Poeter in Motion: Jeff’s lost year doesn’t have to be the end

Now I’m probably not the most appropriate candidate for pointing out others’ mistakes. My own list of personal failures is, if not up to O.J.’s standards, at least somewhere in the vicinity of Jeff Garcia’s. I’m the sort of guy who would be happy to write a tell-all autobiography … so long as it was written in a language my wife, family and the local police don’t understand.

I’m thinking Etruscan, maybe Linear B.

Thing is, there aren’t many people who’d be particularly interested if I wrote a tell-all autobiography (not even the Etruscans). Which is a major difference – among many – between me and Jeff Garcia.

All of which is a long way of saying, damn the hypocrisy, let’s criticize Jeff.

If you look at Garcia’s career, it’s odd how symmetrical it is. A long ascent, from scrappy overachiever to record-setter at San Jose State to Grey Cup winner to Pro Bowler and playoff-game hero for the San Francisco 49ers.

Followed by the descent-in-progress that is his current arc – released by the Niners, busted for drunk driving, slandered by former teammate Terrell Owens, benched by his new team in Cleveland, injured, his leadership abilities slammed by the press.

You may notice I left out one incident in Garcia’s downward slide, the one that has everybody talking about him right now. That would be the little dust-up in a Cleveland nightclub between his current girlfriend, Playboy Playmate of the Year Carmella DeCesare, and an ex, another stunner named Kristen Hine.

See, I don’t consider keeping company with hot-blooded, incredibly beautiful women to be much of a “mistake.” Call me crazy. Or more accurately, call me a guy. When Garcia was galavanting around Mustang Stadium with DeCesare on his arm last October – ostensibly to give the Gilroy football team a motivational speech from its most illustrious alum – there weren’t many players muttering, “I wish he’d ditch the arm candy and stick to talking football.”

But who knows? With a little creativity, we can probably pin the Mustangs’ late season slump on that Garcia appearance. They’d just beaten Palma before Jeff showed up; after the speech, they dropped games to Salinas and Live Oak. Maybe the distraction of DeCesare’s Delilah-like charms took the fight out of the ‘Stangs for a spell … made them want to be lovers instead.

(Side note to T.O.: Guess you really can’t judge Jeff Garcia by looking at the cover.)

If you think the above “theory” is a bit of a stretch, wait ’til you get a load of this Friday’s Green Phone. Never bet against the extent to which sports fans will pick apart athletes’ lives, sifting through the minutae for something to be outraged about. Jeff Garcia isn’t exempt from that dynamic – especially in these parts – nor, in fairness, should he be.

But it’s worth noting that we the public (and we the media) are extremely fickle in our judgement of star athletes. We like some and dislike others, arbitrarily and regardless of their quantifiable offenses. We give a free pass to Jason Kidd, who has a car crash and a domestic abuse charge on his blotter, because we love his work ethic, hustle and throw-back style of play. We bear a grudge against Nomar Garciaparra, who’s a model citizen by all accounts, because he’s perceived as a malingerer and a whiner. When Charles Barkley pops off, it’s called “refreshing” … when Barry Bonds does it, it’s “arrogance.”

The upside is that for those athletes who are unfairly pilloried by press and public, sometimes time brings the truth to the fore. Take the great old-time boxer Jack Johnson, subject of the latest critically acclaimed documentary by the filmmaker Ken Burns. The black Johnson, a victim of the extreme racism of his day, was wrongly convicted on charges of transporting a woman – who was, not incidentally, white – across state lines for the purpose of prostitution.

For all his large living, Johnson was no pimp. He married the woman he was falsely accused of suborning, and now there’s a growing movement to posthumously pardon the boxer for that long ago conviction.

Where does Jeff Garcia fit into our national hobby of amateur podiatry, diagnosing feet of clay wherever we can? What are the chances that his legacy will be that of a Jack Johnson, softened over time?

It depends on what he does next.

For starters, it’d be surprising if his time in Cleveland wasn’t done. He should be able to put that unfortunate chapter behind him and get a fresh start with some other NFL team, though probably as a backup. If he plays out the rest of his career with dignity, much of the nonsense of the past few years would be forgotten.

My suggestion, not that even the Linear B people are asking for it, is that Jeff take his aging skills back to the Canadian Football League, where he won the Grey Cup in 1998 with the Calgary Stampeders. He could shoot for another CFL crown and in the process shoot down all his critics who suggest he’s soldiering on for anything but a love for the game. A move back to the Great White North would do wonders for Garcia’s fading image as a gamer.

He wouldn’t even need to ditch the Delilah – hell, it’s not like he’s got all that much hair left for Carmella to cut off.

Damon Poeter is the Sports Editor of the Gilroy Dispatch. E-mail him at [email protected]

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