They never fully dissipate, moments like these, not so much memories but ghosts of experience past, ethereal companions to those who knew them best in life. Jeff Garcia remembers the rain: how it felt as it spritzed onto his skin, how it sounded as it pattered upon his helmet. By the time David Akers trotted out from the sidelined and paced backward into ready position, the turf between the hash marks looked more like the outer track at Churchill Downs than Lincoln Financial Field.
"Just from a team standpoint, we had a confidence about ourselves by that point in the season," Garcia remembers. "There were just a lot of things that were going our way. A momentum had really built within our team. There was a closeness, a unification of that team, that, even though I was only there for a year, it was unlike any other team that I had been around."
Eleven years later, it remains unlike any other team this city has seen since, and Garcia remains unlike any other quarterback. He is, after all, the last at his position to emerge from a Lincoln Financial Field playoff game with a victorious crowd at his back, a fact that would have seemed outside of the realm of possibility had you suggested it to a member of that crowd on that January afternoon.
This was the 2006 season, mind you, just two years after the Eagles had taken the next logical step in their as-yet linear progression, qualifying for the Super Bowl after an MVP-caliber season of quarterback from Donovan McNabb. Sure, there were signs of trouble. Terrell Owens had spent the previous year sowing the team with seeds of his uniquely chaotic brand of self-defeat. McNabb had finished his second straight season on injured reserve, and Garcia's play in his relief helped to ignite the first audible questions about his future. Yet the Eagles had just won their sixth division title in seven years; by the time David Akers' game-winning field goal in a wild-card win over the Giants sliced through the uprights with no time remaining, the previous year's disaster felt like an aberration.
And yet there Garcia was, on Wednesday afternoon, taking a break from his life as a dad of four to consider the reality that had just been presented to him. Crazy was the word he used to describe it, the notion that a decade could pass without another quarterback experiencing what he did that postseason. Not that the Eagles have been short on playoff drama. Just two years after Garcia's one postseason as their starter, McNabb would recapture a little of his old magic and lead them to the brink of a second Super Bowl in a last-minute NFC championship game loss to the Cardinals, but they spent that whole postseason on the road. 2009 would bring a road playoff loss to the Cowboys with McNabb under center, and 2010 a home playoff loss to the Packers with Michael Vick.
In 2013, at home against the Saints, Nick Foles would get his first chance. But in terms of foreshadowing, it's Garcia's 2006 postseason that shares more parallels with the opportunity he now confronts. Like Garcia, Foles is now in the third act of his career, fresh off a vagabond's existence as the best available option. For Foles, it was stints in St. Louis and Kansas City. For Garcia, it was Cleveland and Detroit. Before they returned to a saddle that mattered, both men first had to come to grips with what their careers had become.
It's the way the universe often responds to one's mind-set of acceptance.
"I've always been I feel a class act and a good teammate, but when I had the opportunity, unfortunately, due to the injury to Donovan, it gave me an opportunity to step in and show what I was all about," Garcia said. "And I was hungry and ready for that chance, and ready to lead that team and really take advantage of that window of opportunity that was being presented to me."
He relishes that victory, no doubt, but he also cannot escape what might have been. With 3:18 remaining in a divisional round game at the Super Dome, they had the ball near midfield needing three points to tie, a touchdown to win. You know the rest.
"You do dwell on it," Garcia said, "because you realize how close you really were. We were a play away from making it to the next stage and going into Chicago and potentially having a chance to play the Colts again in the Super Bowl. … That sticks with you."
Eight years after his final season in the NFL, he is still acclimating himself to life as a full-time dad. His voice betrays an anxiousness to which he readily admits. You spend your whole life focused on the next thing in front – a game, a season, a tangible goal – and then suddenly your existence lacks any of that. Life used to be the thing that filled the in-between time. Now, it's all there is.
"I think it's the reason why so many former players struggle in their post-retirement lives," Garcia said.
He spent a season as an offensive assistant with the Rams, and he hopes to someday get into coaching again. He has reached out to various NFL teams, the Eagles among them. Last year, he was a regular contributor to 49ers pre- and post-game shows on a Bay Area regional sports network. But the echo of the crowd never fully leaves your ears.
"If there's one thing I miss, it's those fans," Garcia said of that January evening in 2007. "When you do well by them, they don't forget you."
On Saturday, Foles and the Eagles will get their latest shot.