|J.P. Garcia and his senior classmates have a 22-10 record during their Jumbo football careers|
Football has a deeper meaning to Tufts senior co-captain J.P. Garcia and his family. The game has been by their side for the last 50 years, since J.P.'s family left Cuba in search of a better life in America.
In 1966 President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law an act allowing Cuban refugees and their families to have permanent resident status. Seeing no future living under Cuban communist dictator Fidel Castro, the family came to America—to Irvington, New Jersey—with nothing to their name except for a strong work ethic.
For their first Christmas in the U.S., J.P's father Jose and his two brothers received plastic football uniform sets as gifts. From there they began playing pee wee football and went on to become high school football players.
"Football was the way they assimilated into American culture," J.P. said. "That's how they started to feel that they were a part of this country. It's always been more than just a game in our family."
Saturday's Tufts versus Middlebury game will be bittersweet for the Garcia's, as it will be for all of the families who celebrate Seniors Day with the Jumbo football program. Though they will continue to love the sport, the family's direct connection to the game will end when J.P. walks off the field tomorrow afternoon.
However, the day is also a landmark to celebrate all that has been achieved and how much more is to come.
"This football phase is just one of the phases of his life, that's coming to the end," Mr. Garcia said. "For me selfishly, it's going to be very hard because I've been so close to it and a part of it throughout. But now he's going into a phase of being a man with his future in his own hands. I just can't wait to see where he goes."
Better known as "Pepi," Mr. Garcia was a good football player in his own right. He was recruited out of high school, but had to work during college to help support the family. He helped pay for his education at Seton Hall University by cleaning toilets in a Newark skyscraper. At the age of 24 he started his own maintenance company which he continues to operate today. In 1990 he married his wife Kiki, who went back to college while J.P. and his sisters Reana and Rebecca were growing up and now teaches in high school while also studying for a Master's degree.
The family work ethic was passed down by Pepi's mother Hortensia. Alone with three boys in a new country, she was hired as a Spanish teacher at St. Benedict's Prep in Newark. While working days, she earned Master's and doctorate degrees at night and became a college professor at Montclair State University and Kean College.
J.P. continues the family tradition of working hard. After playing for teams that won three junior football championships in New Jersey, he decided that he wanted to continue playing at Bergen Catholic High School. Located 25 minutes up the Garden State Parkway from J.P.'s hometown of Cedar Grove, Bergen Catholic is a nationally-ranked high school program. Due to his lack of size, some people told him that he would be better off staying at his local high school.
"I saw that as a challenge to go out there and prove that I could compete more than just in the state, but nationally," J.P. said. "I've always been confident in my abilities, and more than that I've always been confident in my willingness to put the work in to make myself better."
During the course of his high school football career, J.P. traveled with the team to play games in Tampa, Las Vegas, and Utah among other places. It was a college football environment in high school. Meanwhile, his academic interest in the medical field was also developing. He had seen what a difference a doctor can make and wanted to follow that path.
Despite his success at Bergen Catholic, J.P. encountered some obstacles during his college recruiting process. He had committed to another Division III school, but it fell through. In January of his senior year he didn't have anywhere to go. Nunzio Campanile, his coach at Bergen Catholic, reached out to Tufts head coach Jay Civetti and within a day or two J.P. committed to become a Jumbo.
On his visit to Tufts, he was impressed with the team's work ethic despite the fact that they hadn't won a game in three years. After he joined the team, the strong leadership and hard work resulted in a turn-around on the field. With 22 victories during their Tufts careers, this senior class is one of the most successful in the program's history. J.P. has been a key contributor on and off the field as a senior co-captain and a starter at safety since his sophomore season.
"To have just a small part in this has meant more to me than just my time here," J.P said. "I know four years down the road when I come back I'm going to see the same tough, hard-nosed, confident football team that I helped develop."
J.P. has also diligently pursued a career in medicine at Tufts. Last summer, he was an intern with the Population Health Science Group in the Institutional Centers for Clinical and Translational Research at Boston Children's Hospital. Also President of Delta Upsilon Fraternity on campus, he's planning on working for a year before applying to medical schools. He would ultimately like to work in orthopedics, which would allow him to remain involved in sports.
So while Pepi Garcia won't have a son on the football field to root for after Saturday, he knows there will be more of J.P.'s accomplishments to enjoy.
"This will be the last day I see him in a football uniform, but hopefully I will see him in a doctor's uniform pretty soon in a hospital helping somebody out," he said.
Written by Paul Sweeney, Director of Athletic Communications