As eritten by Mark Schlabach ESPN Senior Writer and published on ESPN.com
VALDOSTA, Ga. — On most mornings in early August, Jake Garcia would wake up in the furnished apartment he shares with his dad, Randy, at 5 a.m., have breakfast and then drive over to Valdosta High School for a 5:45 a.m. practice.
Jake and his dad had to share a rental car, so they did pretty much everything together. Meanwhile, Jake’s mother, Yvonne, was more than 2,300 miles away in the family’s home in Whittier, California.
That’s where Jake lived until about five weeks ago, when the California Interscholastic Federation, the state’s governing body for high school sports, announced that football season would be delayed until at least December because of the coronavirus pandemic, effectively ending Garcia’s senior season before it started.
Enter Rush Propst, the controversial seven-time state champion coach and former star of the MTV reality show “Two-A-Days.” Now at Georgia powerhouse Valdosta High, Propst had a spot for Garcia, a USC QB commit and the No. 18 player in the ESPN 300.
There was only one catch.
For a transfer student to be immediately eligible under Georgia High School Association rules, he or she must make a “bona fide move,” in which the “student moved simultaneously with the entire parental unit or persons he/she resided with at the former school, and the student and parent(s) or persons residing with the student live in the service area of the new school.”
Moving to Georgia wasn’t a problem for Randy, who retired in 2012 after working for 32 years with the Los Angeles Police Department. Yvonne, who works as an administrative assistant, had to remain in California for her job. For Jake to be eligible for one season at Valdosta High, Randy and Yvonne legally separated to meet the Georgia residency rules. According to court records, Randy and Yvonne dissolved their marriage on Aug. 20. They plan to get back together once Jake’s season at Valdosta High ends.
“The requirements [are] a full family move, so that and, obviously, grades and that kind of thing,” Randy said. “So at this point, we got a legal separation. We’re right down the guidelines as far as being eligible to play.”
Earlier this month, Yvonne arrived in Valdosta for the first time on the day of the Wildcats’ season opener. She returned to California on Sunday and hopes to come back in October and November and potentially again in December for the state playoffs.
“It’s been hard, but it’s worth it,” she said. “It’s a sacrifice and it’s worth it.”
Randy and Yvonne are aware that others might criticize their decision to legally separate, but they say it’s something they had to do to ensure their son could play his senior year.
And while others may not have gone to quite the same lengths, the Garcias aren’t alone in moving out of state to allow their children to play this fall. Michigan commit J.J. McCarthy, the No. 23 recruit in the ESPN 300, left his school in Illinois to play at IMG Academy in Florida this fall. The No. 32 prospect in the 2022 class, QB Braden Davis, is also playing at a school in Florida after Delaware postponed football. And at least three other quarterbacks from California went out of state to play this fall.
Brandon Vasquez, a slot receiver from La Habra High and a close friend of Garcia’s, moved to Valdosta earlier this month and also planned to play for the Wildcats this season.
A spokesman for the Georgia High School Association told ESPN this week that more than 80 transfer waivers had been approved for out-of-state students, not all specifically for football.
“It’s once in a lifetime,” Randy said. “He’s got one senior year. He wants to play, it’s important for him. It was a no-brainer for us. And, unfortunately, there’s a lot of parents that can’t [move]. It’s really sad. There’s a lot of studs in a lot of these states that are just going to sit out. They’re not going to play, and it’s just not fair.”
Almost as soon as the CIF made its decision to postpone fall sports, the Garcias started looking for other options.
“He was really disappointed, like we all were,” Randy said. “He had talked about playing and even going out of state. And it was just something that [I said], ‘OK, OK. Yeah we’ll do that. We’ll do that. We’ll look at it.'”
A college coach mentioned Valdosta High and Propst.
Valdosta High, which has won 24 state titles and six mythical national championships, was ranked No. 1 in Class 6A by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution this season — even before it added Garcia.
And the 62-year-old Propst is used to being in the spotlight and being heavily scrutinized. After winning five state championships at Hoover High in Alabama, Propst announced his resignation in October 2007, effective at the end of the season, after an investigation alleged improprieties in his program and concluded that he had quietly supported a second family in another town. Propst, who was married with children at the time, eventually divorced his wife and married the woman with whom he shared his secret life.
After leaving Hoover, Propst won two more state championships in 11 seasons at Colquitt County High in Moultrie, Georgia. In March 2019, he was fired after a school board investigation alleged he committed ethics violations. In an interview with ESPN, Propst denied the allegations.
“One of the college coaches had mentioned it to [Jake], that they were a big-time program and gave us some history, and I remember watching them on TV,” Randy said. “So we looked into it. We knew that their quarterback [Tate Rodemaker] had graduated and he’s over at Florida State now.”
Yvonne thought transferring might mean Jake would play his senior season at a high school in Arizona or Nevada — not all the way across the country.
“When I heard about Georgia, I just thought, ‘Yeah, do it. Whatever it takes,'” Yvonne said. “I know Randy was shocked because I’m afraid to be alone, and even Jake was shocked. They both said, ‘Well, we can’t leave you.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, you can. Do it. Whatever it takes.’ I want him to be in a good program. I wanted him to have a real strong senior season.”
In early August, Jake and Randy visited Valdosta High, toured the campus and met with school officials. They found a place to live about 10 minutes from campus. After returning home to pack their bags, Jake and Randy were back in Valdosta about four days later.
“It was quick,” Jake said. “Very, very quick. So things happened and they happened within the blink of an eye. I didn’t get to say bye to everybody I wanted to, but everybody understands and they’re super happy for me.”
