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49ers' Garcia proud to represent Latinos in NFL

Added: (Tue Nov 23 1999)

Pressbox (Press Release) - By Paul Gutierrez - Los Angeles Times

It's right there on Jeff Garcia's to-do list, just after the requisite chores that come with becoming a starting quarterback in the NFL -- cultivate friendships among the offensive linemen, avoid concussions, put in a request for extra tickets for the dozens of newfound family and friends.

Also on the San Francisco QB's list of objectives: Enroll in a Spanish class to brush up on the language of his paternal grandparents.

"That way I'd be better able to reach out and be somebody who can represent the Latino population or the Mexican heritage on a public scale," Garcia said recently at the 49ers compound in Santa Clara. "It's definitely something that I want to be a bigger part of. I want to be looked at and be seen as a representative of the Mexican community, the Latino community."

With his red hair, freckled face and blue eyes, Garcia bears more resemblance to Opie Taylor than to the stereotypical Mexican. And he has been called playfully derisive Spanish slang names such as guero, blondie, and gringo, white boy, by his friends.

Yet he is one of a small number of quiet but proud Latinos playing in the NFL who hope to serve as positive role models for their communities. Garcia and his brethren are also mindful of the legacy Latinos have created in playing professional football while breaking down the stereotype of them being only the smaller specialists, the punters and kickers.

According to the NFL's media relations department, there are 20 Latinos dotting the league's rosters, only three of whom are kickers or punters. Ten years ago, there were only seven Latinos in the NFL, most of them kickers.

Most of the players have Mexican roots, like Garcia, whose paternal grandparents came to the U.S. from San Juan de Los Lagos in Jalisco, Mexico.

Settling in the Central California farming town of Gilroy, the Garcias quickly found work and
established themselves.

"My dad grew up in the fields, picking cucumbers, strawberries," Garcia said. "And really, my grandmother wanted . . . my dad to be in the fields, rather than going to school and trying to further his education. But he pressed on and fell in love with sports."

He also fell in love with and eventually married his high school football coach's daughter.

"Obviously, mom's side, the Irish side, had a little bit more influence, as far as my looks go," Garcia said. "But I'm definitely proud of my heritage, having the Latino side. It's definitely something that I want to represent proudly. I just wish my skin tone was a little more adaptive to the sun, but that's just something I have to deal with."

Along with improving his Spanish vocabulary.

If he wanted to, Garcia could drive over the Bay Bridge and practice some dialogue with Oakland Raider punter Leo Araguz, whose primary language is Spanish.

Besides, Garcia and Araguz have more in common than Latino surnames. Their playing careers, like those of many Latinos, have been profiles in perseverance.

Neither was initially wanted by the NFL when his college career ended. Garcia was a record-setting passer at San Jose State who had spent five years in the Canadian Football League with the Calgary Stampeders before the 49ers signed him as a free agent in February.

Araguz, who kicked at Stephen F. Austin in Texas, was cut by the Miami Dolphins and San Diego Chargers before finding a temporary home with the Rhein Fire of the World League. He finally stuck to an NFL roster when he was picked up by the Raiders late in the 1996 season, and he has been in the East Bay ever since.

"It comes down to las ganas -- desire," said Araguz, who was born in Texas but spent the first five years of his life in the Mexican border town of Reynosa, near Brownsville, Texas. "We have that in our blood system for whatever reason. We're very proud, very orgulloso. But it helps me out knowing that I'm one of the few, yet I'm not one of the biggest -- chiquito pero picoso (little but spicy). It gives me a little edge that I need sometimes so that when it comes down to game time, I know I'm out there representing."

During home games, he has been on the receiving end of many a Sammy Sosa heart-thump salute from Latino Raider fans.

"You tend to bond with your own kind, in a sense, though being Mexican is different from being Puerto Rican or Dominican," said Araguz, who set an NFL record for punts in a game with 16 against the Chargers in 1998. "Being Latino in the NFL has never really been a big issue, mostly because I don't think we try to make a big fuss out of it and because we are the minorities. But because there are only a few of us, and we are in such high-profile positions, it's our responsibility to reach out and give something back to the kids who have las ganas but not the means."

