- Edward Aschoff, ESPN Staff Writer
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COLUMBIA, S.C. -- There were times this summer when Stephen Garcia wanted to throw in his garnet towel.
His careless off-the-field lifestyle had gotten him suspended for the sixth time in his five years on campus and he felt things had finally fallen apart.
Garcia was suspended indefinitely this spring after an alcohol-related incident at a mandatory leadership seminar event. At South Carolina’s media day Sunday, Garcia said he reached out to the man running the event and apologized, thinking his actions wouldn’t garner such attention.
But they did, and Garcia could only watch as his teammates went through the early motions of defending their Eastern Division title.
As the mocking and scrutinizing intensified -- again -- Garcia’s only support came from his teammates. Players like Alshon Jeffery and Marcus Lattimore took to Twitter and Facebook to support him and gush about the Stephen Garcia they knew.
After seeing the lavish outpouring, Garcia, who had fallen into a major funk, lifted his head and decided he couldn’t leave his teammates -- not now.
“It really put it in my head that I really love these guys a lot and I’m very thankful to still be here,” Garcia said.
He met with coach Steve Spurrier and discussed transfer options; much like they did in 2008 after off-field antics also got him suspended from the team.
He was allowed to transfer, which he seriously considered before his teammates’ actions, but told Spurrier he was committed to the program and turning his life around.
Garcia was officially reinstated just before preseason camp and while he’s still competing with sophomore Connor Shaw, there was little said Sunday to make anyone think that Garcia isn’t the guy.
His improved level of commitment had Spurrier singing his practice praises Sunday.
“He’s not goofing around as much as he used to, well, he’s not goofing around at all, really,” Spurrier said.
That’s a good start. His head should be on the field, not on the social scene. Focus is good because Spurrier took a major chance bringing the enigmatic Garcia back.
Players have insisted Garcia’s troubles haven’t become a distraction -- their silly exchanges with him during Sunday’s news conference proved as much -- but this team will undoubtedly change that thought if Garcia falls out of line again.
“We’re going to follow Stephen no matter what,” defensive tackle Travian Robertson said. “He’s like a brother to all of us.
“Just to hear his name is back on the team, we’re going to follow him and try to help him out because he’s a great player and a great guy.”
This team will follow Garcia as far as he’s willing to take them, but any sort of slip-up might cause both parties to change directions. The expectations and goals are too high for one person to derail this season.
Garcia never elaborated on his "lifestyle changes" and was visibly tired of all the questions about his off-field life, but he understands that he brought it on himself and he’ll likely hear them for the rest of his time at South Carolina.
“It is what it is. I’ve been dealing with it since I first got here, my first month here,” he said. “I’ve developed some pretty thick hide, so I’m used to it. I hope that it’s passed, but if it’s not then it’s not and it is what it is.”
Alcohol factored into Garcia’s hijinks before, and while some have suspected he’s receiving counseling for his drinking, Garcia emphatically denied those rumors, saying he and the team doctor “chit-chat” from time to time. He also denied having a problem with alcohol.
Through everything, Garcia insists he wouldn’t take anything back. He considers his experiences ones that have made him grow as a person and a football player.
“I’ve learned a lot since I’ve been here,” he said. “Coming in here, I didn’t think it was going to be this kind of a fishbowl. I learned the hard way, which I tend to do over the course of my life, but I wouldn’t do it any other way. It’s made me who I am today. You only live once.”
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