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The Tragedy of Stephen Garcia, Take Two // SEC 2011

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It's best for Garcia and USC to part. ... Undoubtedly, Garcia will repeat the apology he's become so good at, trying to once again reclaim the chance for greatness he seems intent on rejecting. But to accept that would be to give him one opportunity too many. --cocknfire, March 25, 2008

There was a time, not too long ago, when I knew those words about Stephen Garcia were wrong. After all, Garcia had gone a relatively long time without a major incident. Sure, I heard the rumors from a writer covering the Gamecocks in Columbia, the stories that Garcia wasn't getting caught for his partying ways any more, but that those partying ways were still very much alive.

But Garcia was apparently being smarter about things, or at least better with getting away with them. And he was at the helm of a team that was obviously improving, all the way to the breakthrough season of 2010. Multiple disasters averted.

So was I wrong in 2008 or wrong at the end of 2010? Did the latest rumors prove that Garcia had lost the grip he appeared to have on his life, or prove that he never was really in control? Or was there a reason to give him another shot at redemption?

It's hard to remember just how hyped Garcia was when he arrived at South Carolina in 2007. He was a four-star quarterback, generally ranked among the best in the nation, a player who had considered Oklahoma and Florida as possible landing places out of high school. Those kinds of players just didn't come to South Carolina, not in the days before Alshon Jeffery and Marcus Lattimore and Jadeveon Clowney.

And he was a quarterback, coming to South Carolina to play for Steve Spurrier. Imagine the hype about Jadeveon Clowney that we've seen this summer -- and then multiply it by about ten. That will give you some idea of how eagerly anticipated Garcia was.

That kind of attention can hurt a person in two ways. It can make him too self-conscious, cause him to second-guess himself on everything and magnify his insecurities. Or it can make that person feel bulletproof. Garcia was seen by many fans as South Carolina's ticket to the top of the SEC. Combine that with the fact that he was 18 years old, and it's not hard to see how Garcia could begin to view himself as untouchable.

Sure enough, the incidents started. A public intoxication arrest followed by the keying of a professor's car. An underage drinking arrest (and subsequent shenanigans at his dorm involving a fire alarm and fire extinguisher). And then, for a long time, silence.

Criticism of Garcia's lousy decision making was largely limited to his performance on the field. He had all the talent that made recruiting services give him glowing reviews during his high-school days, but that talent made him think that he was, well, bulletproof. Garcia knew he could make the right play at the right time. So he threw dumb passes or took off running too quickly or tried to do whatever he thought would turn into a big play. And sometimes it did, and sometimes it made him look stupid.

But at least it was on the field. And it was hard to argue with the results in 2010, when Garcia led the Gamecocks to a 9-3 regular season record and the first SEC East championship in school history. He was the first quarterback in South Carolina history to defeat Georgia, Tennessee, Florida and Clemson in the same season. This was the Garcia that Gamecock fans thought they were getting. It was about to come crashing down all over again.

- - -

There's no need to go into any detail about what happened in the spring; everyone knows that. An unspecified violation of team rules at the Game Formerly Known as the Peach Bowl -- and just Google it if you want to find out what it was -- led to a one-week suspension. That news had barely passed when Garcia was suspended for the spring, apparently for an outburst at a life-skills event for South Carolina players.

It had gotten to the point, Garcia said over the weekend, that he considered walking away from South Carolina and heading somewhere else to play his final year of eligibility. He also denies having an alcohol problem, which is either an encouraging sign if you believe him or a discouraging sign of deep-seated denial. Because I don't know Garcia personally, it's impossible for me to figure out which one it is -- and I would encourage everyone else who doesn't know Garcia to also withhold judgment.

Even if we do that, though, we know enough to make one determination. Garcia could very well have been kicked out of the school for stupidity, as Steve Spurrier said at SEC Media Days, after his latest hijinks. I've made it pretty clear that I don't think that was necessary or particularly fair, but it would have been hard to criticize South Carolina officials if they had decided to go that route.

In the end, if for no other reason than the radio silence he maintained over a nearly three-year stretch, Garcia probably earned his fifth chance. Certainly, neither of the last two incidents on their own warranted kicking him off the team. It's even debatable that, in combination, they were deserving of ending his collegiate career.

But Garcia will also have to understand those of us who will take a wait and see approach with his latest change of heart. We've heard it all before. This time he gets it, this time he knows that he screwed up. This time, he tells us, it's different. It always is.

- - -

What's somewhat amazing, despite all the attention to his off-the-field distractions and his sometimes poor decisions on-the-field, is that Garcia still has an opportunity to go down as one of the most accomplished quarterbacks in South Carolina history. A slightly better season than last year would give him the career records for passing yardage at South Carolina. The same number of touchdown throws as Garcia had in 2010 would also give him the No. 1 spot on that list. And of course, Garcia is the only quarterback in school history to lead the team to an SEC East championship -- an accomplishment they're often favored to repeat this year -- and only the second to lead them to a championship of any kind. That would be an impressive resume for someone who hadn't been through everything Garcia has.

And you have to wonder: What could Garcia have accomplished if he had applied himself earlier in his career, and if he hadn't missed literally dozens of practices over the course of his career?

But Garcia could have applied himself, and he could have had all that practice time he missed. No one or nothing forced him to make the poor decisions he made. That's what is most tragic about stories like Garcia -- the only enemy he had that seemed to be capable of holding him back all these years was Stephen Garcia.

Does Garcia finally realize that? I don't know. He certainly seemed to be remorseful over the weekend, certainly seemed to recognize that he had cheated expulsion, even if he didn't seem to realize that he had cheated himself the most.

"Thankfully, Mr. Hyman took me back and Coach Spurrier took me back," he said. "And hopefully, the fans will as well."

I honestly try to put it aside, particularly when writing about other SEC teams, but I am a South Carolina fan. And I have no doubt that I will take Garcia back, as he put it, cheering as loudly as any other Gamecock when he makes a great play and throwing the remote just as hard as other South Carolina fans when he makes a dumb one. But for me and other South Carolina questions, there will always be that haunting question about wasted potential that is impossible for any of us to answer.

If this is what Garcia was capable of despite having fought himself at every possible turn, what could he have done if he had just gotten out of his own way?