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The best year of their lives

A wedding in April, a daughter on the way and a team in the playoffs, for Jeff and Carmella Garcia, it's ...

By RICK STROUD, Times Staff Writer
Published January 6, 2008


TAMPA

The snow still blanketed the ground and the sun had not peeked from behind the clouds for weeks when Jeff Garcia decided to join his new teammates in Cleveland for a night on the town in late March of 2004.

Across the room at a crowded party stood the Playboy Playmate of the Year.

Garcia's greatest strength is not realizing his limitations. So while others wilted under the pressure, he kept moving forward.

"I saw Carmella. I tried to talk to Carmella," Garcia said. "She didn't pass on her phone number to me at that point when I asked."

Carmella DeCesare, a doe-eyed brunette, describes herself as Puerto Rican and Italian. "I'm a firecracker," she says.

Even though she grew up a Browns fan in a suburb of Cleveland, the new free-agent quarterback had trouble scoring many points with her that night.

"I think I was just intimidated by him because he was so old," Carmella said. "He was 34. I was 21. We just never seemed to mesh. It's hysterical because you hear people say, 'Oh, when I started dating this person, I knew he'd be the person I'd marry.' And Jeff and I laugh because I never thought we'd be married."

Garcia's decision in 2003 to leave the San Francisco 49ers after five seasons began an unwanted journey that would take him to four more teams in as many years. Through injury or ineffectiveness, his seasons always ended the same.

Thanks, but goodbye.

Even when he took over for injured quarterback Donovan McNabb last season and rallied the Philadelphia Eagles to a NFC East title and a playoff win over the Giants, he was dumped.

But some guys can't handle rejection, and others thrive on it.

Nearly four years after that snowy encounter with Carmella in Cleveland, Garcia is 37, has a two-year, $7-million contract with the Buccaneers, and has led his team to another division title as the full-time starter.

He was married to Carmella April 21 at the CordeValle Resort in San Martin, Calif., and the couple is expecting their first child, a girl, in three months.

"I really can't describe a better year in my life," Garcia said.

"I laugh because, especially friends that are men, they call me an overachiever. And it's not so much for what I've achieved on the football field, it's more like where I am in my personal life. But I really am."

As part of wedding vows, he told Carmella, "I took the best thing out of Cleveland."

Live for today

By now, you might be familiar with Garcia's inspirational story. He grew up in the largely Hispanic town of Gilroy, just 80 minutes outside of San Francisco. He was injured his senior year of high school and wound up playing football for his father, Bob, at Gavilan College before transferring to San Jose State.

Undrafted by the NFL, he wound up playing five years in the Canadian Football League for the Calgary Stampeders, leading them to a Grey Cup victory in 1998. The 49ers' Bill Walsh invited him for a tryout and signed him to a deal that eventually led to three trips to the Pro Bowl, overcoming inevitable comparisons to quarterback icons Joe Montana and Steve Young.

But much of what shaped Garcia's survival instincts occurred when he was very young. Before his birth, Garcia's mother, Linda, had twin girls die after being born two months premature. His younger brother, Jason, drowned on a family camping trip in 1977. Fourteen months later, his younger sister, Kimberly, died after falling out of a truck.

"It's one thing to have an incident or an accident happen one time. But to have it happen twice, which we did, was unbelievable," Garcia said. "It's like, 'How? Why?' We had this little family that was growing up together and then it was just me."

Garcia knows those experiences will have an impact on his parenting.

"Now that I'm going to have a child, I know my mom, just in talking to her this past weekend, she's like, 'You will never truly understand the love parents have for their children until you experience it yourself.'

"And as much as that is a joy to look forward to, it also hurts, because I know the hurt she has inside, especially around the holidays, (from) what she's still feeling about my brother and sister that were lost. I hope to never have to go through that. ... It's scary to think about something like that happening.

"I don't know if that will make me an overprotective father. There's only so much you can do as a parent, and really my parents I felt did everything they can do. Yet it still happened."

Perhaps that's why Garcia throws his 195-pound body around the football field like it is his final play. He truly doesn't worry about tomorrow.

"It really has been living in the now," Garcia said. "It really has been making the most of every single day. I know I learned at 7 years old that at any instant ... your life can be taken away from you."

