Sep 28, 2017; Ames, IA, USA;Iowa State Cyclones offensive lineman Robby Garcia (63) celebrates with Iowa State Cyclones wide receiver Matthew Eaton (23) after his touchdown during the third quarter at Jack Trice Stadium. Texas beat Iowa State 17 to 7. Mandatory Credit: Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports
AMES — Almost and never.
These two words define Robby Garcia’s Iowa State career — a five-year journey that bridges raw potential to pent-up frustration; and new life to pronounced growth.
The former Cyclone defensive lineman *almost* didn’t travel to TCU last season because he’d tumbled down the depth chart. Coach Matt Campbell took notice and charted a fresh path.
“Here’s a kid that almost didn’t make the trip to TCU a year ago, to be honest with you,” said Campbell, who will start Garcia for a sixth-straight time on the offensive line in Saturday’s 11 a.m. matchup with Kansas at Jack Trice Stadium. “And I’m the one that called him after the travel list went out and said, “Whoa. This kid’s invested. A great kid. We’ve got to make sure this kid’s going. So, Robby, listen. We’ve got to sit down and talk on Sunday because I think you work so hard. We don’t have enough of those guys that work as hard as you do that are helping us win.’”
Campbell detected an opportunity. One that both rewarded Garcia for his hard work and likely would make his team better.
Why not switch to the offensive line? It would be a win-win, despite the fact that overall wins were then hard to find. It also would be a hard sell. How often does a longtime D-lineman flip to the other side?
“It was frustrating because I was recruited as a D-lineman and I really enjoyed it and I really wanted to take the field and play,” said Garcia, who’s first action at guard came one month after the switch at Texas. “I was going in, talking about what I need to do and get better on and the TCU game comes up and he calls me into his office. He’s, ‘Hey, like, why don’t you go play O-line? You can help the team and you can play faster.’ And those were the two things I wanted to do: help the team and play. So, at the same time it was frustrating, but I (knew) this was a new opportunity. Attack it. Be excited for it. Do what I can to get on the field as fast as I can.”
Garcia embodies the concept of the “unsung hero” Campbell successfully weds to the numerous hyped standouts such as Allen Lazard, Joel Lanning and David Montgomery that populate his team.
It’s why the Cyclones (3-2, 1-1 Big 12) enter the game against the Jayhawks (1-4, 0-2) brimming with promise instead of grousing about what-ifs.
It’s why ISU’s dramatic story arc is approaching climactic peaks after last week’s stunning 38-31 win over then-No. 3 Oklahoma.
“Now we’ve got the whole conference ahead of us,” said fifth-year senior walk-on quarterback Kyle Kempt, who traversed his own personal crossroads to join the Cyclone program. “So it gives our team confidence is probably the best way to put it.”
Kempt, like Garcia, *never* complained about a lack of playing time while sitting at No. 3 on the quarterback depth chart, behind currently inactive star Jacob Park and rising redshirt freshman Zeb Noland. He also *almost* didn’t get a chance to show what he can do — until fate took a hand in the days leading up to the trip to Norman.
Park took a leave from the team because of personal health issues. Kempt stepped in and threw three second-half touchdown passes to lead heavily disfavored ISU to arguably the biggest win in program history.
“He works so hard for what he does and never complains about anything,” Lanning, now the Cyclones’ nationally-hyped two-way player, said of Kempt. “He just comes into work and tries to get better every single day and that’s what he does. He played lights out on Saturday and we’re going to need him to do that every single week.”
Same goes for Lazard, whose clutch catch of Kempt’s perfectly-place ball proved to be the game-winner against the Sooners.
Same goes for Lanning, who like Lazard, earned some prominent moments on ESPN’s “Sports Center” after recovering a key fumble in the win.
Some heroes are properly fitted for capes. Some toil behind the scenes; biding their time, doing their part, turning words like *almost* and *never* into rallying cries.
“If you look at a lot of guys’ stories, we’re all over the place in regard to how we’ve gotten (here),” said graduate transfer kicker Garrett Owens, who drilled all three of his field goal attempts at OU. “Injuries. Transfers. I think that just motivates us all and it just makes us want to be at our best because we’ve gone through all the bad stuff. Now we’re finally there, ready to showcase what our last chance is for college football, so I think, yeah, a little bit of redemption, but at the same time, like I just said, it’s fun. Having fun with it makes the most of it really.”
Will the fun continue this Saturday and beyond? That depends as much on the unsung guys as the touted ones.
“I feel like once you’ve been down for so long and counted out for so long and you get a win or you get this chance you become hungrier,” Montgomery said. “The poise and the whole locker room is changing. It’s flipping to where from a hunger standpoint everybody wants to do better and as a team we all want to be greater too. So we just kind of take it as it’s a win but we’ve got to move on. That’s the biggest thing with winning — especially big games. It’s poison to an extent, because you can fall into the trap of just winning and being OK with where you’re at instead of getting better where you can actually grow.”
Profound thoughts. Fueled by selfless players. It seems that ISU is *almost* nearing a point they’ve *almost never* been — week in and week out contenders in a loaded league.
“The frustration is long gone,” Garcia said. “Left behind. It’s just more, ‘OK, this is happening. Just focus and get better.’”