He’s already the hero college football needs. Now he wants to be the starting linebacker Jim McElwain needs.
One year ago, Cristian Garcia stepped in when others stood by, preventing a sexual assault near the University of Florida campus. His quick thinking made international news and made him a source of inspiration in his home state. But his story didn’t begin there and it definitely didn’t end there; Garcia has been brave all his life.
He played linebacker at Belen Jesuit in Miami but he was crushed and confused when his Division I offers all fell through. He took a shot at a Division II school in Ohio and then transferred to Florida Tech in Melbourne in the hopes of getting a scholarship there. It never happened. So on a Friday night in 2014 he decided to sell all his furniture and use the money to pay his way at Santa Fe College in Gainesville, home of the Florida Gators. His plan was to join the Gators video crew and try to walk on.
“I knew the chances were slim to none,” Garcia says.
He spent his mornings going to class at Santa Fe and his afternoons in the tower filming Gators he wantedto practice with on the field.
“The best part was just watching the players practice,” he remembers. “I looked at how they honed in. I loved being around a team.”
This was back in the Will Muschamp days, and Garcia tried his best to interact with coaches as much as a video guy could. One advised him to show up on the first day the following year and try out.
Muschamp was fired after the 2014 season. One of the few holdovers when McElwain arrived was George Wynn, the director of the football operations department, and Garcia arrived at his office on the first possible day in 2015. He waited three hours. No meeting. The next day: three hours, and no meeting. The third day, finally, he was given instructions on how to try out. He had to go through a background check.
After all that … “Two of us made it,” Garcia says. “Me and the punter.”
He toiled away on the scout team the next season, and then, right before the bowl game against Michigan, a defensive coach came over to him at a team breakfast: “You think you can play MIKE?”
Easy answer. He had been picking up the defense the entire season. “Yeah, I can play MIKE!” Garcia said. “I can do whatever you need.”
He made two tackles and “it was extraordinary,” he says. But his life was about to become truly extraordinary.
Garcia took a job at a local restaurant to pay off some of those loans, and late one night last July he was taking out the trash when he saw a man on top of a woman by a dumpster.
For a split-second he didn’t think much of it. And several other people were in the vicinity. They didn’t say anything.
But as Garcia got a bit closer, he could tell something was wrong. The girl wasn’t responsive. She couldn’t possibly be consenting. So Garcia grabbed the man by the shoulder and said, “Get off.”
“I knew what was going on was not right, so I just intervened,” he recalls. “Things escalated but friends pulled the man away.”
Garcia has been asked many times over the last year why he acted when others did not.
“I guess it was something instinctual,” he says. “Something in my moral compass. It was humiliating for the girl and I stopped it.”
The perpetrator, Christopher Shaw, was eventually sentenced to five years in prison. Garcia not only saved the girl, who was 19, he may have also saved other young women.
“It’s great knowing someone like that is off the street,” he says. “There are people drunk out at bars and they shouldn’t have to worry about something like that. Plenty of young women would be in danger with people like that around.”
The media picked up on the story and soon Garcia was on “Good Morning America.” He got to meet then-Vice President Joe Biden, who is a champion for preventing sexual assault across the country. In a sport sullied by coaches, administrators and athletes who do too little to protect women on campus, Garcia was a shining example of a college student who did exactly the right thing. Around Gainesville, he heard people whispering and pointing at him. “That’s the hero,” they said.
But the hero had more to accomplish. He wanted to graduate, which he is about to do in August, before starting immediately on his master’s degree. And he wanted to start for the Gators.
On the last day of last season, in the bowl game against Iowa, he got his chance. And even without three starting linebackers, his group allowed only 226 total yards and three points against the Hawkeyes – one of the better bowl performances in school history. Garcia had a career-high five tackles.
Now the former video assistant and walk-on is in the running for a permanent starter’s job. But he also wants to tell his story, and his story is about far more than football. He says the frustration from his wayward journey to Florida led to depression and anxiety, and he wants to open up about that.
“How many nights I stayed up so depressed because I wasn’t an athlete anymore,” he says. “What kept me going was my goal.”
He says his mother raised him after his dad was sent to prison, and he wants to discuss that. “They could have lied to me,” he says. “It helped our relationship at the end.”
Garcia is writing a book about his life – he has 80 pages done already – and he wants to speak up about things that matter. Considering what he’s done already, on and off the field, he has a voice worth heeding.
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