball over. When you play like that and your defense is doing well, you're going to stay in the game."
Garcia said the Bucs have some of the Giants' characteristics, so he's not counting out a Super Bowl run in 2008 for his team.
"The combination of being around a bunch of players who know how to come together as a team (helped him)," Garcia said. "And I need to play with energy and excitement. We experienced that at Philadelphia and at Tampa Bay. I'm just trying to stay young and take advantage of these opportunities."
He also hopes there's at least one more Pro Bowl in his future, and that it's in Hawaii.
"There's a real laid-back atmosphere. Where I grew up (Gilroy, Calif.), it's the same mentality. I like being able to come out here and relax and enjoy the environment. It's just such a nice experience," he said.
"I think (Hawaii football fans) remember me being a 49er and I know the 49ers are a popular team here in Hawaii. I'm very thankful to be here, especially at this point in my career. For me to rejuvenate my career the past two years it's really brought back the fun life of football for me. You need to enjoy the game to play it at a high level. I've been rewarded with an opportunity to come back."