WEST VALLEY CITY — Two years ago, Jaxon Garcia had decided he’d lost his love for football.
As he begins his junior year, it is the center of his high school experience and might be a ticket to a free college education.
“There was a whole range of things,” said the Cyprus junior lineman, who helped Cyprus to a season-opening win against Murray Friday night. “I wasn’t having fun. I had become tired. Luckily, one of my teammates came over and said, ‘Let’s just go to tryouts.’”
That teammate, junior quarterback Parker Meldrum, is one of Garcia’s oldest friends.
“I knew it was going to be a competitive environment, and I didn’t quite believe in myself at the time,” he said. “I don’t really know why. I think it was a little of I didn’t want to fail or disappoint, but I just wasn’t having fun.”
Cyprus head coach Jed Smith still can’t quite believe that one of the most promising players in his program almost abandoned the sport before high school.
He said the combination of a negative little league experience and the usual high school jitters convinced Garcia that he shouldn’t even try out. Meldrum, however, knew that the Pirates, who were just beginning to build a new program under Smith, needed both his talent and his leadership.
“Parker drove to his house, talked him into going and gave him a ride,” Smith said. “He started as a freshman, had an impact right away, and hasn’t looked back since.”
Smith knew Garcia from those little league games and had even talked with his father.
“When he showed up, we knew who he was,” Smith said. “I was excited. But his plan was not to show up.” He said young people often get discouraged and can’t see their way through short term turmoil, but that’s where family and friend connections can have a positive impact.
“Kids are going to believe what they’re going to believe,” he said of how many young athletes struggle with confidence. “But all you can do is try to have positive experiences with them. When they come, you just let them know you’re glad they’re there, and be positive with them.”
Hopefully, the confidence of a father, a friend or a coach will become a player’s.
“He’s an unbelievable talent,” Smith said. “He’s a Division I player. He’s just a junior, and he’s already had a lot of schools interested in him.”
Garcia is 6-foot-2 and 290 pounds. He can bench press 425 pounds and squat 535 pounds. He’s a standout on the field and in the classroom, and now he’s gaining the confidence to match his abilities.
The articulate and thoughtful young man has agility and strength, but, maybe most importantly, Garcia has developed into a leader far beyond the field and in ways that he hasn’t always been comfortable.
“He’s our best lineman,” Smith said, noting the Pirates’ linemen won the BYU camp linemen challenge. “He’s very intelligent. He’s been a great vocal leader. It’s something he’s been working on.” Garcia said he loves the physical nature of the sport.
“I’ve always liked contact sports,” he said with a slight laugh. “I can just let loose. There is something about it.”
He said he’s constantly grateful to Meldrum for persuading him to stick with football, as well as the Cyprus coaches for the kind of environment they’ve created.
“It was – and is – an amazing, incredible environment,” Garcia said. “There is so emphasis on team building, relationships and leadership. I’ve learned to be a leader, but I’ve learned to have a real, a better bond with my teammates. That’s the one thing that you definitely gain.”
Smith said Garcia is a rare mix of talent and humility.
“He’s extremely humble, almost shy,” Smith said. “He is unbelievably respectful. …He quietly goes about his business, always does the right thing, always is in the right place at the right time, and he is just a high-character kid with a great attitude and an incredible work ethic.”
Smith pauses, and then adds, “For me, he’s a coach's dream. When you add physical and football skills to that kid — unbelievable.”
Garcia deflects praise, choosing instead to talk about his teammates. He is focused on helping the Pirates achieve the kind of greatness that has eluded them recently — a region title.
“I would really have regretted that decision,” he said of not even trying out. “I look at the direction my future is going now, with different colleges looking at me. I am very happy. No regrets.”
Garcia’s advice to young athletes wondering if they’re good enough to play sports at any competitive level is pretty simple — give it a try.
“Just go for it,” he said. “The worst that can happen is it doesn’t work out for you or you don’t like it. Just push your limits. Have the courage to go to tryouts. You might like it, and it was definitely an eye-opening experience for me.”