Randy and Yvonne said there were initial concerns about Jake playing in Georgia, which has ranked high among states with the most COVID-19 cases. Randy said his father, Raymond Garcia, died at age 93 on July 10 after contracting COVID-19, and two other relatives tested positive for the virus but didn’t have many symptoms.
“There’s always a concern,” Randy said. “Yes, I lost my father. He was 93 years old. He was in good enough health to probably live another couple of years, three years, I don’t know. But yes, he caught the [coronavirus], and he passed away.
“I’m not going to get caught up in all the political stuff that’s going on, and we’re going to live life. That’s the way it is. And do it with caution. We’ll be at the game, and I’m hoping everybody has a mask on.”
Masks were required at Valdosta High’s Sept. 4 opener at Bazemore-Hyder Stadium, which has a capacity of more than 11,000, after the city council voted Aug. 26 to mandate people wearing a mask on city property or at businesses that choose to require them. About 6,000 people attended the opener, and many were wearing masks in the stands.
“Just like when Randy was working as a police officer, just put him in God’s hands,” Yvonne said. “I just trust that God is going to take care of my family. Jake is doing what he [loves]; he lives and breathes football. While we’re here, we’re wearing masks and Jake is wearing a mask. They’re not wearing masks when they’re playing football, but hopefully all the kids are being careful and they’re following regulations and all that. So I’m just praying that we’re all safe.”
Valdosta’s second scheduled game at Tift County High was canceled on Friday after four opposing players and one coach tested positive for COVID-19. Tift County coach Ashley Anders was hospitalized last week after testing positive for COVID-19 and influenza, the school system said in a Facebook post.
Valdosta is scheduled to play Bainbridge High at home on Friday night.
Going to extremes to help Jake succeed athletically is nothing new for the Garcias.
He spent his freshman season at Long Beach Poly High, where he sat behind current Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral. After Long Beach Poly coach Antonio Pierce, the former NFL linebacker, left to join Herm Edwards’ staff at Arizona State in December 2017, Jake transferred to Narbonne High in Los Angeles. Jake sat out the first five games of his sophomore season in 2018 under transfer rules, and then his junior season was cut short when Narbonne was banned from the playoffs in 2019 and 2020 for alleged academic misconduct. He transferred to La Habra High and never played in a game.
Before he even entered high school, the Garcias agreed to have Jake repeat the eighth grade so he could grow physically and mentally.
In September 2019, Jake verbally committed to play for USC, and he plans to enroll there in January. He wanted one more season of high school football — even if it meant moving across the country to do it.
“I haven’t had a full season of football as a quarterback yet, so I think it’s huge for me, just from a competitive standpoint,” Jake said. “I’m a competitor and I want to play football. I can honestly just go to college right now. Just sit out my senior year, just work hard and go to college, but that’s not me. I want to win. So I think that’s the best opportunity for me. That’s what my family agrees with, so we’re all-in.”
Jake said USC coach Clay Helton supported his decision to transfer to Valdosta, and he still plans to enroll at USC in January. But Jake moving to a recruiting hotbed in the heart of ACC and SEC country might make the Trojans a little more anxious.
“Jake’s committed to SC and he’s loyal to SC,” Randy said. “But things can change there too. There’s too many moving parts. … You’ve just got to keep your options open, and he is, with the commitment still to SC.”
Propst said a handful of colleges in the Southeast have already reached out to him about whether Jake would be willing to change his mind. It helps USC that the NCAA has banned recruiting visits from coaches during the pandemic.
“What do you think? I mean, I think that was part of the move too, somewhat,” Propst said. “Without naming schools, I can name three that are going to be heavily involved, if not four heavily involved in trying to convince him to change his commitment. And they’re all pretty close to here. So maybe five, maybe five schools right now that I know are wearing me out, calling me. They’ll come when they can come.”
Jake’s rust and unfamiliarity with Valdosta High’s offense showed in the first half of the season opener against Warner Robins High on Sept. 4, when he threw an interception and lost two fumbles.
Once the Georgia High School Association approved Jake’s transfer, he had to wait 10 days to practice with the team during a state-mandated acclimation period. It didn’t take Propst or his teammates long to figure out that he was different.
“There’s not a throw he can’t make,” Propst said. “The wow factor was there from day one. Our three receivers started going, ‘Wow,’ and so it didn’t take long. In that first scrimmage, about the third ball, you could hear the stands. We had probably 300 or 400 people here watching practice and the scrimmage, and people were excited and the kids started gravitating to him. He’s a natural-born leader.”
Jake proved that in the second half, despite having only participated in nine practices and knowing about 30% of Propst’s offense.
He bounced back to throw for 339 yards with two touchdowns, including a 55-yarder to Aalah Brown and a two-point conversion that tied the score at 25. The Wildcats won 28-25 on Angel Martinez’s 41-yard field goal with 25 seconds to go.
“Georgia football is crazy,” Jake said. “I need this before college.”
Regardless of what happens next, Jake says he is thankful for a chance to play one more season in high school.
“It’s a blessing,” Jake said. “I couldn’t ask for any better parents. I feel like my parents, they do so much for me. I’m an only child, so if I had brothers and sisters, I don’t know if this would be able to happen, but I just have all the effort put into me. It’s a blessing. I love my parents so much. I thank them every day for it.”
Randy isn’t second-guessing the sacrifices he and his wife have made.
“I mean, we don’t want to be those parents that would have, could have, should have,” Randy said. “I don’t want Jake to be at the backyard barbecue and be that uncle talking about, ‘Well, I would have, could have, should have, if my parents did this or did that.’ If he’s not going to maybe excel and succeed to his fullest potential, it’s going to be because of him. Not because we held him back or because we weren’t able to do something.”
ESPN investigative producer Andy Lockett and ESPN researcher John Mastroberardino contributed to this story.