Column: From ice baths to scoring touchdowns, PJ Garcia of Garfield is thriving as a running back

PJ Garcia of Garfield runs for a touchdown against Crenshaw, one of his 43 carries in the game.
(Robert S. Helfman / For The Times)

It’s well after 11 p.m. on a Friday night, and running back P.J. Garcia of Garfield High is doing an inspection of his body after carrying the ball 43 times for 331 yards and five touchdowns in an exhausting 52-49 win over Crenshaw.

Garcia says he sees scratches up and down his forearms and bruises around his body. He puts ice on his sore shoulder.

In a matter of hours, he’ll be waking up to spend eight hours Saturday and Sunday working at his uncle’s seafood restaurant, going up and down stairs while cleaning tables. He’s 18 and needs the money. Then there’s homework to finish. And maybe time to sleep.

He’s 5 feet 6 and 170 pounds. He’s treated like a human punching bag as he carries the ball through the line and prepares to be hit. He’s been doing it since sixth grade, and this could be his final season of playing football. He rarely leaves the field since he also plays linebacker.


“Honestly, I just love the sport,” he said. “I do it for the love of the game. I love watching it and playing it. The atmosphere is just great.”

Two weeks before his Crenshaw performance, he carried the ball 27 times for 85 hard-earned yards in a loss to Gardena Serra. At one point, he was being sent repeatedly through the middle of the line. Serra kept punishing him. Finally he made into the end zone on a one-yard plunge.

“He stuck his nose in there and kept going,” Serra coach Scott Altenberg said. “We hit him good and he never stopped. Our guys were like, ‘Man, we hit him hard and he kept coming back.’ Tough kid.”

But no body is invincible, even when protected by pads. Last week, when Garfield had a bye after going 2-2 to start the season, Garcia’s body needed a rest. After his mother took him to a doctor, Garcia was advised to take a break. His weekend work schedule, daily school schedule and Friday night punishments had taken a toll, so he was banned from the weight room and told to just observe during practices last week.


“It finally caught up to him,” coach Lorenzo Hernandez said. “He was just depleted.”

Starting with an Eastern League opener Friday against Bell, Garcia is going to be treated like top players in the NBA — load management. Hernandez needs Garcia healthy for the City Section Open Division playoffs in November, so he’ll be getting fewer carries even though he might not like it.

“He doesn’t think he’s getting punished in the moment,” Hernandez said. “He’s going to give you his all-out effort.”

Garcia said he understands the dangers of football and admits he has a “love-hate” relationship.


“Even though football could be dangerous, it teaches you discipline, how to be responsible, keeps you in shape. It helps you figure out how to work as a team. It’s a great learning experience,” he said.

He’ll be competing for the fourth time in the East L.A. Classic on Nov. 1 against Roosevelt. The experience never gets old.

“Every high school player dreams of playing in that game,” he said.

He’s going to keep deploying the strategy of power running backs — “hit them before they hit you.”


Along with plenty of ice baths.