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July 14, 2007COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Stephen Garcia gladly signed his name for smiling children as their parents snapped pictures. The cheers he got at the Richland County Public Library on Friday aren't close to what he expects to hear this fall at Williams-Brice Stadium.
Still, after Garcia's troubled start with the Gamecocks that included two arrests and a suspension from spring practice, he welcomed any support.
"These people are very forgiving," Garcia said, speaking publicly for the first time since his trial in March. "So that's why I'm very thankful for being here. I hope that it will blow past fairly soon, which I think it will."
Garcia was in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons since signing on as perhaps coach Steve Spurrier's most anticipated recruit in a class of newcomers many experts ranked among the nation's top 10.
Garcia was charged with drunkenness and failure to stop for a police officer in an incident outside a club in February. Two weeks later, he turned himself in on charges of malicious injury to personal property. Arrest warrants say Garcia scratched professor Adam Biggs' car with a key and caused more than $800 in damage.
Garcia was accepted into a pretrial intervention program on the misdemeanor charges, meaning he'll have his record cleared after completing community service.
Now, he's ready to show what made him one of the country's best high school quarterbacks.
"I'm really anxious to get on the field and start worrying about football instead of everything else," he said.
And Garcia had plenty to worry about -- most of all Spurrier.
South Carolina's head ball coach quickly suspended Garcia after each arrest, the latter time preventing him from team activities through spring practice.
The suspension was lifted in April after South Carolina's spring game. It was clear, however, that another misstep could mean the end of Garcia's Gamecock career before it got going.
Garcia said Spurrier called his Tampa (Fla.) Jefferson High coach, hoping the 6-foot-2 quarterback "was a good two-strikes hitter."
"I am," Garcia said. "I am."
Garcia feels healthy, despite getting a cortisone shot to combat tendinitis in his knee, and hopes to show he can compete for playing time amid backups Chris Smelley and Tommy Beecher.
Blake Mitchell, a fifth-year senior, enters fall as the established starter.
"We don't know exactly what Stephen Garcia can do, yet," Spurrier said this past Monday. "We'll get a chance to watch him soon."
Garcia had enrolled in January to take part in spring ball. He would wait on the sidelines, sometimes throwing a few passes after the session ended. "It was painful watching," Garcia said.
Since his latest suspension was lifted, Garcia's taken part in offseason workouts and has learned Spurrier's offense by watching the quarterbacks ahead of him.
On Friday, he was among about two dozen players at the Pigskin Poets outing at the library's main branch.
"You ready little man?" Garcia asked a beaming youngster before lifting him up for a photo.
Garcia knows it will take time to regain the trust of Gamecock fans. "I'm doing whatever I need to do to restore my image," he said.
Part of that, he says, is staying away from Five Points, a popular nighttime area near campus that features restaurants and clubs. Garcia's first arrest came outside one of those clubs. Starting quarterback Mitchell was arrested after a bar fight last September in Five Points, although those charges were eventually dropped.
Garcia said he can keep up the good conduct throughout his college career. "It's very simple," he said. "When you've got one more strike," you follow rules.
Some chalked up Garcia's misdeeds as the youthful indiscretions of a first-time college student.
Garcia said he doesn't know if any other freshmen made similar mistakes, "but I did and had to bite the bullet."
"It wasn't a very fun experience, but that was also a learning experience and I won't have worry about that again."