High School Football

Former Central football coach Justin Garza dies after six-year cancer fight

Justin Garza, a popular high school football coach with a genuine personality whose career had taken flight when he was diagnosed with cancer six years ago, died Monday night at his parents’ home in north Fresno.

Mr. Garza’s wife, Regina, and his father, retired dentist San Juan Garza, were at his bedside and other family members were close by, including his mother, Josephine, when he passed at 10:45 p.m.

He was 41.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Garza is survived by his son Joaquin, 6, and daughter Elena, 2.

“My husband had a tangible impact on everyone who knew him,” Regina Garza said. “He had the unique blend of being a leader of men while emanating the humility of an Everyman. The passion he injected into everything he did was inspiring to all who witnessed it.

“His legacy will live on through the work of those he influenced, and in his children. It is hard to express my deep love for my husband and the full heart he had for Joaquin, Elena and all those he encountered.”

Central baseball coach Jeff Prieto had exchanged goodbyes with Mr. Garza via phone before he moved from Stanford University Medical Center to hospice care at his parents’ house in mid-December.

“A bone marrow transplant (in October 2014) never took,” Prieto said. “He had been working on sheer toughness for more than two years, but his body just quit fighting.”

Former Central football coach Wayne Koligian said: “Everybody admired him, everybody respected him. He was at another level in the way he handled kids, the faculty and community. He was extremely organized and extremely smart.

“This is a tough situation for all of us to see. We’re all going to miss him very much.”

Mr. Garza, a former Memorial High standout athlete, assisted Koligian for six years before becoming head coach at Reedley (2005-09), Sunnyside (2010-11) and Central (2012-14).

“We all knew he would be a very good coach,” Koligian said. “He just needed to be put in the right situation to showcase how good he was.”

Highlights were a historic 26-10 Reedley win over rival Sanger in 2007; a County/Metro Athletic Conference title at Sunnyside in 2010, including wins over Edison (28-0) and Bullard (49-28); and at Central a Central Section Division I runner-up finish in 2012 and a co-Tri-River Athletic Conference championship in ’13.

But, with Mr. Garza, it wasn’t about wins and banners as he rapidly earned reverence without pretentiousness.

“Justin was a guy who really put his players first – it wasn’t about him – and I always appreciated that,” said former Mt. Whitney, Buchanan and Reedley coach Mike Vogt.

“The other thing, in going to clinics and talking to college coaches, Justin was extremely diligent about studying the game. I remember how he would network those guys because he really wanted to learn. In a football sense, he was wise beyond his years.

“This is a time we knew would come, but hoped it never would. It’s so hard because he had a young family.”

Mr. Garza launched his coaching career in the 1990s as an assistant under then-Kerman and Reedley coach Donnie Arax before linking with Koligian at Central.

“He was willing to put in whatever time it took to become an outstanding coach,” said Arax, currently the Bullard coach. “As a young age, we didn’t know much; we just knew we had to put in a lot of hours. And with Justin, I didn’t have to worry about that.

“You can’t use clichés in talking about him; they fall short.”

The cancer struck in 2011 – Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which affects the body’s ability to fight infections. But Mr. Garza brought no attention to it publicly at the time while forging ahead in making Sunnyside relevant in section football.

Taking notice were administrators at Central, specifically Rich Clayton, the district’s athletic director at the time. He ultimately took a position with the same title at the Paso Robles Joint Unified School District, but remained close with Mr. Garza all along.

“What made Justin special was his passion for all people,” Clayton said. “His heart for helping others, combined with his tremendous intellect, allowed coach Garza to impact every single person he met, regardless of their background. Every person who sat down with Justin left knowing they had made a friend. He made every person want to be better.

“I am a better person today because of Justin and grateful for every conversation we had.”

Elena Garza was delivered at Clovis Community Medical Center on Thanksgiving Day 2014 while Dad remained at Stanford, one of the world’s most comprehensive cancer treatment hospitals, after a bone marrow transplant a month earlier.

This was a process, Mr. Garza’s wife said in August 2015, that resulted in unsuccessful steroid treatments following complications.

Regina said then: “It’s not like, ‘We found a (transplant) match and that’s it.’ It’s a long process, everybody’s journey is different and Justin continues to fight for his family.”

The fight found a virtual second residence for the family in the Palo Alto area.

“We’ve become experts at the (180-mile) drive,” said then his wife, a Fowler graduate and Madera County attorney, who took a leave of absence in the process. “In my mind, it’s the only choice. I’m where I need to be with him, and every day is a blessing.”

Mr. Garza’s fight, so profound, so embraced by those near him, inspired many Central Unified employees to contribute an enormous volume of their sick leave, allowing him to remain on paid leave virtually to the day he died.

Ex-Central Superintendent Mike Berg, who gave a substantial amount of sick leave, said two years ago: “A lot of people are saying, ‘This is a good guy fighting a good fight.’ We’re all behind him because he’s so tremendous with kids.”

To which Mr. Garza responded then: “The amount of sick leave donated by my colleagues is evidence of the type of people I’ve been blessed to work alongside each and every day.”

Andy Boogaard: 559-441-6400, @beepreps