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A Rebuilt Perseverance

Published on March 11, 2024

Scott Barkley

When Jesse Garza lost an opportunity to play Division I football, he reacted as many 18-year-olds would.

“I broke down and cried,” said the 6’2” 235-lb linebacker for Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, Calf. “It was a real low point in my life.”

Garza had been a lineman from pee wee football up into junior high. That’s when he started to slim out a little, though, and pick up a little speed. He moved to linebacker and excelled there and as a fullback for the Nipomo High School Titans.AsjZvzZg

“I wasn’t the fastest, but I was physical and had a nose for the ball,” said Garza, who led the team in tackles his sophomore, junior and senior seasons.

He also began attending FCA Huddles, though he admits the free pizza helped.

That connection would prove crucial when COVID-19 hit in the spring of 2020. Garza was being recruited to San Diego State, but that opportunity left when the position coach who had been recruiting him changed schools.

Garza would soon learn that disappointments can set you up for gains.

Hancock College is less than 15 minutes from Nipomo High. While the disappointment of not setting out for college was real, it also kept him near Brandon Lambert, FCA Santa Maria Valley Representative, and Hancock head coach Seth Damron, a third-generation FCA coach who was named National Northern League Co-Coach of the Year in 2022.

Garza admits that football was his top priority at the time, but FCA “had kept God in the picture.”

“COVID-19 definitely robbed Jesse of some things, but it also set him on the path for other [good] things,” said Lambert.

A central coast native who studied business at Hancock, Lambert knew the importance of keeping God in front of young student-athletes. In 2010 he led the way in establishing the annual FCA All-Star Football Game played around Memorial Day that featured graduating seniors from the area. Participants earn the right to play through athletic honors or a coach’s recommendation. It not only serves as something to keep athletes out of trouble but has raised $1.5 million that has since been poured into local schools.

Like other members of the Class of 2020, COVID-19 cost Garza his chance to participate in that game. It also hurt to have to "settle" for _v-isBzQHancock, a two-year community college, when he had expectations of playing for the Aztecs.

“He felt like the carpet had been ripped out from under him,” said Lambert. “But God put him in a place here where he could grow. He was tested as in James 1:2-4, growing perseverance. God used him in some pretty unique ways.”

Summer workouts at Hancock incorporated COVID-19 restrictions, but it also opened up Garza to lessons in Scripture.

“We’re working out in little groups and I couldn’t shake this feeling that I didn’t want to be there,” he said. “But Jeremiah 29:11 kept coming back to me. I studied it and understood what it meant.

"God has a plan for me. He really does.”

Personal disciplines expanded into reading Scripture and praying every night, as well as inviting teammates to FCA. On the field, he earned Second Team honors for the National Northern League in 2021 and 2022. Garza also led the Bulldogs with 72 tackles that season and three forced fumbles on the way to being named defensive MVP. Those numbers have drawn the attention of out-of-state schools.

A mid-season slump with five losses in six games threatened an otherwise promising season. A strong defensive win in the next-to-last game preserved a share of the conference title, though, and led to a 20-17 overtime win in the Strawberry Bowl.

“These guys saw God working through Jesse,” said Lambert. “There were a lot of opportunities for him to use his influence.”

Additional opportunities for influence continue for Garza as he is now at Eastern Illinois University as a redshirt junior. Through Garza’s worth ethic and character, his new teammates will see it’s just as important how you finish as how you start. 


Photos courtesy of Santa Maria Times, Santa Ynez Valley News and Allan Hancock College Athletics