As strong as his roots

Garcia at practice in 1988.

Sitting against the back wall of a local bar and grill, I waited
for one of Gilroy’s most known and recognizable individuals.
Sitting against the back wall of a local bar and grill, I waited for one of Gilroy’s most known and recognizable individuals.

In walks Bob Garcia, former Gilroy High football player, Gavilan football head coach and father of professional football quarterback Jeff Garcia.

Kind enough to join me for a snack and indulge me with his life story, we reminisced – an easy thing for Bob to do.

There was only one group of patrons seated inside, floating their eyes through the menu on a quiet midweek afternoon. And wouldn’t you know it … he knew the only other people inside Stubby’s Sports Bar and Grill, sharing a hug and friendly salutations with the bunch.

Strangers are friends you haven’t met

Bob is quick to strike up a conversation with anyone and everyone, and won’t stop until his has learned something new about the person with whom he has engaged. He has an innate capability of making everyone around him comfortable in who they are as people.

“I’ve always been kind of an outgoing person,” Bob said. “My wife always gives me a hard time – ‘Why are you talking to these people? You don’t know them.’ What difference does it make? I don’t care.

“Everyone has this fear of people,” Bob explained as he acted out the way people tend to become introverted, slouched over and closed off to others around them. “You could be sitting next to the greatest person in the world, but if you don’t ask, ‘Hey, how ya doing,’ you’ll never know. Being positive can make someone’s day.”

For one guy to know so many people in one town is extraordinary. And aside from the casual hellos, he genuinely wants to know how you are doing and what’s going on in your life. It is a quality that his son, Jeff, has always respected.

“I have always looked up to my dad – how he has treated people, how he has loved his family,” Jeff said. “That’s why he was the best man at my wedding – because I felt like he is my best friend, not only my dad. That comes from all the experiences we have been able to share together. There has always been that special bond between my dad and I.”

Bob can almost immediately draw a parallel to sports from just about any topic and can orchestrate the attention of one or many people.

“It’s just like with sports,” he says. “Just like any sport or your job. Are you giving the best you could?”

Beyond the surface of an athletics resume deep with achievement, which was recently punctuated with his induction into the California Community College Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame, Bob, who will turn 69 this year, is more importantly a lifelong resident of Gilroy. And perhaps, the city of Gilroy has played a pivotal part in defining who he is more than any accomplishment or any accolade he has received.

“This community, I was born and raised, has been important to me,” Bob said. “It’s more of a sentimental thing. My roots are here.”

A rough start to a great life

His personality is geared toward helping others, and his involvement in the community seems all the more spectacular when he tells of his difficult childhood and the heartaches that he has faced raising is own family. Bob’s humble beginnings and work ethic have helped him endure personal victories and family tragedies over the years.

Bob is one of nine children to parents who, together, fled a violent Mexico as teenagers to come to the United States.

“The courage they had just to pick up and move in search of a new life,” Bob said of his parents. “They must’ve walked or rode a horse. It’s unbelievable the sacrifices they made just to obtain a better life.”

Once his family settled in Gilroy, his father, who was a chronic gambler, Bob said, often disappeared for any number of days, returning only when he was broke. Bob was about 5 years old when his father ran off for the final time, leaving his mother, who was expecting their ninth child, and the rest of his siblings.

Bob never hinted at holding a grudge toward his father.

“I don’t remember anything better or worse,” Garcia said. “In our family, the important thing was to go out and make some bucks so we could put food on the table. We lived in some shacks. We picked the crops, my mom had two jobs. It was just a tough situation growing up. But you know what? I don’t think I would trade it. It taught the value of the dollar. It taught the value of responsibility.”

After his father briefly returned in 1955 after 10 years away, Bob didn’t see him again until 30 years later when the two reunited in 1985 in Mexico.

“My wife and I went and we flew into Guadalajara,” he said. “We took a 3-hour car ride to San Juan de los Lagos. He could have come in and sat down and he wouldn’t have recognized me and I wouldn’t have recognized him. He had all his hair, which was silver. We hugged and whatever. We talked about the family and what transpired. We spent the day with him there and left that night. That was the last time I saw him.”

Don’t do it if you don’t do it well

The difficult circumstances that surrounded Bob growing up ultimately molded his attack-every-job-with-the-utmost-diligence attitude, which he fine-tuned in the U.S. Army and, he surmised, led to his hiring down the road at Gavilan College.

After graduating from Gilroy High School in 1959, Bob was coerced by a buddy to join the U.S. Army. Back then, those who wanted to sign up for the armed forces in this area had to go up to San Jose, Garcia said.

“We were hitchhiking,” he said. “I told him that if we reached the end of the block and no one picked us up we weren’t going. The next car pulls over and picked us up.”

Bob was stationed in Germany during his three years of service. Aside from winning a fast-pitch softball championship with men from his combat command artillery outfit and being in charge of the basketball team, Bob developed a “gung-ho” mentality, making sure he left his mark on everything he did – even if that meant a spotless cleaning of the latrines.

“From that point on, everything I did, I did it to the best of my ability,” he said.

Returning to Gilroy after his stint in the Army, Garcia played football and basketball at Gavilan. He met, dated and fell in love with his wife, Linda, the daughter of his football coach at GHS, Maurice “Red” Elder. Elder had been a standout football player at Kansas State University in the 1940s.

“I had no education yet. (Red) was saying (to Linda) ‘I want you to go with someone who is going to get a college degree,'” Bob said of his father-in-law. “Eventually I was able to win him over.”

The couple married in San Diego in 1964 when Garcia was playing football for California Western University.

