Prior to the 2018 high school football season, St. Francis High School (La Cañada Flintridge) head coach Jim Bonds had an informal conversation with James Escarcega, a writer for the San Gabriel Newspaper Group. Bonds, the head coach at St. Francis since 2000, told Escarcega, “I’ve never steered you in the wrong direction…we got this kid coming in, and he is going to be very special,” Escarcega told EVT in an exclusive interview.
“Bonds wasn’t the type that would put anybody on a pedestal real fast or real easy … you had to earn it. To get him to say something like that, I was like. ‘Whoa, okay.’”
SDSU incoming freshman Max Garrison was the player Bonds described.
Bonds reached out to Garrison about playing for St Francis when the talented running back and safety was in the seventh grade. “(Bonds is) the reason I went there,” Garrison revealed during an upcoming episode of The SDSU Football Podcast. “I wanted to play for him.”
Escarcega, who is now the head publisher of the SVG/Whittier Prep Sports Zone, sought Garrison to see if he was the real deal. He saw him live for the first time during Garrison’s freshman year. “He was just built differently, and he had this engaging personality like you don’t see a lot in high school athletes,” Escarcega recalled.
Although Garrison had played running back his whole life, at St. Francis, he was behind Angelus League MVP Kevin Armstead on the depth chart during his freshman and sophomore years. A consummate teammate even at a young age, Garrison made a name for himself from day one on the defensive side of the ball, starting in the secondary, playing safety and cornerback. He was the first freshman on the varsity team at the school in 11 years.
With Armstead’s graduation, Garrison headed into his junior year as the starting running back. But his recruiting had already taken shape, and schools only had film on him playing on the defensive side of the ball. San Diego State offered him a scholarship to play safety. “I was trying to get in where I fit in,” he said, noting if collegiate programs wanted him to play defense, he would do it.
The excitement of “going back to [his] roots” of playing running back quickly dissipated as Garrison’s world was about to be turned upside down. The COVID-19 pandemic impacted every facet of society and eventually postponed the fall 2020 high school football season in Southern California. Garrison wondered if he would have the chance to show his skills as a running back or his development as a safety.
Then came the big blow. Coach Bonds, the reason he decided to go to St. Francis and his “second father figure,” passed away in October at the age of 51 due to multiple myeloma.
— St. Francis Football (@SFGoldenKnights) October 24, 2020
Garrison was devastated. But he understood that life must go on. “His impact will carry me through the rest of my life…and I want to play and carry on his legacy,” Garrison said.
thank for everything Coach Bonds. my guardian angel. rest in paradise.💔 prayers to the Bonds family thank you for everything you guys have done for me and this community. we love you guys❤️…. pic.twitter.com/hIhjPZ09hQ
— Max Garrison (@maxlxgarrison) October 28, 2020
Escarcega believes the genuine connection the two built with each other was borne by the fact that Bonds “saw a little bit of himself in Garrison,” and he “was more concerned about the person than the football player.” Garrison recalled their affinity for being ultra-competitive and having the same “dog mentality” to win at all costs.
Once high school football returned for a Spring 2021 abbreviated season, Garrison’s play did the talking. He totaled over 1,000 all-purpose yards and 12 touchdowns in the six-game season, earning league offensive player of the year and all-league honors on offense and defense.
Despite the offensive production, his scholarship offers still mostly came on the defensive side of the ball, either at safety or nickel cornerback. He formed a bond with Kyle Hoke, the safeties coach at San Diego State, and verbally committed to the Aztecs at the start of his senior season despite offers from Power 5 schools such as Arizona State, Washington State, and Texas.
Escarcega believes playing defense will be Garrison’s ticket to the NFL, although he would have to get a little bigger, stronger, and faster over the next couple of years. He is quick to point out that Garrison is a very physical defensive player. “He’s one of the rare defensive backs that is willing to stick his head in and make a tackle but can cover too,” he said.
Garrison once again won league offensive player of the year and all-league honors on both sides of the ball in his senior season after accumulating 1,995 yards and 28 touchdowns on offense and continuing to play lockdown defense in the secondary.
Becoming a Division I athlete is not a new storyline for the Garrison family. His sister, Summer, currently plays soccer at Illinois. His father, Milan, played football and baseball at Cal Poly Pomona. His mother, Lisa, was a gymnast for the United States national team.
Garrison jokingly refers to his parents as “football snobs,” and one of his favorite family memories is spending Saturdays with his mom watching college football. “If you look up ‘football mom’ in the dictionary, my mom’s picture will pop up,” he said.
“She loves her family, she loves her son, and she loves St. Francis football,” said Escarcega when asked about Lisa Garrison. “You don’t see many moms with her football savvy…you could not miss her during the game…she was very loud and supportive of her son.”
Before calling it a high school career, Garrison had one more item to check off his bucket list. He and coach Bonds had talked about winning a CIF championship together. After failing to reach that goal prior to coach Bonds’ passing and with his junior season cut short due to COVID-19, Garrison and his teammates labeled their senior season as “CIF or nothing.”
It worked, as the motto steered the Golden Knights all the way to the CIF Division 4 championship game this past December. Although they lost to Long Beach Poly, Garrison was proud the school made it to the final game for only the second time in 50 years. “There was no other way to go out,” he exclaimed.
A mother and her son with one final hug in the house built by Jim Bonds. Max Garrison and her mom Lisa. Good luck in not crying. @maxlxgarrison @lisabgarrison @SFGoldenKnights @AthleticsSFHS @SGVNSports pic.twitter.com/ZLmEO47Khp
— James Escarcega 📈🏈🏀⚾️🥎 🤼🤽🏽♂️🏊🏼♀️🏌🏻⚽️ (@James_Escarcega) November 28, 2021
As Escarcega reflects back on his conversation prior to the start of 2018, he can attest that coach Bonds has still never steered him in the wrong direction. “Garrison lived up to the hype and more,” he said. “Anyone who is covering SDSU football for the next couple of years is going to love him.”
The SDSU Football Podcast
Listen to the entire conversation with Max Garrison at any of the links below: