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On-field defense to roadside offense: Chargers’ Garay shows initiative in going green

The 320-pound athlete chose a Hello Kitty Smart car as his ride

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Unless they’re looking to disagree with a very big man, people might consider throwing their excuses out the window instead of trying to convince Antonio Garay, defensive tackle for the San Diego Chargers, that being economically and environmentally conscious is beneath them. Or, alternately, that they're too cool for something often thought of as less than manly.

Garay drives a Daimler AG Smart car. And he loves it — a lot. He loves it so much that he really doesn’t have another car he regularly uses. And if you ask him, he fits in it just fine.

“I’ve always kind of been intrigued by the whole Smart car thing,” Garay said. “It seems that it gets kind of a bad rap. Everyone sees it like a small car, but for a guy my size, it’s still pretty roomy in there.”

Once people move beyond the stereotype, Garay said, they can find the Smart car to be both fun and environmentally friendly. He said the job of getting the word out and changing the mindset of Americans needs to be looked at as a long-term process, especially because drivers in the United States are so reliant on gasoline.

Picture him rollin': Fuel efficiency is barely an issue these days for the Chargers' Antonio Garay, proud owner of a Smart car. Garay's small car, complete with a logo of Hello Kitty, has caused a buzz on social media and sports websites. Photo by Christopher Smith/San Diego Chargers

But he does think the country will get there. And the signs are all over metro San Diego, he said.

“I don’t think things just happen overnight. There’s a lot of hard work that gets put into things, whether it’s major businessmen or women, any athletes,” Garay said. “Everything kind of happens gradually over time.

“Out here in San Diego, you see everyone with the Smart cars, the ones that they drive around downtown — the car2gos — which I think is a pretty cool concept.”

Even Garay’s version of the Smart car, though very efficient and lightweight, runs on gasoline. He’s considering making an upgrade to the all-electric model, which is the version the car-sharing service company car2go uses in its fleet. For an initial membership and per use fee, customers there can use the cars and drop them off anywhere within the service’s operating territory, where other members needing one can pick it up and use it until they’re done.

As a professional athlete, Garay has received a lot of local attention for his choice of vehicle. He said that fans, through social networks like Twitter, often send him pictures of themselves standing next to their rented Smart cars, exclaiming that they’re now a little more like him.

Garay enjoys the lightheartedness. And although it wasn’t the reason he bought one, he also accepts his role as a high-profile supporter of the eco-friendly vehicles.

“I did it because I wanted to do it,” Gary said. “But I think that because people see that genuine side of me, they understand I’m doing it because I enjoy it.

“It just kind of gives people another avenue to say, ‘Hey, if he enjoys it maybe I could.’ Because the average man is considerably smaller than me.”

That genuine side he speaks of might be more apparent when people realize which Smart car in San Diego is his. It probably wouldn’t be hard to peg in a lineup.

Measuring at 6 feet, 4 inches tall and 320 pounds, Garay is known throughout the Chargers locker room as a bit of a jokester—he likes to have fun. He first drove a Smart car in 2009, after connecting with a cousin in his home state of New Jersey who works for Mercedes-Benz, and setting up a test drive.

Antonio Garay, the San Diego Chargers defensive tackle with a self-proclaimed sense of humor, recently agreed to stay in town a while longer under a two-year, $6.6 million contract with the team. Photo courtesy of San Diego Chargers.

“I thought it was fun — something fun to do, drive around in,” Garay said.

More than a year later, he was at Mercedes-Benz of San Diego, looking to buy. Normally the prankster, Garay was the target this time, when his salesman thought it would be funny to bring out a different color Smart car than the white one he was expecting.

The joke backfired, in a way. True to his nature, Garay went with the salesman’s prank. He actually embraced it, forgetting about the white Smart car and going with what was brought to him. And now he not only drives a black and red Smart car — which matches his high school colors — but one plastered with images of Hello Kitty, no less.

Garay laughed as he recalled the experience, and the whispering of a heads-up he received from some of the dealership’s other workers before the car was brought out.

It just made for Garay’s usual good time, and he carried the good spirits all the way back to the Chargers locker room.

“My teammates were like, ‘Why did you get Hello Kitty?’” he recalled. “I used to tell them all the time, ‘Hey, you’re going to start seeing rappers wearing gold chains with Hello Kitty on them. Hello Kitty’s going to be the new Superman emblem of this millennium.’ So I was always joking around.”

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