|Garcia says he pondered a frest start elsewhere. (US Presswire)|
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- After five suspensions, South Carolina quarterback Stephen Garcia thought it was finally time to leave. Then came the flood of support from teammates, convincing him to stay despite his tattered reputation.
Garcia spoke publicly Sunday for the first time since his most recent suspension -- the second of the spring and fifth since he came to campus -- for "unacceptable behavior" at a life-skills seminar in April. Garcia was partially reinstated for summer workouts in May and given the green light for all team activities last week.
Garcia had persevered through his previous missteps, but wondered if he needed a fresh start. "I had been contemplating giving myself a second shot" at another school," he said. "It was a rough spring I had."
Garcia acknowledged he strongly considered a transfer, coach Steve Spurrier even agreeing to sign the papers if the quarterback wanted. Garcia graduated with a sociology degree last May and could play somewhere that offered a post-graduate program South Carolina did not.
But Garcia was swayed by tailback Marcus Lattimore and receiver Alshon Jeffery, who encouraged him to withstand the comments and criticism from those outside the team.
"It meant a lot to me," the quarterback said.
Garcia would not clarify what happened in the seminar, only saying that it "got crazy at the end" and he was asked to leave. Garcia called the meeting's leader and apologized the next day. That wasn't the end of it.
Spurrier, athletic director Eric Hyman and university president Harris Pastides all weighed in on the best course of action for Garcia, whose run-ins with authorities began shortly after he came to South Carolina.
He was arrested for drunkenness and failure to stop for a police officer a month after arriving on campus in 2007. Two weeks later he was charged with malicious injury to personal property for keying a professor's car. A year later, Garcia was ticketed for underage drinking -- all three incidents leading to suspensions.
Then came a quiet off-the-field period from 2008 through last season, during which Spurrier was Garcia's harshest critic, urging his quarterback to work harder at his game and show more leadership.
Garcia grew as a player, starting 28 consecutive games and helping South Carolina win the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division and play in its first league title game.
Garcia was suspended a fourth time -- docked a week of spring practice -- last March for an undisclosed violation of team rules in Atlanta during South Carolina's time at the Chick-fil-A Bowl. When Garcia returned to workouts, he pledged he was done screwing up. "Nothing bad is going to happen again -- that's guaranteed," he said then.
Yet less than two weeks later, Garcia was suspended once again. As in 2008, Garcia had a list of undisclosed guidelines to meet before Spurrier, Hyman and Pastides signed off on his return.
Garcia said he did not undergo formal counseling sessions since the blow-up, only a few discussions with team doctors. When asked if he had a problem with alcohol, Garcia answered "Negative, no."
Garcia said he has spent more time talking with Spurrier this offseason and the two have their best relationship since the head ball coach was recruiting him out of Tampa's Jefferson High five years ago. Garcia also thanked Spurrier's wife, Jerri, for helping him through the troubles.
Spurrier says the positive changes to Garcia's work ethic and approach have been evident. There's a business-like attitude, the coach said, that was missing in other years. Spurrier recalled viewing practice footage as Garcia went through his progressions before correctly connecting with his fourth option. "Now that's playing quarterback," he said.
Garcia is one of the reasons the Gamecocks were picked to repeat as SEC East champions by league media. He threw for 3,059 yards and 20 touchdowns last fall and was nearly flawless (17 of 20 passing for 201 yards and three TDs) in South Carolina's 35-21 upset of then top-ranked Alabama last October.
Garcia admitted to having trouble in the fishbowl existence that's South Carolina football. The state has no professional teams in the four major sports and fans spend all year long discussing the Gamecocks' fortunes.
Garcia hopes they have it in them to back him once more as his teammates have done.
"Thankfully, Mr. Hyman took me back and Coach Spurrier took me back," he said. "And hopefully, the fans will as well."