MIAMI – Across America on Wednesday, high school football players will sign letters of intent with various college programs, a memorable day for all. Peyton Manning(notes) vividly recalls signing with Tennessee; Drew Brees(notes) speaks of the excitement of going with Purdue.
Pierre Garcon remembers the day also. Six years ago, national signing day came and went and the now Indianapolis Colts wide receiver didn't get a single scholarship offer. He was 6-feet tall, with a frame that would eventually carry 210 pounds and legs that could run the 40 in 4.5 seconds or less. And no one wanted him.
He'd played tight end at Leonard High School in Greenacres, Fla., just up the road from where his Colts will take on the New Orleans Saints in Super Bowl XLIV on Sunday. He was good, but hardly great. He didn't work that hard on the field and was playing out of position. Even worse he was saddled with a messy academic transcript, the result of what Garcon now admits were freshman and sophomore years of doing little to no school work.
On signing day, football was moving on without him.
That reality hit hard. Garcon knew he was blessed with physical gifts and was kicking them away. He saw his mother, a Haitian immigrant often working two jobs. She took anything she could get, from picking tangerines in the fields of Florida to getting extra hours at a local post office. He saw his older sister sacrifice her dreams to help raise Garcon and his other two sisters.
So Garcon came to two conclusions: Yes, he screwed up; no, he wasn't giving up.
At a recruiting camp, Garcon had caught the eyes of some coaches from Norwich University, a small, mostly military school in Northfield, Vt. "They were very interested," Garcon said. After signing day, the coaches heard he was unattached and called. Garcon took his only option and headed north.
The culture shock was palpable. The campus is filled with cadets and discipline. The community is tiny and surrounded by mountains. And then there was the weather. "It was cold in Vermont. Very, very cold," Garcon said.
Garcon went to work, both academically and, of course, athletically. He had the same goal as he always had – the NFL. He went through training sessions with that single focus, he just didn't dare admit to anyone, lest he get mocked. Norwich is arguably the bottom rung of American college football, about as far from the Super Bowl as you can get.
"I never told [anyone] because I didn't want to set myself up for failure," he said. "I knew it was possible though. Nothing is impossible. That's why I kept working."
After one season he transferred to Mount Union, in Northeast Ohio. It was just a Division III school, a long way from Florida State or Alabama, but the coaching was top notch and the team a powerhouse at that level.
Three strong seasons, including two consecutive years being named D-III All-American, put him on the NFL's radar. The league has a saying about a stopwatch not lying and Garcon could really run. His production – a career 64 offensive touchdowns – impressed. The Colts decided to take a flyer on him in the sixth round, the improbable journey had been reached. Sort of.
"It's not about playing in the NFL, it's about staying in the NFL," Garcon said.
What he found waiting for him was the most demanding quarterback in football. Peyton Manning was willing to give him a chance but would accept no excuses while doing it. If Garcon thought he worked hard to make it this far, then Manning was about to redefine the concept.
In personal offseason one-on-one sessions, Manning likes to take his young receivers and work them until they drop – curls, hooks, outs, over and over until they are done correctly. Then they do it again the next day. The good news for the rookie is they have an all-time great working with them. The bad news is he expects them to meet his standards.
"You have to pick things up really fast, learn things really fast," Garcon said. "It was nerve-wracking."
The two players had taken opposite paths to the NFL. One is the son of football royalty (Manning's father Archie was a two-time Pro Bowler in the 1970s), a star-in-the-making from the first spiral he ever threw. The other bootstrapped his way up from nowhere.
Yet when Manning asked for effort, Garcon gave it. When Manning demanded a quicker learning curve, Garcon kept up. The Colts locker room was impressed.
"You rarely hear about a guy that plays D-III football [getting] drafted," said running back Mike Hart(notes), a former Michigan star who was a rookie with Garcon in 2008. "He comes here [and] it's kind of like, 'Who's this guy?' "
His first year he was a backup, catching just four passes but showing enough progress the Colts brought him back. It was that offseason that everything changed. Garcon built muscle and speed and mastered the playbook. He caught 47 passes this season, including four for touchdowns. In the AFC championship game, he had a record 11 grabs for 151 yards and a touchdown. He's in the NFL to stay.
"[My mother] doesn't work any more," Garcon said with a smile.
Garcon is now the patron saint of second-chance football players. Not everyone runs a perfect pattern to the NFL. Not everyone turns scouts' heads at first chance. Not everyone studies as they should.
"I didn't have the academic qualifications," he said. "I just wasn't as motivated as I should've been. The first couple years in high school, I just thought, 'do whatever.' With the route my college career was going, I knew it would be a lot harder."
Garcon is proof that the long road can be the best road. "I think that really made him better," Hart said. "If he was a first-round draft pick, I don't think he would have done the work that he did. It paid off."
Garcon realized early on that you can't change the past, just the future. He's sheepish about his failures, but proud of his resolve. He doesn't hesitate to credit his mother and sister for leading by example. He now looks at the devastation back in Haiti and it's reinforced how lucky he was to be born in America and get a shot at such an education, let alone play games for a fabulous living. And he knows how he almost booted away an incredible gift.
"I always imagined it," he said. "I always dreamt about it."
Six years ago, no major college team wanted Pierre Garcon because he'd given them no reason to want him. Sunday he plays for the Super Bowl.