NEAR NORTH SIDE — The top goal scorer for Walter Payton College Prep's boys' soccer team — which will begin its quest for a fourth straight regional crown Tuesday — has an unusual problem before games.
"My biggest question is who's going to tie his shoes," Monica Melendez said of her son, Jonathan Garcia, who was born without a left hand due to a rare birth defect known as amniotic band syndrome.
But as the leading goal scorer for Payton the last three years, Garcia, 17, hasn't let the condition slow him down on the field or off of it. He even is an expert Xbox player, balancing the controller on his leg and using the end of his left arm to manipulate the joystick.
The lone hangup for him is making a tight knot for his shoelaces.
"I've been tying his soccer shoes for him since second grade," said Payton senior midfielder Will Jackson, of Lincoln Park, who has been on the same club teams as Garcia for 10 years and has been a classmate with him since they attended preschool together at Near North Montessori.
Once he's laced up, Garcia, of Humboldt Park, has been the Grizzlies' go-to player to find the back of the net. He's been a varsity starter since freshman year, scoring 15 goals in his first three seasons.
This year, prior to Tuesday night's IHSA Class 2A 1-0 regional semifinal victory against Elmwood Park, Garcia had 12 tallies, most coming from his dominant left foot. It's likely Payton will face Lake View High School in the regional final, where they might need Garcia to dent the net again, said Walter Payton co-head coach Paul Escobar.
"He's extremely fast, crafty, quick and has great balance," said Escobar, of Wicker Park. "And he has a nose for the goal."
Said Garcia: "I'm grateful that not having one hand doesn't affect my everyday activities. I don't see myself as anyone different on the field. And, in soccer, you don't need two hands."
Garcia could perform throw-ins with his one good arm, but Escobar doesn't ask him to because he'd rather have him on the receiving end. During his youth playing days, Garcia said he once received a yellow card from an official, who told him "I could only throw it with two hands."
"It was pretty controversial," Garcia said.
The 5-foot-9, 140-pound Garcia has soccer in his blood. His first cousins, former Whitney Young standouts Jasmine and Mia Espino, were part of the Guatemalan National Team.
He's also an intelligent player. As his mom, a teacher at Drummond Montessori in Bucktown, said, "when you're missing something, something always comes out sharper, and in his case it's his brain."
Garcia scored a 30 on his ACT, but he's retaking it Saturday because he's hoping for a 32. His two main college choices — for academics and soccer — are Division III Tufts University and Knox College. If he attends Tufts, Garcia said he'll major in biomedical engineering; at Knox, neuroscience or biology would be his chosen concentration.
"Something about science really makes me excited," Garcia said. "It's amazing what goes on in our bodies, at a microscopic level, that has yet to be uncovered."
Garcia said he's the only one who pokes fun of himself because of his condition. He credited his Near North Montessori and Payton classmates for "forgetting that I have one hand. It doesn't exist to them, and no jokes are made."
Garcia has returned the favor, volunteering as a Payton Advisory Leader — a program for seniors and juniors to coach and mentor incoming freshmen.
"I love getting people used to things, and letting them know they can do it," he said. "That's how my whole life has been."