Justin Garcia’s alarm goes off at 4:30 every morning.

He has to open up his personal training gym on Locust Grove and Pine for the first client of the day at 5:30. His last client doesn’t leave until 6 p.m. Instead of going home to unwind with a cold one and a remote, the 2007 Kuna High School graduate heads to practice for the Idaho Horsemen, the first professional football team in the state in a decade.

The 6-foot-4, 285-pounder plays left guard and nose tackle for the indoor, 8-man football team of the four-team American West Football Conference. Garcia and the rest of the 21-man roster will look to complete a perfect season when the Horsemen (12-0) play the Reno Express (7-6) at 3:30 p.m. Sunday in the Ford Idaho Center for the inaugural American West Football Conference Championship.

“I had never played 8-man football, let alone indoor football before. I didn’t really know what to expect,” Garcia said. “I remember watching it in California and thinking it was real fun as a kid. So being a part of it now has probably been the most fun I’ve ever had.”

Garcia, 29, was in the middle of helping the Idaho Tribe, a semi-professional football team, win their fifth consecutive Idaho Contact Football League title last summer, when he heard rumblings of a new professional football team coming into the Treasure Valley from some of his fellow teammates. A quick internet search confirmed the news; it brought him to the Idaho Horseman’s Facebook page.

Garcia attended the open tryouts where he did the most bench reps of 225 pounds — 27 — of anyone else there. He made the team.

Aug. 20, 2018, was the first day of camp. It was 107 degrees.

“We were sweating, people were getting heat strokes and puking,” Garcia said.

For free.

Players like Garcia haven’t been compensated for the 2.5-hour practices five days a week or for their time watching film. Their only paychecks come during games and it isn’t much — $175 for wins and $150 for losses. That equals out to $2,100 for nearly a year’s worth of work, which is why Garcia puts in such long days at work for his family of five, who attend every practice at places like Settlers Park and Sawtooth Middle School in Meridian. When Garcia is not busy with one of his 17 clients, he’s picking up side jobs, such as hanging sheetrock, to make ends meet.

“I’ve played football for free for so long that I’m not here for the paycheck or for the glory,” Garcia said. “I just love football.”

It’s a love passed down from his father, Larry. He wanted his oldest son to play tackle football even before Justin was born; Justin started playing football in the third grade.

“It wasn’t my idea,” Justin Garcia said while laughing.

Garcia played in his hometown of South Gate, California, before moving to Kuna as a sophomore because his parents fell in love with the city on a fishing trip. He was a three-year starter on the defensive line and earned All-4A Southern Idaho Conference honors his senior year and received a scholarship at the University of Montana Western.

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Garcia had worked up to a starting role with the Bulldogs his junior year before tearing the ACL in his left knee during a spring scrimmage. He took a year off to recover and help raise his first child. Roxanne was born the same week Garcia had his ACL surgery. Garcia came back for his final year of eligibility in 2012 to a new coach in Ryan Nourse, who immediately moved him to the offensive line.

“He asked, ‘What position do you play?’ I said, ‘I play nose guard.’ He said, ‘Not anymore, you play offensive line,’” Garcia said. “Even though I was always a big kid, I had never ever played offensive line.

“I was so mad and resented it so bad for a long time. I learned everything about football I felt like. I was very one-track minded as a defensive lineman, I knew where I was supposed to go, I didn’t really care what they were doing behind me.”

But it worked out in his favor. Garcia started in every game that season and was in talks with Canadian Football League teams after graduating with a degree in education in 2013.

Then Garcia tore the ACL in his other knee during a non-contact drill while training. So he went back to Kuna.

He did his student teaching at Nampa High School while coaching for the football team for three seasons before resuming his playing career. Garcia played with the semi-pro Idaho Matadors of the Rocky Mountain Football League, traveling to places like Montana and Utah on his own dime before playing more locally with the Tribe.

It was his big break.

“I missed playing real football,” Garcia said. “I missed running around trying to hit people and causing havoc.”

He and the Horsemen have certainly done that this season. Garcia has played the most snaps of anyone on the team. He plays both ways and even sees time on the kickoff teams.

Idaho, meanwhile, has bullied its way through the league. The Horsemen have outscored their opponents 597-331 with an average margin of victory of 22.1 points per game. They have already beaten Reno four times by 25.2 points per game.

‘When you’re sweating and bleeding with somebody, and they’re going through the same thing as you, it doesn’t matter what your backgrounds are and it doesn’t matter what your beliefs are or anything like that. You just become brothers,” Garcia said. “We’re fighting for the same thing. We’re here for the same reasons, so that’s why I think this team is special. That’s what makes this team 12-0.”

And why Garcia will continue to get up at the crack of dawn.

“Unfortunately, I’m probably going to be one of those guys that my body’s going to tell me no before my brain does,” Garcia said. “It’s my home.”

Brandon Walton covers Ada County and College of Idaho sports for the Idaho Press.

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