San Francisco Examiner

Garcia's signature game?
January 07, 2003
Of The Examiner Staff

His legacy, like his team's postseason, remains unfinished. But Jeff Garcia's place among the pantheon of greats is secure.

Sunday, Garcia scripted another dramatic chapter in 49ers lore. He authored a nine-play, 68-yard drive, capped by a 13-yard touchdown pass to Tai Streets that put the 49ers ahead to stay with exactly a minute remaining.

The score gave San Francisco a 39-38 victory over the New York Giants and ignited a powder keg of delirium in a stadium that previously had all the atmosphere of the county morgue.

It was, as coach Steve Mariucci described it, "one of those classics that you'll remember for a long time."

The dramatic finish brought back a rush of memories and their accompanying ghosts, specters of past greatness that have haunted Garcia.

But on this day, center stage belonged to the scrawny kid from Gilroy. Accordingly, he responded in the manner of the legends that preceded him -- by rising to the moment and then reveling in it.

"It's just hard to fathom right now," Garcia said after bringing the 49ers back from a 24-point deficit. "I can't even really grasp my emotions. ... It's probably the most gratifying feeling, the most excited I've felt in a long time."

When it comes to comebacks and the old concrete bowl known as Candlestick Park, it's impossible to top the NFC Championship Game following the 1981 season, when Joe Montana and Dwight Clark authored The Catch.

It's similarly difficult to rival Steve Young's last-second connection with Terrell Owens in the NFC wild-card game here four years ago, known to locals as The Catch II.

For now, rank Garcia's moment in time a close third to the legendary exploits of No. 16 and No. 8, virtual deities in scarlet and gold.

By the end of the month, depending on what happens on the road to San Diego, site of Super Bowl XXXVII, it could end up a strong second.

"For us to come back the way we did," said former 49ers coach Bill Walsh, pausing to collect his thoughts, "Jeff Garcia is a marvel."

Garcia may not be the greatest quarterback in San Francisco's illustrious history at the position, but his story -- the undrafted kid out of San Jose State by way of the Canadian Football League -- undoubtedly rates as the most unlikely and, consequently, the most impressive.

He has come a long way from the Saturday afternoon in 1994 when he nearly led the Spartans to an upset of a Walsh-coached Stanford squad, perhaps providing the first clue of the greatness that awaited him.

Never was his unique package of athleticism, daring, leadership and toughness more evident than in the closing moments Sunday, with a sellout crowd of 66,318 in full throat and the Giants out for blood.

Garcia hurt New York with his right arm and his quick feet. But in the end, he beat them with his head.

Consider that Streets was the third option on the winning TD. Consider that the red zone was as crowded as a Big Apple subway at rush hour.

"They doubled up on J.J. Stokes, they doubled up on T.O. over the middle and Tai became the 1-on-1 guy," Garcia said, making his split-second read seem as simple as the selection of a restaurant for the postgame meal.

"He was smart, he was poised," Mariucci said. "During the timeouts, he was calm and collected, (saying) 'Hey, let's go win this thing.'"

In the second-greatest comeback in NFL playoff history, Garcia threw for 331 yards and three TDs. But numbers alone do not provide an accurate measure of his performance.

Leadership cannot be quantified with mere statistics.

"You try to emulate what the great ones do -- what Joe Montana and Steve Young did," Garcia said. "Now I'm that guy. Maybe some kid wants to be Jeff Garcia. That's an awesome feeling."

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