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September 1, 2018

SETTING THE BAR HIGH

It’s often said that a person only gets one chance to make a good first impression.

“What a way to be introduced,’’ Jeff Garcia is reminiscing delightedly, closing in on a quarter-century later.

“My first start in front of the hometown crowd at McMahon Stadium. They didn’t know anything about Jeff Garcia at that point, not really.

“All they knew was that Doug Flutie had gone down with an injury.

“Just one of those magical days. Absolutely magical. My dad had flown up for the game and was there on the sidelines to share it with me. And what we did, as far as offensive production,” he says with a soft chuckle of disbelief. “Just unimaginable. Talk about setting a bar that I never reached again.

“One of those games I’ll always, always remember.

“Actually, I have to get my hands on a video of that day to share with my kids.”

Daughters Presley and Faith and sons Jason and Jax would be mighty impressed by the old man.

Scroll back to Labour Day, 1995. Sept. 4. A sell-out crowd of 37,317 wedged into every nook and cranny of McMahon.

That afternoon, Garcia – subbing for arguably the greatest QB ever to grace the three-down game – threw for an eye-popping 546 yards, still fifth highest in franchise annals (only 10 yards fewer than the best total ever) and SIX touchdowns, completing 33 of 45 attempts as his Stampeders took a hickory switch to the Edmonton Eskimos, 51-26.

The Magic Flutie had suffered a season-ending elbow injury a couple of weeks earlier and would fly to L.A. the day after the game to undergo surgery to repair a torn flexor muscle.

In his stead, the local legend of Jeff Garcia was born that afternoon.

“Yeah, I’d had a previous start, in Birmingham,’’ he’s recalling, hustling to the airport and a flight that’ll bring him to Calgary to watch Monday’s edition of the Classic. “A successful one. I’d thrown for 400-plus yards in that game, too, I believe. We won, after losing the week before to Birmingham at home in Doug’s last start.

“But this was Labour Day. Knowing how much it meant to Calgary fans, to the city, really ramped up the importance.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better stage.

“But it wasn’t just about me. I had such great talent around me. Allen Pitts. Dave Sapunjis. Vince Danielsen. Terry Vaughn. Travis Moore. All those amazing receivers.

“The offensive line, giving me the chance to see down the field and make decisions and be accurate going downfield with the ball.”
Garcia, of course, would go on to pilot the Stamps to the ’98 Grey Cup as MVP and then parlay his northern success to an opportunity down south, becoming a four-time NFL Pro Bowl choice while playing for the San Francisco 49ers, Cleveland Browns, Detroit Lions, Philadelphia Eagles and Houston Texans.

Yet despite his NFL success, Garcia’s support of and acknowledged-debt to the CFL has never wavered.

“You have to look at where your opportunities are presented,’’ he says. “I didn’t have an opportunity in the NFL coming out of college so being able to go up to Calgary and earn a place on that team and then to be an instrumental part of it for four-plus seasons meant – means – a great deal to me.

“More than that, I treasure the friendships that I built when I was there. Vince Danielsen. Bruce Covernton. Rocco Romano. All these guys I still keep in touch with, see how they’re doing in their own lives.

“I’m looking forward to seeing them all when I get back this weekend.”

In addition, he and current Stampeder quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell are mentor-pupil pals.

“They’re 8-1, Bo’s having a tremendous year, very efficient, limiting his mistakes,’’ says Garcia. “Very opportunistic on the field. Great leader. He takes the game extremely seriously, prepares very well.

“And he’s out there, battling. Always battling. I have so much respect for him as a player and as a person, where he is in his life. Settling down as a husband and a dad and really putting his ducks in a row to be the best he can be on the football field.”

Labour Day, both men know, is when the CFL season really begins to take shape.

“It’s unique, that week. I couldn’t believe that you’d play a team on Monday, then turn around and play the same team on Friday,’’ Garcia laughs. “I’m like: ‘What the heck is going on?’

“To play big games back-to-back within four days was … crazy.

“But the way the fans, the city, treated Labour Day sure left an impression on me. And hopefully I left an impression that day that’s stayed with them, as well.”

No concern on that score.

Monday, Garcia returns to McMahon Stadium for the 2018 edition of the annual Classic, and will be on the Stampeder sideline once again, this time as a supporter.

“The idea,’’ he explains, “was hatched about a week ago. I was trying to get to sleep one night. And I’m thinking: ‘I’ve got a few days free here, the Stamps are on another roll, haven’t been up to Calgary for awhile and, well … it’s Labour Day.’