Justo Garcia’s leg collapsed. It was halfway through the 2018 men’s soccer season, in a game against California Institute of Technology, and he’d just released the ball to a teammate when an unintentional kick from a member of the opposition took out his knee. The diagnosis brought difficult news.
“It was a high grade partial tear of my lateral collateral ligament on my right knee,” said Garcia, a senior business administration major. “I was out for the rest of the season.”
This wasn’t the first time Garcia had suffered a significant leg injury from playing soccer. During his sophomore year of high school, he broke his foot and was sidelined for six months. While this latest injury kept Garcia out for only half that time, he missed the last 13 games of his junior season. Garcia’s presence was missed both as a player and a leader on the team – the Panthers’ record last season was 5-2 with Garcia and 6-6-1 without him.
“It’s a really tight-knit group of guys; they really care about each other,” head coach Eddie Carrillo said. “He’s a popular guy amongst the team. He’s an older guy and they look up to him.”
Garcia said the team supported him through his rehab while keeping their eyes on a common objective.
“We’re almost like a group of one; we’re all focused on getting a championship,” Garcia said. “Everyone was definitely a little sad that I hurt my leg, but everyone was focused on the same goal.”
Recuperating from the knee tear was rigorous, Garcia said. He underwent physical therapy with Chapman athletic trainers at least five days a week, then went home and performed physical exercises to help him get back on the field.
“When you’re injured, you can give up easily, because you can say, ‘This is going to take me forever’ and you can become lazy,” Garcia said. “You’re in the backseat mindset, but when you’re playing, you’re trying to improve and show your coach you deserve to play.”
It took three months for Garcia to get cleared to get back on the field. By the time he was healed enough, the season was over. He now prepares extensively before games in order to stay healthy – an extra 20 to 30 minutes of heating and stretching, on top of the usual stretching he does on his hamstrings, glutes and calves.
Garcia has been a starter since he was a freshman, but even as a senior, he still had to work his way back into the first rotation when he was cleared to play again. According to Carrillo, it’s competitive getting playing time, having a full schedule packed with six practices a week. There are 33 players on the roster, but only 16 or 17 are subbed in and out throughout the game.
After starting the first game of the season, Garcia found himself on the bench watching his teammates play against Pacific University on Sept. 3. He was eventually put in as a substitute – not normal for him, as he had started all seven of his games last season. However, he made the most of his new situation.
“He came off the bench that game and made an impact immediately,” Carrillo said.
In the 29th minute, Garcia was fouled. But this time he avoided injury, instead receiving a penalty kick – an opportunity to pad his team’s lead.
“Someone else could have taken the penalty kick, but coming back, I needed the confidence boost, so I took the penalty and scored that one,” Garcia said. “It felt good. I absolutely needed that.”
Garcia went on to score again later in the game – two goals in the fourth match of his senior season, after spending a large portion of the previous sidelined by injury. But he answered humbly when asked about his recovery.
“Nothing good comes easy,” he said.