Jan. 25, 2013
By BJ PICKARD
In September 2011, the San Antonio Talons announced the biggest acquisition in franchise history by introducing Aaron Garcia - the AFL's all-time leader in virtually every passing category - as the team's starting quarterback.
Fourteen months later, the team was forced to find a new one, as Garcia announced his intentions to join the San Jose SaberCats in free agency, leaving the Talons with the unenviable task of replacing him.
But replacing a legend is no easy task. Not for the team, and certainly not for the new guy. Just ask Jay Fiedler or Todd Collins. There's an enormous amount of pressure that comes with following in the footsteps of a Dan Marino or Jim Kelly. The heir apparent must be talented enough to live up to expectations on the field and mentally tough enough to handle the inevitable adversity off it.
And while there's admittedly no substitute for his predecessor's 17 years of experience in the League, the Talons believe they've found the right man to lead the 2013 squad in rookie quarterback GJ Kinne.
"At the quarterback position and a couple other positions, we're going to be young," Kinne said. "I'm looking forward to continuing to build that tradition of winning they have in San Antonio."
A three-year starter at Tulsa University, Kinne earned Conference USA Player of the Year honors after passing for 3,650 yards and 31 touchdowns in 2010. For his career, Kinne passed for 9,472 yards, rushed for 1,365 yards and led the Golden Hurricane to 23 victories as a starter. He even finished out his collegiate playing days as MVP of the 2012 AstroTurf NFLPA Collegiate Bowl all-star game.
"GJ is an outstanding athlete and signal-caller," Talons head coach Lee Johnson said. "He has the ability to become a great Arena quarterback."
Kinne's talent is without question. However, expecting a rookie quarterback to step in right away and replicate his predecessor's 118-touchdown, 14-win season is unreasonable. It takes time to develop a passer and there will be growing pains along the way, regardless of how much talent is possessed.
That's why mental toughness is such an important trait - and there are few people more mentally tough than Kinne.
Being the son of a high school football coach in Texas is a challenging enough endeavor for any 17-year-old quarterback. But what happened on April 7, 2005 was something that no child should ever have to deal with.
That was the day a deranged parent of a football player walked into Gary Joe Kinne's office and shot him in the stomach.
GJ was at the school, preparing to run hurdles at the school's track meet that night when he got the news. His father was airlifted to a hospital while Kinne and other family members were taken to the police station for protection.
While at the police station, an officer incorrectly informed Kinne that his father had died. As it turned out, Gary Joe - who was given a ten percent chance to live - survived the shooting and remained in critical condition.
"It was definitely very bad, but he didn't give up," Kinne remembered.
After multiple surgeries and close to 100 days in the hospital, Gary Joe left the hospital to return to the sidelines. That fall, he earned Adams USA National Coach of the Year honors after leading his Canton team to a 12-2 record.
Gary Joe's son recovered as well. Kinne would transfer to Gilmer High School, where he finished his prep career ranked third in Texas high school history in passing yards and second in touchdown passes. He also walked away with two Class 3A Offensive Player of the Year honors and recognition as an All-American.
Though nothing will ever test Kinne's mental toughness quite like that April day in 2005, the 6-foot-2, 225-pound passer has continued to overcome every obstacle placed in the way of his football dreams.
The next roadblock came at the University of Texas, where Kinne originally enrolled as a freshman.
"I knew Colt [McCoy] was the guy," Kinne said. "I just wanted to get that backup position. They kind of had other ideas. It was a great experience and I loved every bit of it. I just wish I would've gotten more of a fair shot at playing. I wanted to move on and go somewhere where I knew I could start for three years and Tulsa gave me that opportunity."
At Tulsa, Kinne's star shined bright - but there too it was not without some difficulties.
"I had five different coordinators in college," Kinne said. "That was a bit of an experience."
Despite the difficulties of learning multiple systems, Kinne says working with so many different coaches actually opened his eyes to a career after his playing days.
"Coach [Todd] Graham and Coach Gus Malzahn recruited me to Tulsa. Mike Norvell - who is the OC at Arizona State - was my OC the next year. Then, Chad Morris - who is the OC at Clemson - was my OC my junior year. He's kind of my right-hand man. I talk to him probably once a week. Once I'm done playing, I'm going to go work for him because we've developed quite a relationship. I credit a lot of my success to him."
Following his career at Tulsa, Kinne anticipated the NFL was his next stop. However, things did not play out quite the way he expected.
"Mel Kiper ranked me as the tenth-best quarterback coming out of this  class," Kinne said. "Everyone I talked to figured I'd get drafted in the sixth or seventh round, so it was very disheartening when I didn't get drafted."
Despite the disappointment of not hearing his name called last April, Kinne quickly became a hot commodity in the undrafted free agent pool. The New York Jets signed him less than an hour after the draft ended, though ultimately released him before the start of the 2012 season.
"The Jets really wanted me to come to New York during the free agency process," Kinne said. "I chose them over a couple other teams and it just didn't work out, for whatever reason."
That's what led Kinne back home to Texas.
"I knew the Tulsa Talons because I went to school in Tulsa," Kinne remembered. "I had talked to the owner, David Lynd, and he really wanted me to come out and visit. I really liked it. It was just one of those things where we had some mutual contacts and the ball just got rolling."
As the Talons continue to establish themselves both in San Antonio and throughout the world of Arena Football, Kinne says the combination of his athleticism and competitive drive makes him the perfect fit to be the new face of the franchise. He knows the pitfalls that stifled players like Fiedler and Collins - but he intends to make the "Garcia to Kinne" transition a little more like Montana to Young or Favre to Rodgers.
"I think I'm going to be able to bring new energy and leadership," Kinne said. "I was a dual-threat guy in college and I can run, but I'm not sure how useful that's going to be in the Arena. I'm an accurate guy and I'm very competitive. No matter where I am, I'm the most competitive guy on the field at all times."
Just one year removed from making the biggest acquisition in franchise history, the San Antonio Talons were faced with filling the greatest void in franchise history. Whether the Talons can replicate the success of last season remains to be seen, but there is no doubt they now have a quarterback with the talent to compete at the highest level and mental toughness to rise above the inevitable adversity that will come with the territory.