Weathering the storm

By 1968 Garcia joined the football coaching staff at Gavilan as the defensive backs coach and he and Linda moved into their home – where they still live today. However, that same year, the family was dealt the first in a series of tragic blows.

The Garcias were expecting their first child, which turned out to be twins, something they only found out at the hospital after one of the twins had been born. The twins, delivered prematurely at 4 pounds, did not survive.

“The thing about life is that you go through your ups and downs and you go through tragedies,” Garcia said. “What are you going to do? The world doesn’t stop. You’ve got to continue to live unless you say, ‘forget it,’ and jump off the Golden Gate. But what does that solve?”

Two years later, the Garcias had Jeff, who was followed by two more children – a boy, Jason, and a daughter, Kimberly.

In 1977, Jason drowned on a family outing, and a little more than a year later Kimberly died in an auto accident, falling out of the back of a pick-up truck, two devastating misfortunes.

“Dealing with it was really tough,” Bob said, as his voice drifted into a somber whisper, a tone filled with grief that will never fully go away. “The idle mind goes back and your mind wanders, and if you don’t continue to be busy, it could drive you crazy. With Jason and Kimberly those were tough situations. Every time you turn around you see something that reminds you of the kids.”

Though the trials of losing a child – let alone four children – can take a serious toll on a marriage, Bob and Linda stayed strong together.

“Luckily we were able to weather the storm,” Bob said. “Part of it is that we had Jeff. He held everything in. We kind of looked at him and said we have to keep going for him. The second reason is that we had tremendous family support from both sides of the family.

“It’s true, time kind of heals, but it will never be 100 percent because your mind always goes back. They are up there saying, ‘Hey dad. Can’t wait ’til you get up here. Can’t wait to see you.’ That’s what I believe.”

Moving forward, growing closer

Despite setbacks, Bob and Linda raised three children, Jeff, 40, and his sisters, Jene, 31, and Melissa, 30 – all successful in their own ways and each blessed with parents who are forever on their side. Bob and Linda rejoice in their children’s successes and comfort during difficult times.

“He expected good things out of his kids as far as studies and honesty and hard work and dedication,” Jeff said. “Seeing how he had to work his tail off in order to get where he was, to get a college degree, a Master’s degree, to be a coach and a teacher. It was a lot of hard work and perseverance on his part. A lot of that was instilled in me.”

Some kids don’t like it when their parents get involved and are vocal around their friends, but Melissa said it was more of a thrill when her dad showed up.

“I don’t know if I ever got embarrassed (growing up) because he was always that guy that everybody liked,” said Melissa, who just graduated from the Institute of Medical Education as a phlebotomist – a specialist in drawing blood. “I think I was more excited when he would come around, like, ‘Oh, that’s my dad.’ I think Jene was more embarrassed.”

Melissa recalls times where she was not spared when it came to some of her dad’s coaching pep talks.

“It was used on us, too,” she laughed.

Not every day was full of laughter, though.

“I remember being in softball and him being behind home plate and saying, ‘Keep your eye on the ball,'” Melissa said. “At times I used to get pissed and I’d be like, ‘Look, I’m doing what I need to do. Stop coaching me back there.'”

The Garcias had their struggles and disputes. But through it all, the foundation at the top between Bob and Linda kept everything in place.

“Always being there for each other, bottom line,” Melissa said of her parents strength as a couple. “It’s like they are best friends in a sense. No matter what happened, they are the first to call each other. There were some hard times growing up where we struggled as a family. Our family has been through so much but able to stick by each other. As parents, they were able to show that strong, for-better-or-for-worse relationship. That’s what we got.”

With deep roots comes a successful program

Bob Garcia’s induction into the Hall of Fame was long overdue in most people’s eyes for a man who did so much for a program that was once in jeopardy of being shut down.

As the football coach at Gavilan, Bob demanded the best from his players. And because of how he treated them, balancing respect with hard-nosed, in-your-face coaching, the effort he put into coaching was often reciprocated by his players. The teams may not have always been successful but were always competitive.

“He is the most inspirational guy I have ever met in my life,” said Wayne Ketcham, a Morgan Hill resident who has known Bob for 25 years, dating back to when Wayne’s son played at Gavilan. “I have never seen anybody motivate and move people the way he did. He would make you want to get up and go out (to the field) right now.”

In his 14 seasons in charge of the Gavilan Rams, Garcia led them to a national championship in 1973, two Garlic Bowl victories and a Lyons Bowl win. He also had the privilege of coaching Jeff for a season.

“Seeing how people responded to my dad in such a positive way, it just made me feel really good and proud that he was my father,” Jeff said. “It goes back to his pre-game speeches. Just the emotion and intensity he had. I remember as a kid thinking I couldn’t wait to play for him.”

Bob keeps in touch with many of his players, former coaches and the families of those players and coaches as well. He is often the first to give you a hand with whatever you need, and along with his coaching, his people-first mentality leaves the biggest impact on those he comes in contact with.

“After you talk to him for five minutes, he is like the type of person you think you’ve known all your life,” Ketcham said. “He has always been there to help people with whatever it is.”

Bob stays busy with his tractor company, which he started in 1973, mowing fields, rototilling dirt with his heavy machinery. Business has picked up in the past month, Bob said. Even customers he had decades ago are calling again.

“When I’m out there I’m in a different place,” Bob said. “I am peaceful with the world. There is a lot of time to think and evaluate things that are going on.”

His roots are in Gilroy and forever they will stay, firmly planted in the ground that he once worked and solidly ingrained in the lives he has touched.

“I had opportunities to leave, but why was I going to leave?” he asked. “Everything that I wanted and desired in a community was all here.”

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