Imploring his Central High football players to respect "the hallowed ground" on which they were practicing Thursday, Justin Garza dropped to his knees and kissed it.
Soon after, following the end of the workout, he stood, they knelt and emotion really took over.
The 38-year-old coach who in no way was expected to return this soon — not six weeks after receiving a stem cell transplant in his second go-round with Hodgkin's lymphoma cancer — informed the Grizzlies he's been cleared to join them on their flight to Colorado for an Aug. 24 opener at Valor Christian of Highlands Ranch.
They erupted in applause.
"Sometimes," Garza struggled to continue, "when you do things right … "
He bowed, paused, choking on his words. The players applauded once again.
" … things work out."
He then completed his address, not before raising his hands in a brief dance, and an already bright season outlook had found additional sparkle for a Tri-River Athletic Conference team likely to be top-ranked by The Bee and in Cal-Hi Sports' state preseason Top 25.
"Coach Garza gives us the juice," returning quarterback Eric Jimenez said. "And we really have a lot of juice now."
Mark Hetherington, offensive coordinator and heretofore interim head coach, spoke for many: "It's kind of like Dad coming home. Everyone sees Justin as a mentor, a leader, a tremendous person. And he never wanted any sympathy. This is a lot bigger than football."
Garza, while anticipating a full recovery following a treatment process that included "high-dose, knockout" chemotherapy, had expected to miss three or four games.
He did say Thursday, however, he'll be deliberate physically in his return as a coach, and that he won't be able to assume full-time teaching demands for a month or two. School begins next week.
"It's a fatigue thing — not a debilitating thing — I just get tired faster," he said two weeks after his birthday. "I go four hours, then take a rest; go four more hours, then take a rest. And if I yelled, it wouldn't come out very loud. I think I'm about six weeks from being fully ready to go."
His return was approved Wednesday night in the latest of bi-monthly visits to the Stanford Medical Center: "I'm blessed — and lucky my doctor's a football fan."
Central has many of them, particularly among college coaches.
The Grizzlies have five major college recruits, the appeal that landed them among 13 games to be televised by ESPN's family of networks Aug. 23-25 in their "High School Football Kickoff."
Central's 7 p.m. game Aug. 24 against Valor Christian — the state of Colorado's reigning 5A champion from a suburb of Denver — will be carried by ESPN2. The Eagles went 12-2 in 2012 while outscoring the opposition 588-86.
The Grizzlies, meanwhile, closed an 11-3 season by placing second to fellow TRAC member Clovis North for the Central Section Division I title.
Central two-way lineman Sharif Williams, a 6-foot-3, 295-pounder, has become the team's third player to make an oral commitment to Arizona of the Pac 12. Running back Nick Wilson and defensive back Devon Brewer already had.
In addition, 6-1, 293-pound defensive lineman Tashon Smallwood has pledged to USC.
And then there's receiver Michiah Quick — the most hunted Grizzly of all — who lists Alabama, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Oregon and USC atop his board.
Hence, a river of hype is flowing through the orange and black.
"Yeah, and we're ready to live up to it," said Jimenez, who started half of last season. "We're ready to prove we can play with the best."
Meet Christian McCaffrey of Valor Christian.
The Stanford-bound 6-foot, 195-pounder and son of former 13-year NFL wide receiver Ed McCaffrey, returns after delivering 2,491 all-purpose yards and scoring 41 touchdowns as a junior.
"He's pretty much their whole offense," Brewer said.
Central will answer with Quick, another all-purpose threat and arguably the most electric player in the section two years running.
"Going out of state will be a fun part of it," Quick said. "We're going not only to represent our school and community, but the whole state and to let them know Cali boys aren't weak."
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