SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -If men of vision and wisdom had been running the San Francisco 49ers four years ago, Jeff Garcia might nearly be ready to hang his picture on the 10-Year Wall at the team's training complex for a decade of faithful service to his beloved childhood team.
Instead, Terry Donahue and John York were running the 49ers.
The way Garcia sees it, that's why he's returning to Candlestick Park on Sunday as a highly successful itinerant laborer - a hired gun of a quarterback who's propelling the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-5), his fourth team in four seasons since leaving his hometown club, into the playoffs.
ecision looks more foolish with every incomplete pass by Garcia's six successors.
``I didn't want to leave the way I did,'' said Garcia, who grew up just south of Silicon Valley in Gilroy, Calif. ``I never really wanted to, or expected to, play for another team in the league. My loyalties were right there with San Francisco.''
There's a wall in the 49ers' training complex featuring photographs of every player with 10 years of tenure with the franchise. It's a revered spot for 49ers, with only the consistent contributors making it - everyone from John Brodie to Joe Montana.
``I talked about this in the past, how I walked by that wall every single day, and how badly I wanted to be a part of that wall,'' Garcia said. ``It really meant something to have that consistency and loyalty to a team.''
Garcia certainly had the credentials to earn a long stay. After signing with the 49ers out of the Canadian Football League, he made three straight Pro Bowls from 2000-02 and set the 49ers' single-season record for yards passing in 2000.
But to some 49ers fans, Garcia simply wasn't Montana or Steve Young - never mind that both Hall of Fame quarterbacks had much better supporting casts than the crew Garcia led through a wholesale franchise rebuilding to two playoff appearances.
Garcia takes no backhanded pleasure in the 49ers' fall from grace. Though some fans didn't think he stood up to comparisons with Montana and Young, Garcia's record looks better with each passing season - particularly this year, when Alex Smith and Trent Dilfer stumbled at the controls of the NFL's worst offense.
``I felt like I was able to handle my own when I was there,'' Garcia said. ``I never had a problem battling those sorts of obstacles. I felt like going there after Joe Montana or Steve Young was a great challenge for me. I wanted to be that next quarterback they talked about. I think if I had been in San Francisco for my entire career ... that maybe would have happened.''
Instead, six players have started games at quarterback since Garcia left, none with any significant success. His current successor is Shaun Hill, the sixth-year veteran who won his first NFL start last week against Cincinnati.
Garcia, who took a winding road to the NFL, has particular empathy for Hill, who hadn't even thrown a pass in a game until two weeks ago.
``It happens every single year,'' Garcia said. ``I don't know if there is a way of re-evaluating the evaluation process, but somehow, some way, there are tremendous football players out there that just don't get somebody excited about them. Some of us have to go through different leagues or bide our time until we get that opportunity. That's what Shaun has done.''
Though Garcia enjoyed his greatest successes with the 49ers, his days in San Francisco were far from pacific. He quarreled at times with coach Steve Mariucci, and he became the first quarterback to be vilified by Terrell Owens, a former friend who eventually belittled Garcia's arm strength and made jokes about the sexual orientation of the squeaky-voiced quarterback who later married a Playboy model.
Garcia, Owens, Garrison Hearst and offensive linemen Derrick Deese and Ron Stone all left the team within weeks of each other as former general manager Donahue and owner York finished demolishing their 2002 playoff team in the name of salary-cap savings.
Coach Mike Nolan's team still hasn't recovered from Donahue's failed moves and awful drafting. Nolan's future is in doubt going into the 49ers' final home game - and probably the final Candlestick appearance for defensive end Bryant Young, a 14-year veteran and Garcia's good friend.
``To travel back to the area that I grew up in is exciting for me,'' Garcia said. ``It's going to be an emotional day for me. I know I'm going to have a lot of friends and family for support in the stands.''
Garcia returned to Candlestick last season with the Eagles, but didn't play in a September blowout win. Though he's focused on getting a win for the Buccaneers, he'll take a moment to enjoy perhaps his last chance to line up on his field of dreams.
``I'm really thankful for everything I was able to experience as a 49er,'' Garcia said. ``It was a dream come true for me. A lot of great things happened to me. I've seen the highs and lows of football ever since I left San Francisco, and that has been at times difficult to deal with, but I think it's also helped me grow up.''

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