The Carmella effect

Coach Jon Gruden describes Garcia as barbed wire - because he's so competitive, and because he can be abrasive and rub teammates or coaches the wrong way. But nobody discounts that Garcia is responsible for the Bucs' turnaround, resulting in the NFC South championship and today's wild-card game against the Giants.

"I know Coach can say I have my grumpy moments - I have my moments of what he would call negativity - but it's always temporary," Garcia said. "I'm always just a spark away from snapping out of it and being that guy who is a kid, who has that kid inside."

Off the field, the fiery demeanor is replaced by a placid personality. He is a man of few words and keeps mostly to himself.

"I'm just very laid-back, mellow and it's almost like I can turn the switch on or turn it off," he said.

But when Garcia gets home, to the chocolate lab and toy poodle he inherited with the marriage, Carmella winds him up again.

"Carmella is like 100 miles an hour," Garcia said. "She's wound up, she's full of energy - even being pregnant five months, she's still completely focused on handling the home and taking care of business and just very outgoing.

"It's great to have her in that sort of way because I think she does take care of things that I would probably just push off to somebody else to take care of, or I'll get to it later.

"She's awesome. I can't ask for anybody better in that way. She really does complete me in that way."

Not that Carmella's fire has always been contained. Five months after the couple met in Cleveland, she was involved in a scuffle with Kristen Hine, whom she said Garcia had dated. She was acquitted of assault charges, but found guilty of violating a restraining order and sentenced to 24 hours of community service.

"We must have broke up I don't know how many times when we first started dating," she said. "We never thought we'd end up together."

Now 25, she admits much is different about her life than she once imagined.

Her Playboy modeling days are over, according to Garcia.

"We'll see," Carmella jokes.

But she still gets her share of attention. She was recently named the sexiest athlete's wife by COED Magazine Online, and she and Garcia appear together in this year's Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, due out in February.

They still have access to the Playboy mansion in Los Angeles and both have appeared on episodes of Girls Next Door, a reality series that focuses on founder Hugh Hefner and girlfriends Holly Madison, Bridget Marquardt and Kendra Wilkinson.

"To me, it's normal," Carmella said of that lifestyle. "I've been doing it since I was 19. I try not to be judgmental. I'm very close with Hef's girlfriends and I feel, like, to each his own, if that's what they want to do. Maybe it's not what I want to do, but if that's what they want to do, I'm accepting of it.

"Everyone else probably looks at it from the outside in and thinks it's crazy. But for me, I can go up on a Sunday night and have dinner there and it's just dinner with the girls and Hef, or I can go out with them to an awards show and it's normal."

That said, the Garcias say they live a simple, suburban life. Carmella has embarked on a broadcasting career, serving as a pregame analyst for WTVT-Ch. 13 and appearing weekly on 620-AM.

Of course, the camera adores her. But you'd be surprised by how much football she knows.

"She grew up around it from an early age. And it's not like I sit at home and try to help her," Garcia said. "But she is inquisitive. She does ask questions. She wants to know the way we call plays. She wants to know what Cover 2 means. She wants to know these types of things. And I think when she does have a chance to talk about it, she does a really good job.

"She doesn't necessarily wait for things to happen," he said. "She wants to create things. She wants to create opportunity. I give her credit for having the guts to do it and following through with it."

Pedigree has its privileges, but Carmella doesn't want her husband's help forging her football broadcasting career.

"I feel I have a little bit more knowledge because I have a different take on it, being Jeff's wife," she said. "But I also feel I want people to know I have my job because I'm good at it and I don't have it because I'm Jeff's wife. That's really important to me."

In a perfect world, Carmella would be a sideline reporter on Monday Night Football with Jeff in the broadcast booth.

But before that, there's a baby, bottles, diapers and day care to worry about.

As they stood near Bayshore Boulevard recently watching the sun bounce a thousand little lights off Tampa Bay, Garcia reached his ear down to Carmella's growing belly. "Hey, Peanut," he said softly.

Carmella smiled and kissed him on the cheek.

"It's been an amazing year," she said. "2007 has been great for us. We got married, things have been good as far as football, we have a baby on the way. So we really couldn't have asked for anything else. We're happy."

And starting to feel right at home.