A lot of people come to Florida to retire. Hal Garner has come to Florida because he un-retired.
Garner will be a starter for the Buffalo Bills on special teams and a backup outside linebacker to starter Darryl Talley in today's Super Bowl game in Tampa Stadium.For Garner, a native of Logan and an all-conference defensive lineman for Utah State, it marks the summit of a two-year climb back into the pro football mainstream. Two years ago, he was watching the game from his home in Hyde Park, Utah, secure in the belief he would never play again.
"This is a real dream come true for me," says Garner. "I didn't think I could get here from where I was."
He retired at the age of 26, following a 1988 season that was, at best, ill-fated.
It was a year filled with problems. Garner's knees were repeatedly injured, and during the middle of the season he was suspended for four games by the league for a violation of its substance abuse policy.
That season ended one game short of the Super Bowl. The Bills lost to the Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC Championship game. On the opening kickoff of that game, Garner broke his thumb. He had it x-rayed and casted in the locker room and played with it that way the rest of the game.
A couple of days after the game he had surgery on his left knee - the second surgery on his left knee and his fifth knee surgery overall.
He came home to Utah with a cast on his hand, a cast on his left leg, and sour memories of the four-week suspension that sent him to a rehab clinic although he reportedly didn't have a problem he couldn't take care of on his own.
"I had no desire to play," he says. "I decided to give it up."
Once his surgeries were mended, he got a job with G.P. Construction of Elko, Nev., working on a road crew in the desert west of Salt Lake City. He worked 12-hour shifts and stayed on the site.
The experience was enough to make him begin to re-think his retirement.
"I had to weigh a lot of things," says Garner. "Many of the doctors I saw told me how bad my knees were, and did I want to be able to hike and fish and do things with my son when I was 45. I remembered a lot of coaches I'd played for, men who'd played long careers and could barely walk.
"But being out of the game made me realize how much I loved it. And the new technology they have (for knees) is really something. I thought maybe I could still play."
Knowing few players have successfuly come back to the NFL after retiring, he decided to try anyway.
"I think he figured the odds were about 1,000 to 1," says Hal Garner, Sr., Hal's dad who is here to see his son play in his first Super Bowl. "I don't think he thought he could do it. I know I didn't think he could do it."
From his home in Hyde Park - located no more than a mile or two from the Utah State football stadium - Garner set up a daily workout schedule designed to launch him from Logan back to Buffalo. It was the Buffalo Bills who drafted him out of Utah State in 1985 - in the third round - and it was the Bills who had kept him employed through the 1988 season.
The first thing Garner did was call head coach Marv Levy to ask if he would be given a chance at the team's 1990 training camp.
"Marv said I would," says Garner. "And he wished me luck."
You name the exercise. Hal Garner did it. Through the winter and spring and early summer of 1990 he was a nonstop aerobic and non-aerobic workout. He rode bikes, he ran stairs, he ran the Romney Stadium track, he lifted weights, he hiked the Cache Valley mountains.
A witness to much of this was Rand Hendricks, Garner's best friend and a high school rival when they played as teenagers at Sky View High (Hendricks) and Logan High (Garner).
Hendricks, a former junior college basketball player, was coming off back surgery and needed extensive workouts himself. Together, they pushed each other.
"Hal was obsessed with his goal, to get back to the NFL," remembers Hendricks. "He was a driven person. He wanted to prove himself again. I don't think anybody believed in him but him.
"He got strong. He got incredibly strong. He got so he could bench press 230 pounds 30 times. And I noticed that his mind changed, from positive to negative. He really pulled it off."
The NFL has strict rules about retirees who want to come back. Garner's first step at reinstatement was to go to league headquarters in New York. There, he was interviewed by the chief of security and Commissioner Paul Tagliabue.
He rejoined the Bills in early August last summer.
He sweated out training camp, he sweated out the exhibition season, and then he sweated out making the team's final cut.
"I was at a Buffalo Bisons baseball game," he remembers. "I was sitting with (quarterback) Jim Kelly in his box and found out I'd made the Bills while watching television."
Or, re-made the Bills.
The 1990 season was Hal Garner's comeback. He dislocated a toe, sprained an ankle and dislocated his shoulder - prompting half-a-dozen games on the injured list - but he became a force on the special teams unit that has become one of the Bills' most powerful weapons.
He isn't a starter at linebacker like he was in 1986. But he is backing up two Pro-Bowl linebackers (Talley and Cornelius Bennett), who form the nucleus for what many call the best linebacking corps in the NFL.
The Bills gave him a 10 percent increase over his 1988 salary once he made the team.
"I'll play the first play Sunday," he says of today's game. "No matter who kicks off, I'll play. I can help set the tone for the game. I want to do that. Special teams are going to have to come through. I don't think it's going to be a high-scoring game - Bills-Giants games usually aren't - and I think special teams are going to need to come up with a big turnover."
He says all this with the fervor of a rookie, not an NFL veteran.
"It was always his dream, to be a pro player," says his mother, Carol, who is also here for the game. "Nothing was going to get in his way."
Native Utahns who've played in the Super Bowl
Player Team Year
Golden Richards Dallas 1976, 1978
Matt Mendenhall Washington 1983
Rulon Jones Denver 1987, 1988
Bruce Hardy Miami 1983, 1985
Steve Clark Miami 1983, 1985
Hal Garner Buffalo 1991