The end – at least of his football career – crept into the head of Max Garcia back in January.
He had battled Covid, and even after, the motivation to work out wasn't there. He was more than two years removed from the ACL tear that stunted his career, and he wasn't sure the fight for a backup role was worth it. His goal was to spend six years in the NFL, and even if some of it was injury-marred, he had accomplished that goal already.
His friends were supportive, telling him to walk away if that's what he really wanted to do. Except it wasn't.
Garcia still loved the game, loved the idea he could serve as role model and teacher for young offensive linemen like training partners Joshua Miles and Josh Jones.
"I can continue to be positive influence, I can still have an impact even if I'm not on the field," Garcia said. "I can still motivate, I can still coach and I can be enthusiastic. Show people you can love the game even if you're not a star player. That's what changed, me realizing my value."
And, as it turns out, the Cardinals needed Garcia on the field too.
After hitting an emotional milestone by starting his first game since his injury at right guard against the Rams in Los Angeles, Garcia will now start against the Browns Sunday in an even more important role – filling in for stud center Rodney Hudson, out with ribs and shoulder injuries.
"I'm not sure if you can replace (Hudson) as far as the plays being effective," coach Kliff Kingsbury said. "He was such a great presence for us in pass protection and the run game. It's hard to account for not having him in there as a playcaller."
There is, however, a trust in Garcia, who mostly played guard before coming to Arizona. Despite his injury – which occurred as a freak non-contact practice happenstance on a wet field while playing for the Broncos and then-head coach Vance Joseph – the Cardinals brought him in for 2019. Offensive line coach Sean Kugler coached Garcia in Denver, and "Kugs" can't get enough praise from Garcia with the support he has given.
Garcia had trained all along the line, but he made enough progress as the backup center that the Cardinals traded Mason Cole and released Lamont Gaillard after Hudson arrived in trade early in the offseason.
Garcia, playing in the AFC West with Hudson, had watched the veteran. But "not until I officially moved to center this year and started learning about the intricacies of about playing center and the things he taught me during training camp, I was like, 'This dude is the real deal.'
"I understand why he has been so valuable to offensive lines. He's like having a quarterback out there. You can't replace someone like that."
Garcia received a good 72.7 run blocking grade from Pro Football Focus in his work at center (23 snaps) against the 49ers once Hudson went out of the game, and an excellent 79.8 in pass blocking. He did not allow a quarterback pressure.
The Browns feature an excellent defensive line, making this week's task more difficult.
"As a team, (Hudson) is a captain of ours, a guy that we look to, one of our leaders, the anchor in the middle," quarterback Kyler Murray said. "Obviously, we got to hold it down while he's out, that's the mindset."
Garcia is ready, far from the man who pondered walking away from the game. Kingsbury said the entire offensive line loves Garcia, watching him work his way back. And this, after much reflection, is where Garcia wants to be.
"(I have) love for the game," Garcia said. "It's hard to play this game if you don't love it."