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Miracle worker

There is one stoplight here. At the moment, it is red.

Dust swirls across the barren pavement in the shape of giant cinnamon rolls. The cackle of a rooster echoes in the distance.

On one side of the street sits an abandoned gas station with plywood over its windows. On the other side, empty storefronts are decorated in white spray paint reading, “For Rent.”

Farther down the road are a couple of cafes, a grocery store and an endless horizon of south Texas prairie stretching 25 miles to Mexico.

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The few people on the sidewalks are speaking Spanish. The few kids on the nearby fields are playing soccer.

The stoplight remains red, and the longer one sits the more one wonders: How on earth do you go from here to the Super Bowl?

Across the country, in a place where the lights are blinding and the world is watching, Roberto Garza Jr. smiles.

“A miracle,” he says. “That’s the only way to describe it, really, a miracle.”

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Today in Super Bowl XLI in Miami, Garza will be a starting guard and offensive anchor for the Chicago Bears in their title bout against the Indianapolis Colts.

The Monsters of the Midway, led by the Miracle of the Rio Grande.

In a game whose theme has centered on the Super Bowl’s first two black head coaches, there is no bigger cultural surprise than Garza.

In a league of nearly 1,700 players, he is among only 19 Latinos.

As the son of Mexican immigrants, he didn’t speak English primarily until he left home after high school.

He was recruited not by a college, but by the Marines, whose officer warned him, “Latinos don’t play football.”

“I can still hear that today,” he says.

He was a non-scholarship player at Division II Texas A&M; Kingsville. He wasn’t drafted into the NFL until the second day. He didn’t become a full-time starter until this, his sixth season.

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“He literally came out of nowhere,” says Jaime Martinez, an assistant at Kingsville.

And after every season ends, he returns there.

Next summer, as he has every recent summer, Garza will spend six weeks in Rio Hondo with his wife, living in the garage of the tiny brick cottage where he grew up and still calls home.

Home, a town of about 2,000 people, mostly farmers, most Latino.

Home, a place besieged by power outages and plumbing issues that sometimes require toilet paper be thrown in the trash.

Home, the location of “Roberto Garza Jr. Drive.”

Other players may get the commercials and most of the press, but how many players in today’s Super Bowl have a street named after them?

How big is the 6-foot-2, 305-pounder in this town? The street dedication came in a ceremony before he was drafted into the NFL.

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It’s a two-block stretch of chipped and buckled pavement with weeds growing through the cracks, but it’s all his.

On one side is the football field where he began playing, a field where he still works out.

On the other side is a row of small houses that include, of course, that childhood home still occupied by his family.

“Makes it kind of tough to mail something there,” he says. “The people at Federal Express keep thinking that I’m making a mistake by writing down my name twice.”

For reasons of pride and privacy, most pro athletes make it virtually impossible to distinguish their homes, choosing instead to blend in to the neighborhood.

Garza, however, is the neighborhood.

So, at the front of the house, in the middle of a tiny dirt-and-grass front yard, sits a flag pole adorned with a Chicago Bears flag.

And leaning outside the front gate is a highway sign, one of two that once stood on the town’s main street. When one was stolen, the other was brought here for safekeeping.

“Home of Robert Garza Jr., NFL player” it reads.

During a recent interview in Miami, Garza laughs again.

“Did you have trouble finding my house?” he says, pausing. “Just kidding.”

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They don’t remember much. They didn’t know what they were looking for, so they never really saw it.

To the good people of Rio Hondo, many living at the poverty line, many looking no

further than a high school education, the work of a budding NFL player was not on the radar.

“We never thought anybody in Rio Hondo would ever make it in football, are you kidding me?” says Chris Gonzalez, a construction worker. “We’re Latinos, and most Latinos are small and can’t compete with the big guys. Our teams reach a certain level, but then we always get overwhelmed with teams that are bigger and faster.”

