From transfer to leader, Garcia ends Gators career at Birmingham Bowl

Gators offensive lineman Max Garcia (76) began his collegiate career at the University of Maryland in 2010 before transferring to Florida.

Randy Sartin/Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Luis Garcia knows his younger brother Max as well as anyone. Eleven years older than Florida’s starting center, Luis functioned as an older brother/mentor/second father to Max after their parents split up.

He also served as water boy for Max’s Pop Warner teams, and as a chaperone and chauffeur if needed. Whatever the job, Luis signed up.

"He is the one who really pushed me into playing football and has been there every step of the way,” Max said this week.

During trips from his Atlanta-area home to Gainesville the past two seasons to visit Max, Luis Garcia has noticed a significant change in his little brother.

While the 6-foot-5, 294-pound Max passed Luis in physical stature long ago, this change is more about an aura than any of the measurable tags so often emphasized in the lives of athletes.

The way Luis sees it, Max seems to be the man.

"When I was down there I noticed how much of a presence he is,” Luis said Thursday. "I got a joke about him that I call him Kim Kardashian because everywhere we go to eat or something, it’s ‘Max, can I take your picture? Max, can I get an autograph?’

"A lineman never gets any love. It’s just amazing how the whole town embraces him."

Max makes it easy.

It’s not just Luis who shakes his head in awe sometimes at Max’s rise from a little-known transfer two years ago to the most friendly — and perhaps the face — of the 2014 Florida football team.

Shannon hired

Max often takes time to reflect on life and his college career, one that started at the University of Maryland in 2010 and ends here Saturday when the Gators face East Carolina in the Birmingham Bowl.

Coming out of Norcross (Ga.) High, Garcia was drawn to Maryland by former Terrapins head coach Ralph Friedgen and current Penn State coach James Franklin, then Maryland’s offensive coordinator/coach-in-waiting.

He left behind Luis and his family and his longtime girlfriend to move north for college. Garcia played in two games as a true freshman, including Maryland’s victory over East Carolina in the 2010 Military Bowl.

But Friedgen was let go after the season, Franklin left to become head coach at Vanderbilt, and Maryland hired Randy Edsall to take over the program.

At first, Garcia made the necessary adjustments and started 12 games during Maryland’s 2-10 season in 2011. However, when it was time to begin drills for spring practice, Garcia felt lost as a person and a player.

He didn’t feel connected to his teammates the way he knew he should be; his approach to academics was slacking; he broke up with his high school sweetheart after a long relationship.

"Football isn’t everything to me, but at that time it was,” Garcia said. "When you find your identity in football, and that’s all you know, and you go 2-10, you want to identify yourself as a 2-10 player. Through that time I was really down and depressed and my grades started to slip. I was struggling in a lot of ways."

Garcia still rattles off the exact date with no hesitation: Feb. 8, 2012. That was the day he requested a release from his Maryland scholarship to explore transferring. The request was approved a few days later and on April 20 he committed to Florida.

Garcia said he believed Florida was where he was supposed to be and quickly developed a comfort zone with the help of former UF receivers coach Bush Hamdan, who had been at Maryland during Garcia’s freshman season.

Shortly after arriving in Gainesville in the summer of 2012, Garcia began to rediscover his passion for the game while building a more balanced off-the-field life. He made new friends, attended other UF athletic events to support non-football Gators, engaged regularly with fans on social media, and became more disciplined in his faith through Bible study sessions with several of his teammates.

"That’s a huge part of his life,” said teammate Keanu Neal, one of Garcia’s occasional study partners.

Garcia regained the pep in his step over time.

"It’s what I needed the most, pretty much a fresh start on everything, my academics, my social life and football,” he said. "It was a clean slate."

In his first season at Florida the Gators went 11-1 during the regular season. Garcia was ineligible to play due to NCAA transfer rules, but he practiced on the scout team and tried to help the team any way he could. Looking back, he said that season really set the stage for everything that has happened for him over the last two years.

The only negative of the experience was when he was told he could not travel to New Orleans for Florida’s game against Louisville in the Sugar Bowl.

Finished at Florida

Garcia was crushed.

"That was a real downer for me,” he said. "I never really felt excluded from something until that time. When they told me I couldn’t travel, that really hurt."

That explains why Garcia is probably as excited as any player on the team about Florida’s trip to the Birmingham Bowl.

As Garcia prepares for his final game at Florida, he is no longer that little-known transfer stuck in the shadows two seasons ago.

He is much more than that.

He is the only Florida offensive lineman to start every game the past two seasons. He is the player who moved to center as a senior — a position he had never played — and earned second-team All-SEC honors. He is a fan favorite. He is a team leader. He is the big guy with the curly hair and big grin.

He is simply Max to most.

"I think that is something I have developed here,” he said. "I’ve always been told to be a leader and to take charge and do things the way I believe they should be done. I never really wanted to do that because you are putting yourself out there, you make yourself a target if you don’t do the right thing. It’s a double-edged sword.

"I found faith here and that played a huge part in being a leader, and really serving people I feel like is the best way to be a leader, putting yourself second and putting other people before you. I definitely developed that here."

Former Gators head coach Will Muschamp liked to say that with many transfers, they usually bring some baggage better off left behind.

He never saw that with Garcia. That’s why Muschamp asked him at last year’s team banquet whether Garcia had ever snapped the football. Garcia said ‘no,’ but he knew the implication.

And in spring when the Gators moved Garcia to center, no one knew if it would work out.

"I would have never thought I would play center in my last year of college football,” Garcia said. "I had doubts in the beginning."

Those doubts eventually faded and Garcia earned Offensive MVP honors at the team’s annual banquet last month.

"You need somebody that’s really smart, somebody that’s very decisive in their decision-making," Muschamp said of playing center prior to the season. "They need to be able to make a call, have confidence in the call and they need to be right. There’s no question he was the right guy for the job."

The move will go down as one of the best of Muschamp’s four-year tenure at Florida.

Garcia is scheduled to play in the Medal of Honor Bowl following the Birmingham Bowl with hopes of getting drafted or signing as a free agent and embarking on an NFL career.

Few should count him out after his surprise rise at UF.

"He is definitely a big-time leader,” Neal said. "He’s humble; he works as hard as he can 24/7. Everything you look for in a leader, he’s that. And following him has made me better, looking at what he’s doing and seeing how hard he works, has made me better."

Luis Garcia will make the two-hour drive from Atlanta to Birmingham for Saturday’s game at Legion Field. It’s supposed to be cold and rainy but no way is Luis missing his little brother’s final college game.

In some ways Max’s unlikely climb to notoriety is as inexplicable as that of Kim Kardashian’s rise to fame.

But Max’s is more authentic. Ask those who know him best and they will tell you his is no act.

"Max is a great friend and teammate, one of the best I’ve ever had,” Gators receiver Michael McNeely said earlier this season after Garcia’s eyes watered and voice cracked as he talked about McNeely’s touchdown run against Georgia on a fake field goal. "He is such a good person."

Florida fans are glad they got to know him. Luis is, too. He looks at Max’s move to Florida as a turning point that has transformed his little brother’s outlook on life.

"He was always likeable," Luis said. "He is so much different than at Maryland. A lot more humble. It would be a blessing if he does make it to the next level. That’s always been a childhood dream of his. He wrote a paper in his sixth-grade class that he was going to make it into the NFL. He is definitely one step closer to it."