TAMPA — Think of all the fields on which Stephen Garcia could be practicing with his South Carolina teammates this bowl season — in Nashville, Atlanta or worse, Shreveport.
Now consider the fact he's at his high school stadium, using his old locker. Or that he just happens to be in town today, for his mom's birthday. Or that on Thursday, he'll be starting the first college game his 14-month-old son will see. Then watch the grin blossom on Garcia's face, just above the black stubble and below the glistening eyes, when he's asked how it all feels.
This is what surreal looks like.
"I'm still trying to grasp the whole thing," he said.
Of the entire Tampa populace, perhaps no one — aside from the navigator of that Outback blimp — is riding higher these days than Stephen Glenn Garcia. And therein lies great irony.
For perhaps the first time in his brief, turbulent career, the former Jefferson High star seems grounded.
"God works in mysterious ways," said his dad, Gary, who puts the number of relatives and friends who will be in the Garcia entourage for the Outback Bowl in triple digits. "It's been a long and winding road. He's waited his time, and he's waited his opportunity."
Sort out all the story lines for the 23rd Outback Bowl, and none can match Garcia's in terms of atonement value. While one prolific afternoon against Iowa won't vanquish his past missteps — two arrests in his first two weeks on campus, an underage-drinking citation in March — it could provide a degree of redemption before a hometown throng.
And, perhaps, formally set the Garcia era in motion in Columbia.
"He's just a freshman," said Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier, who made Garcia the centerpiece of his widely hailed 2007 recruiting class. "He hasn't played a whole bunch and hasn't played all that super, so we don't want to put a whole lot of pressure on him like he's got to carry our team all the way through the game. But still, we would like for him to play well, certainly."
Really, that's all Spurrier has wanted from the beginning, when Garcia graduated early from Jefferson after finishing his prep career in 2006 as Hillsborough County's all-time passing yardage leader (8,081 yards). By January 2007, he had enrolled at South Carolina. By March, he had nearly squandered his career.
"Obviously if your kid bleeds," Gary Garcia said, "you bleed."
In this case, the Garcias hemorrhaged. In mid February of that year, Stephen was arrested in a Columbia entertainment district for public drunkenness. Roughly two weeks later, he was arrested for keying a professor's car, earning a suspension for all of spring drills.
A redshirt season followed. Then in March, less than a month after his 20th birthday, Garcia again was charged with underage drinking and suspended until mid August.
Perhaps it was that most recent incident, or his high school sweetheart, Amanda, giving birth to Memphys Glenn Garcia the previous fall, that shook what appears to be the final shards of delinquency from Garcia. In any event, he hasn't fouled up since.
"I've been on my last strike since last year," he said. "I'm not really going out too much or doing anything but just hanging out with my teammates. That's about it."
"I never see him out, honest," senior wideout Kenny McKinley said. "I never see him out on the town or anything like that. He's always doing the right things now because he knows he's on his last strike."
In his inaugural collegiate season, Garcia has shown enough of his trademark dual-threat capability to keep Gamecock fans hopeful of a prosperous future.
In play that has ranged from spotty to splendid, the 6-foot-2 playmaker has completed 53.8 percent of his throws (for 753 yards) and shown the ability to improvise out of a collapsing pocket. His best effort: coming off the bench to complete 10 of 14 for 169 yards and rally South Carolina to a 24-17 win at Kentucky.
On Thursday, Spurrier wants Garcia to avoid fleeing the pocket prematurely, check his receivers when possible, set his feet more often and fling. Nearly two years after Garcia's ballyhooed arrival in Columbia, that finally appears possible.
Garcia has never seemed on better footing.
"You have Memphys, you're not just a student or a football player but a father. He's not 18 anymore, not wide-eyed coming from a career he had in high school," Gary Garcia said.
"Read the paper and you see how many kids don't make it. Even in this case (at South Carolina), we didn't have kids make it (to the Outback) because of missed classes. Kids make mistakes. I think he understands now what the stakes are and he's grown up."