So when they saw this growing clump of a boy jogging through the streets at 6 a.m., they would shake their heads. And later, when they saw this wide young man running sprints on the football field after dark, they would sigh.

“This is a place where you see football players taking off their pads and marching with the band at halftime,” says Richard Alvarez, a volunteer fireman. “This is not a big-time place.”

When Garza began playing football, his parents were confused. His mother was a seamstress, his father worked on a farm, and neither of them spoke English nor understood the American game.

“I did not know anything about the sport, I didn’t know what he was doing out there,” says his mother, Ofelia, through an interpreter. “But I knew he was doing something that could get him hurt. I would say, no, no, no.”

But not playing football, now that would hurt.

Garza fell in love with the Dallas Cowboys and their center, Mark Stepnoski. He loved the contact and the competition and didn’t know how else to express that love.

“I was too fat for soccer,” he says.

So, in junior high, he wrote down a list of his dreams and gave them to his mother. It is a list she still has today. On top of it was, “NFL player.”

And everyone sighed again.

How could he have time to be a pro football player when he spent his summer days picking cotton? How could he be a pro football player when nobody who looked the way he did was a pro football player?

“When it comes to trying to play in the NFL, the system works against these kids,” says Elisa Zuniga Salinas, a Rio Hondo High booster who financially supported Garza. “Who do they see on TV? Who are their role models?”

By the time Garza was a senior in high school, Salinas says he wasn’t even supported by the school’s athletic officials.

Everyone in town, it seemed, wanted this smart kid to join the Marines. Salinas instead drove him to a high school in neighboring Brownsville to ask for help in finding a college.

“He had this very clear dream that nobody else had, nobody else understood,” says his mother. “Every time I’m awake, I see him working on this dream. He believed even when nobody else did.”

When Garza finally joined Kingsville, it was as a non-scholarship player, paying his way with help from Salinas.

Garza was so poor, his mother couldn’t even afford to call him from home.

“That’s why he’s a legend now, because of all the things he went through,” Martinez says. “He had to prove himself to everyone.”

Quietly working while others were partying or sleeping, he became an NFL prospect -- and probably the only one who was given a key to the city and a prime spot in the Christmas parade after his senior season in high school.

“The parade lasts all of 15 minutes,” Garza says. “But I was right there on the convertible.”

This was when the street was named after him and a day -- Dec. 2 -- was designated Robert Garza Day in his honor.

Because it falls during the NFL season, he hasn’t been back to celebrate his “day” since.

“So I guess it was more like a one-day ‘day’ ” he says, laughing.

He likes it that way. A fourth-round draft choice of the Atlanta Falcons in 2001, Garza signed a free-agent deal with the Bears last year that guaranteed him $4 million with a chance to make $13 million, and what happened?

Nothing happened.

His family still lives in the same small house, his mother working as a cleaning woman at an office in nearby Harlingen, his father working maintenance for the county.

“The same old-school ethic that shaped Robert, his family still has that today, and there’s nothing you can do to talk them out of it,” says Santiago Saldana, the town mayor and a close family friend.

A chipped fountain in the middle of the small front yard looks as if it has been dry for years. Inside, even though his mother loves to cook, she does it in a kitchen the size of a closet.

The garage was refinished and turned into a bedroom, but only because Garza and his wife needed a place to sleep during the summer.

“I worked hard because I always saw my parents work hard,” Garza says. “You can tell from the jobs they have now, money doesn’t matter, they will always work.”

The town, however, has become a bit more excited.

Today on Super Bowl Sunday at St. Helen’s -- Garza’s tiny Catholic church -- the parishioners are pulling a movie screen down over a picture of the Virgin Mary and watching the game from the parish hall.

“He showed us that anything is possible,” says Natalie Tovar, a speech therapist. “Nobody thought anything like this would happen, ever.”

Well, one person did.

He will be on that giant screen today, charging forward with a “C” on his helmet and bits of Rio Hondo hanging from his pads, his town and culture not a burden but an inspiration, green light after green light.

*

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.


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