Garrett Safron plans to become a firefighter when he grows up, unless, of course, he never grows up.
A walk-on three years ago at Sacramento State, Safron would love to play games for a living. If scouts from the NFL or Canadian Football League tempt him with a tryout after he graduates, the junior quarterback would pack his bags and sprint to the nearest airline ticket counter. On those occasions when he allows his mind to wander, when reality and dreams converge, he goes through his reads like every other quarterback.
Today, he savors his recent record-smashing performance against Portland State. Saturday, he envisions a Hornets victory over rival UC Davis in the 60th Causeway Classic. Next season, he sees himself transforming a program still awaiting that breakthrough moment, that extended series of wins that elevates the Hornets into the Big Sky Conference elite.
“There were some games we could have won,” Safron said this week, “but we made too many mistakes. Hopefully, we don’t make any big mistakes (Saturday).”
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While their record (5-6, 4-3) has relegated the Hornets to another mid-pack finish, there has been nothing mediocre about their quarterback. Safron hasn’t merely exceeded expectations, he has obliterated them, setting school records and directing the most dynamic offense since the days of Ricky Ray and Charles Roberts, both of whom went on to star in the CFL.
At 6-foot-2 and 190 pounds, Safron, a five-time conference Player of the Week during his career – three times this season – is the local equivalent of must-see TV. You can’t take your eyes off him. He is mobile and athletic, and has a quick release and adequate arm strength for a spread offense. Both his skills and his improved decision-making were prominently displayed in last week’s 43-42 victory at Portland State.
While throwing for 554 yards and accounting for six touchdowns, Safron set a variety of school and single-season records in passing yards, attempts, completions and touchdowns, and most impressively, orchestrated the winning drive in the final seconds.
And again, this is a walk-on. The only persistent nibble he received after graduating from Santa Monica High School came courtesy of Hornets coach Marshall Sperbeck, who was intrigued by Safron on tape, but still needed further convincing before extending an offer.
Safron, who earned a full scholarship midway into his sophomore season, had no such doubts.
“Garrett kept telling me he wanted to go to Sac State,” his mother, Chavela Safron, said from her cellphone. “They were looking for someone who might be a little bit taller, maybe, but he kept saying, ‘Mom, I’m just going to work really hard.’ He wanted to play there so badly.”
The decision to move north was easy in one respect – Sperbeck dangling that possible sole scholarship – and excruciatingly difficult in another: Safron comes from a very large and engaged family, many of whom work at the family-owned and -operated Gilbert’s El Indio Mexican restaurant in Santa Monica.
“When I was a kid, I would go there before and after school and help set the tables,” Safron recalled, smiling. “The knives, forks, spoons. I got paid $2 per day. It was a great way to earn money. My cousins were always around, too, so it was a lot of fun.”
Fast forward to his college days. On Saturdays, many of Safron’s relatives and friends gather at Gilbert’s, a 75-seat establishment with a distinct vertical yellow sign, to watch the Hornets games. His two older brothers, Gunner and Cody, are said to be texting friends during games. His best boyhood friend – Leo Mancini, the son of former world lightweight champion Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini – often joins the gathering. An aspiring actor, Mancini occasionally makes the five-hour drive to Sacramento, joining the caravan that includes the mother of Hornets cornerback Osagie Odiase.
“As soon as Andrea (Odiase) shows up, we hit the road,” said Chavela Safron, who handles payroll and accounting at the restaurant. “We stop at the market on the way, pick up some stuff and get to the game in time to tailgate. You can’t miss us. It’s like one big family in the middle of the party. Then we take the boys out to dinner after the game, and if we have time before we drive back the next day, I’ll do Garrett’s laundry.”
Asked about her son’s ascension, she laughs. Nothing about Garrett surprises her, she says, describing her son as ultra-competitive and restless. “He just loves to play,” she added. “He and his brothers were always active in sports – gymnastics, basketball, soccer, baseball, football. I never had to worry about them becoming couch potatoes. So, it’s like Garrett said. He was just going to keep working hard and see where it takes him.”