Northeast Valley News

Saguaro remembers Mike Garcia

The school's revered equipment manager died three years ago, and the school still honors the man called "Tug"

Courtesy of Kara Brown

Courtesy of Kara Brown

Kara Brown, Freelance Reporter, Scottsdale Chronicle

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Mike “Tug” Garcia sat in his office for 13 years with doors wide open for any Saguaro Sabercat who needed a friend, advice or a witty joke to make a bad day better.

“He was the kind of guy that if he only had a dollar, he would give you 99 cents,” said Nickie Edwards, Saguaro’s athletic trainer.

Students past and present, as well as the faculty, are left with fading memories of the man they all called “Tug” since his unexpected death on what seemed to be an average September morning at Saguaro in 2013.

That is until news broke out that Garcia, Saguaro’s most loved man, was gone.

Garcia may be gone but Saguaro students, faculty and staff aim for him to never be forgotten.

The morning of

Early on a Monday morning at around 2 a.m., Saguaro’s then-Athletic Director Bob LaRue was awakened by a phone call that changed his life forever.

LaRue was the first to receive the news that Garcia had died unexpectedly from a heart attack at the age of 44.

It was now his job to wait around and inform the administration that the face of Saguaro would never return. Before the 7:45 a.m. bell rang, administrators made their rounds to deliver the heartbreaking news to the faculty and staff.

Garcia and football coach Frank Ruben both came to Saguaro in 2000. The two worked closely together since they were heavily involved in athletics on campus. It was a friendship that was not limited to only work; they were close friends beyond school hours as well. When Ruben watched his three boys, Tim, Alex and Teddy play and win state football championships, Garcia cheered along with him on the sidelines.

For 13 years they bantered. They joked. They even shared the same birthday.

“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Ruben said. “Mr. Corte, the principal, came into my office and shut the door behind him.”

Unexpected and unusual, Ruben initially feared that he was being let go due to the seriousness in the room.

“Tug died last night,” Corte said.

“That sentence hung in the air like a thick cloud and I was choking on the words, unable to process the sentence that I just heard,” Ruben said.

Once admin left Ruben’s office, he sat alone, stunned beyond words. He reflected, thinking back to their Homecoming Game, just two days prior. The coaching staff had celebrated at Zipps after each game. When Ruben’s wife walked into the bar that night, Garcia, who seemed healthy, gave up his spot at the table so she could join.

Little did Ruben know that as Garcia’s silhouette departed the room, he would be seeing his beloved friend for the last time.

Who was Tug?

Mike “Tug” Garcia worked as the school’s equipment manager for over a decade. He adopted the nickname “Tug,” short for “Tugboat” based on his thick-set, stocky physique and his powerful mentality.

Garcia was extraordinarily passionate about his position at Saguaro. For a man that graduated from St. Mary’s Catholic School, he made it apparent that he bled black and gold for the Sabercats.

In addition to being the equipment manager, he also coached the school’s junior varsity softball team during football’s offseason.

“Even though his primary responsibility was as the equipment manager, he was so much more than that,” Ruben said. “He was a coach, mentor, advocate and in many cases a role model to many kids whose lives were lacking a male influence.”

Impact on Saguaro

Once the initial shock subsided and the campus began to heal and get back to its daily routine, the void that was left after his unexpected passing remained. Garcia’s connection with students was unlike anyone else’s on campus. By working with all sports teams, he was able to connect on a personal level with nearly anyone he talked to.

Not only did he impact students’ lives, but his colleagues as well. With a new crop of Sabercats filtering every four years, one thing that stayed the same were the individuals that were lucky enough to work with him throughout his time at Saguaro.

“So many things remind me of Tug,” LaRue said. “The coaches and athletic staff have Tug memories almost on a weekly basis.”

Nagui Sabbagh started out at the high school as a security guard, but his friendship with Garcia grew on the football field while he helped coach the team. They became a dynamic duo, the big men on campus. One would not be seen without the other somewhere nearby. In the midst of Garcia’s death, it was no question that his close friend would take over as the newest equipment manager.

Three years after his death, it is still surreal for some.

“I can’t just sit in that office. I need to be doing something to take my mind off of it,” Sabbagh said. “It’s a very eerie feeling sitting in there alone. That’s not my office, it still belongs to Tug.”

Green-out

On the Friday following his death, Saguaro football dedicated its biggest regular season game in Garcia’s honor. The school hosted its first “green-out game” against No. 2 Queen Creek, the defending state champions. Players, students, alumni, parents and staff traded in their black and gold attire for green, honoring Garcia’s favorite color. The last time the stands had maxed capacity was at the peak of the school’s rivalry against Chaparral High School years before.

Luke Rubenzer, the starting quarterback for the Sabercats during the 2013 season, bonded with Garcia in the three years that he was given. Whether it regarded frustrations with coaches, how he was playing, or his personal life, he always counted on Garcia to lift his spirits.

In preparation for the game, Rubenzer and his teammates knew that they had to dedicate the season to the rock behind their program. They decided to go “All in for Tug.”

“We all knew that Tug wanted nothing more than for us to win,” Rubenzer said.

That night, the Sabercats upset the defending champs, coming away with a 35-28 victory.

The two teams faced off once more that season for the 2013 State Championship. The level of importance was evident between the two teams. For the Bulldogs, it was just another game. As for the Sabercats, this was a chance to play for something much bigger than themselves. It was no longer just a game, but a chance to bring home one final ring for Garcia.

“It was during that game that I realized that football is more than a game to some people, just like it was to Tug,” Rubenzer said.

The Sabercats took it all the way and clinched a state championship for the man they had been playing for all season.  Upon victory, Frank Ruben took off his hat and etched a note inside the bill for Garcia to be a part of the memory forever.

“We have been fortunate enough to have won the last three state championships in a row,” Ruben said. “And after every one of the championships, I put a little inscription on the inside of my hat in dedication to my beloved friend.”

The legacy lives on

As the final class to personally know Garcia prepares for graduation next month, Saguaro High School continues its tradition of the green-out games in Garcia’s memory.

“We will continue this tradition every year,” Ruben said. “Even though new classes come and have never met Tug, they all come to know who he was, what he did for Saguaro and how much he loved all of the Saguaro teams, but especially football.”

Garcia’s family is invited each year, where they sit as VIPs among a sea of green.

Manny Garcia, Saguaro alumni, is forever grateful that Saguaro is willing to carry on his father’s legacy in such a manner.

“I know that he is looking down with that big smile that we all remember most,” Garcia said.

Knowing new students will wander on campus without a clue about who “Tug” was, a proud son wants to make one thing clear.

“Although the students do not know who my dad was, they should understand that if he were here today they would love him just as much as the past decade of students do,” Manny said.

Three years later, the halls feel a little emptier, the field seems a little larger but one thing for sure is that the love for “Tug” at Saguaro has not gone away. Although the green jerseys come out but once a year, it goes without saying that green has become the unofficial color of the Saguaro Sabercats.

Mike “Tug” Garcia has added a new culture to the school’s history.

“For that we wear green game jerseys for him, and what better way to pay tribute than to play a game in green jerseys in his honor,” Ruben said.

“Tug” may be gone, but he will never be forgotten.

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Saguaro remembers Mike Garcia