Araguz, who was selected as a papi chulo -- pretty boy -- of the sports world by Latina magazine last year, hopes to use his rising popularity and get together with boxer Oscar De La Hoya to create a sports foundation for Latino youth. He already maintains such an organization in Texas.

Besides funding scholarships, Araguz envisions the foundation to be a hall of fame, of sorts, dishing out tidbits of Latino football history.

The first player with a Latino surname to suit up for an NFL game was Jesse Rodriguez, who played for the Buffalo Bisons in 1929 as a punter, but Tom Flores, Joe Kapp and George Mira were Garcia's forefathers as Latino quarterbacks in the 1960s.

Flores, whose roots go back to Durango, Mexico, went on to become the first Latino head coach in the NFL and won a pair of Super Bowls with the Raiders and fellow Chicano quarterback Jim Plunkett.

Flores is the first to admit that what he has accomplished is indeed special, but that his success has nothing to do with ethnicity.

"I was just playing, a football player with Mexican heritage," said Flores, who now calls Oakland games on the Raiders radio network. "We were so caught up in the game, we weren't really thinking of skin color. No one looked at your surname when they were beating on your head or chasing you down the sidelines. Football players bond with football players, whether you're black, blue or pink, in the old (American Football League) especially."

"But there was a certain amount of pride when you met another (Latino) playing," he added. "You'd kind of beam."

No wonder. From 1929 until the NFL-AFL merger in 1970, there were only 30 Latinos who had played in the NFL, according to Mario Longoria, who wrote "Athletes Remembered: Mexicano/Latino Professional Football Players 1929-1970." The tome also lists the 90 Latinos drafted by the NFL from 1941 to 1992, as well as alumni of the CFL, World Football League and USFL.

It doesn't answer, however, why there have been so comparatively few Latinos, both foreign-born and American-born, to have played in the NFL.

"They don't play football in other countries," Flores said. "They're playing baseball or soccer."

The NFL has started to market itself toward Latinos, what with a recent Harris poll showing that 64 percent of Latinos follow the NFL, compared to 58 percent of African Americans and 52 percent of Anglos.

Eight NFL teams broadcast their games in Spanish, and every 'Monday Night Football' game this season is available in Spanish via SAP. The league's Internet web site also offers a Spanish version.

Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said that getting the Latino market involved is a must.

"On one level, we are reaching out to the Hispanic children with youth football," Tagliabue said. "Young children can learn how to play the game and begin to understand and enjoy it. On other levels, we are trying to reach out to the fans through radio."

"The main emphasis that I would like to see is through the young people playing the game. We have a growing number of Hispanic players. Last year Anthony Munoz was the first player of Hispanic origin inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Now we have several dozen outstanding players from different communities playing on NFL teams."

Munoz, an All-American lineman at USC, played 13 seasons at right tackle for the Cincinnati Bengals and was elected to Canton in his first year of eligibility.

With the beatings Garcia took in the 49ers pocket after taking over for a fallen Steve Young in the third week of the season until he was replaced by Steve Stenstrom six games later, Garcia probably wishes Munoz had been protecting him.

You couldn't really blame Garcia if, with the lickings he has taken, he decided to go into the food and beverage business for good after the season. He did, after all, open a Mexican restaurant in Calgary while leading the Stampeders to the Grey Cup title and being named MVP of the game in 1998.

But he's too busy enjoying his newfound position and notoriety to think of such things.

"I grew up in a community that was 50 percent Mexicano," Garcia said of Gilroy, the self-proclaimed 'Garlic Capital of the World' with a population approaching 40,000. "My best friends growing up were Mexican and it was just an environment I grew up in. When I think of cultures and what I've experienced growing up, the influence has been much greater from the Hispanic side than it has been from the Irish side, so that's where I consider my background.

"So to be back here in this area, with the huge Mexicano influence, I couldn't ask for anything more."

Except maybe a Spanish tutor and some more linemen.

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