On the last possession of a Northern California championship matchup last Friday, in the biggest moment of his football career, Placer High School linebacker Andrew Garza pushed back with a vengeance, as he so often has in his 16 years, for the powerful, game-clinching play that he will cherish his entire life.
Later, the junior will say he that he had nothing to fear, nothing to lose, because he already has lost everything, including his grandmother and the only stable home he has ever known. He has been homeless and hungry. He has been secretive and resourceful. He has hidden the harshest details deep inside, quietly stealing food from stores and gas stations, sleeping near the tennis courts.
Yet, somehow, here he is, a teenage success story.
“If I could say how I could got through it, it was football,” said Garza, days after shoving Salinas High’s left guard into the kicker on the final play, preserving the Hillmen’s dramatic 43-42 victory. “Football gave me discipline and provided a structure. It helped to know we had practice every day, and the longer I played, the more I appreciated that. But to affect the kick on that last play? Man, that was the happiest time of my life.”
Garza can’t stop smiling. He has watched the replay by the dozens and endured a week of mostly sleepless nights, mostly because he envisions another historic outcome when Placer meets Crenshaw High on Saturday for the CIF Division IV-AA state championship in Los Angeles.
The opponent is bigger, faster, stronger, and Southern California is a different world – one he is eager to experience. Garza has never been to L.A. and never been to Disneyland, where the team will visit Sunday, thanks to donations from local residents, boosters and business owners. The plan is to enjoy the ride, regardless of outcome. The grander scheme, of course, is to seize the opportunity and grab the program’s first state title since the CIF playoff format was conceived in 2006.
Noting that he starts only four seniors, coach Joey Montoya shakes his head at the improbable run, as if to say, “Is this finally, really happening?”
Given his prep football roots, in a sense, he has waited decades for this. His grandfather, Bill Miller, led the program to five Sac-Joaquin Section titles and was assisted by his father, Joe. Joey led the Hillmen to three other section championships before securing Saturday’s dramatic come-from-behind win.
But another thing about Joey? He knows that Grant High doesn’t own the trademark on troubled youth and at-risk situations, and similar to iconic Pacers coach Mike Alberghini, considers his job his mission in life. He thrives on competition and enjoys the teaching, but he coaches for the kids. His home has long been a safe haven, and he has been a tutor, a counselor, a foster parent for several of his disadvantaged students, including star running back Dalton Dyer a decade ago.
Garza crossed him up, though. The 5-foot-8, 160-pound starting linebacker proved far more slippery than the speedy Dyer. Fearing the intervention of school officials or social workers, he zealously guarded his troubled home life, keeping even most of his friends at a distance. It wasn’t until last summer, when he felt a need to come straight with his coach, that details emerged.
Unburdened, and with remarkable candor, Garza sits in the football office and recounts a life that began in Oakland, where he was surrounded by relatives who were drug addicts, including his estranged father. He moved to Auburn at age 4 to live with his grandmother, who provided stability and the structure he desperately craved until her death in January 2016 left him bereft with grief and forced to contend with his mother’s addiction and looming homelessness.
“I missed like a month of school after she died,” Garza said. “We were so close. And then everything was in my grandmother’s name, including a mortgage, and what do we do? Try to pay for this house that is in debt? Or do we stay here until we get evicted?”
With a sigh, and a soft swipe at his chin hair, he says, “Nov. 22, 2016. We got evicted. We stayed in hotels for a month or two, until the money ran out. Then we stayed at a friend of my mom’s in Antelope for a while, but he’s an addict, too, and I didn’t want to stay there.”
Garza, who is bright, engaging and mature beyond his years, continued attending classes and maintaining good grades while pursuing housing alternatives, mostly unpleasant ones. When campus emptied, he often hid near the tennis courts.
“I would sit with my back against the wall, and eventually fall asleep,” he said. “Joey didn’t know. Nobody knew. I would shower in the locker room and get dressed. Other times I would just come into the football office and sleep in here.”
Finding food was an ongoing concern.
“I’m not gonna lie,” he continued. “There are times, in my whole life, I didn’t have money for food. When we got evicted and didn’t have much to eat, so I lost a lot of weight. But I am self sufficient. I have stolen food from grocery stores and gas stations. No one around me has a garden, or I’m sure I would have stolen from them, too. I got a job last summer as a kitchen worker, and that helped out a lot.”
But the football routine helped most of all. Embracing the set schedules for practices and offseason conditioning programs, and keeping a cautious, but open mind about a college scholarship, Garza became an even more passionate devotee. He began running longer distances, both to get in better shape, but also to lighten his mood on those occasions when he was overwhelmed. Opening up to Montoya and sharing his secrets, he says, was a massive relief. “I don’t trust most people,” he explains. His mother’s recent sobriety was another encouraging development, even enabling her to get a job at Home Depot.
Even better? Two months ago mother and son moved into a two-bedroom apartment close to campus.
At the mere mention of his new home, Garza’s features light up. “I have my own room and my own bed for the first time in my life,” he says, smiling, his legs bouncing. “I always slept on the couch because there were always girls (grandmother, mother, two older sisters) in and out.”
In his spare time, he has delighted in decorating his room with a poster of a lion on one wall, a map of the world on another. He has strung Christmas lights across the ceiling. The lights cheer him, make him feel warm, wanted, secure. He isn’t expecting much for Christmas – Thanksgiving was spent at Denny’s – but he is unfazed by his modest wardrobe and the fact he is that rare teenager without a cellphone. Someday, he says.
Before Garza leaves to dress for practice, Montoya enters the office and opens the laptop. The two crowd close, peering at the screen, reliving that last play. “Perfect leverage by Andrew on a much bigger kid,” the coach says. “The guard went straight backwards … the kick went wide left … and then you can see the pandemonium.”
“I lined up four yards deep,” Garza said, picking up the narrative. “I’m like, ‘I’m just gonna hit the left guard as hard as I can and see if I can make something happen. I moved him back, just enough that he got in the way for the kicker to miss. I didn’t even see what happened, just saw the referee motioning. And then everyone rushed the field.”
Smiling, he thanks this columnist for her interest and walks toward the door. Montoya notices and shakes his head. “I’m as competitive as it gets, but at the end of the day, you coach for kids like Andrew Garza.”