A Star Is Born: Tony Romo among the hobby elite

(From the December issue of Tuff Stuff’s Sports Collectors Monthly)

By Scott Fragale

The National Football League has been known for its unpredictability ever since Broadway Joe made long shots fashionable back in Super Bowl III. Since that time, a number of teams have shocked fans with memorable upsets for the ages. But while Namath’s heroics helped put the Davids of the world in the forefront and forced the Goliaths into the the background, the list of individual players who have continued that upset-minded tradition is a short one.

In recent years, players like Denver’s underappreciated receiver Rod Smith, grocery clerk-turned-league MVP Kurt Warner and San Diego’s all-world tight end Antonio Gates have all bucked the system and gone from undrafted nobodies to superstar somebodies seemingly overnight.

The latest David to be added to the list isn’t a David at all, he’s a Tony, as in Romo. You know, the Pro Bowl quarterback of America’s Team. The one that burst onto the NFL scene in 2006 and hasn’t looked back since. The one that each of the 32 NFL squads overlooked in the 2003 draft. When Byron Leftwich, Kyle Boller and Rex Grossman are all taken in the first round and Romo goes undrafted it makes you wonder what NFL scouts and GMs were factoring in when they made their selections and opted to stay away from Romo altogether.

While finding an NFL-caliber quarterback is, and always will be, a crapshoot, it’s hard to imagine how 32 teams could pass on Romo, but his under-the-radar college career might help explain it. Despite throwing for 8,212 yards and tossing 85 touchdowns and winning the Walter Payton Award  (Division I-AA’s equivalent of the Heisman) at Division I-AA’s Eastern Illinois, only the Cowboys gave Romo a chance.

“I’m sure many people claim they knew he was this good, and Bill Parcells liked him a lot for sure, but I don’t think anyone saw this coming or they would’ve drafted him,” said Tim Cowlishaw, lead sports columnist for the Dallas Morning News since 1998.

To better understand how his impressive numbers and accolades in college could’ve gone unnoticied by so many talent evaluators, you need to reflect back to Romo’s modest beginnings as a multi-sport standout at Burlington High School in Wisconsin. After excelling at basketball, golf and even dabbling in soccer, Romo didn’t make his mark on the Demons’ football team until his junior year, and it didn’t take long for then-head coach Steve Gerber to realize he had something special.

“That first game against Elkorn. He threw for over 300 yards and we lost the game. A friend of mine, Bob Brezewicz, who at the time was the UW-Whitewater head coach, said to me after the game, ‘Hey I know you feel bad about losing, but you have a special kid at quarterback.’ And Bob was an All-American QB himself so if he says this guy is OK, than he’s OK. So from that point on, we really had to relook how we did things offensively because we had an kid who was an athlete and could throw but he also made a lot of good decisions that night at the line of scrimmage.”

Gerber surrounded the sophomore signal caller with a pair of 6-3 wide receivers and ultimately retooled his offensive scheme to better suit the rare talent that had been bestowed upon him.

“He could think so well after the ball was snapped. Calling plays at the line of scrimmage was important, even at that time. You just couldn’t get away with calling too many bad plays in the huddle and then going up and seeing a different defense and then you’ve got a bad play called against that defense,” Gerber said. “What Tony was so good at was thinking on the move and making adjustments that you couldn’t coach. I’ve quipped over the years that the biggest mistake I could’ve made was to coach him too much and limit him to a very rigid system which is so common at the high school level, and for good reason, too, because you don’t get kids like that all the time. That would’ve been the biggest mistake I could’ve made and one that I probably made with other kids, just trying to control them too much.”

Despite his lack of game experience, Gerber quickly realized that Romo possessed some special qualities that would afford him the opportunity to transform the team’s style of play and his own style of coaching as well.

“There were just things you could do with him that you couldn’t do with other kids and that you always wanted to do. I’ve always liked that type of offense. I’ve always believed you attracted multi-sport kids when you threw the ball around like that and it was more fun for the kids,” Gerber recalled. “Yeah, it was harder when you get the ball down there around the 10-yard line and you have to get the ball in the endzone and you don’t have running game, but it was just something that was a win-win thing. It allowed me to be the coach I wanted to be forever, and I’d like to think it was good for him, too, because it got him some exposure.”

Along with football and basketball, Romo also excelled at golf and is the first athlete in Burlington High School history to have earned all-state honors in three sports. The three-sport star was inducted into the school’s Athletic Wall of Fame earlier this year.
He finished with career totals of 3,732 yards and 42 touchdowns in football, career averages of 24.3 points, 8.8 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 3.1 steals in basketball, and as a senior, he beat out Washington Wizards forward Caron Butler for Racine County Player of the Year honors, and for good measure, he added the conference’s individual golf title.

Despite some eye-popping numbers at the high school level, few could have imagined that Romo would go onto excel in college, and not even those closest to him could’ve dreamed he would later go onto find even more success at the NFL level.

“I think the big thing that was huge was when he won the Walter Payton award because it got him some attention, at least from people who maybe didn’t want to draft him but later tried to sign him as a free agent,” Gerber said. “But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t surprised that he’s at the level he’s at right now because that just doesn’t happen to our kids.”

After being undrafted, Romo signed a free-agent contract with the Cowboys on May 1, 2003. He was an afterthought on the depth chart that season behind Quincy Carter and Chad Hutchinson. In 2004, he backed up Vinny Testaverde and Drew Henson. But after replacing an ineffective Drew Bledsoe early in the 2006 season, Romo earned his first start for the Cowboys and has been the starting QB in Big D ever since. Two Pro  Bowls, 8,803 yards and 69 TDs later, and Romo is one of the league’s best quarterbacks and the Cowboys are eyeing a return to their glory days.

“He was really good right away when he got his chance to play,” Cowlishaw said. “So you saw the talent but you didn’t know if he would overcome his fearless approach. The fans took to him right away because he was much better than Drew Bledsoe and he had success right away.”

And just like his meteoric rise within the league, Romo burst onto the collectibles scene with a similar velocity and the staying power demonstrated by few others. Romo memorabilia has been some of the most sought-after material in NFL collecting circles for the last two years, and remains sizzling today. If you add in the America’s Team factor and Romo’s penchant for hanging out with high-profile blonde knockouts in his free time, it’s easy to see why Romo has vaulted into the ranks of the collecting elite.

Although being the leader of the Dallas Cowboys has afforded Romo opportunities outside the game many others could only dream of, he hasn’t lost sight of his small-town beginnings and the core values that help define him.

In spite of his new, high-profile lifestyle that includes red-carpet functions and video premieres with musician girlfriend Jessica Simpson, Romo has never forgotten where it all began. Each summer, teammate and close friend Jason Witten return to Burlington to host Romo’s football clinic. The two often stay at Romo’s parent’s house during their stay, opting to set up in the cozy confines of the family’s basement versus a luxurious stay at the nearest four-star hotel. According to Gerber, who helps run the clinic, the camp is all about teaching fundamentals of the game and having some fun at the same time, with Romo graciously putting in the time it takes to give back to the place he once called home.

Another indicator of Romo staying true to his humble beginnings was on display during a recent visit to Dallas by friends and family.

“When we were down in Dallas last year or the year before, the Romos had a lot of friends down to see the game,” Gerber recalled. “We had a room at a hotel where there was probably 50-75 people there, and when our little dinner party broke, we started to go out in the lobby and a lot of people started to gather because they knew Tony was there. The Cowboys had just lost to Detroit, kind of a tough game, so we weren’t even sure if we were going to see Tony at all. Well, he not only came, but when he walked out, everybody came up and started asking him to sign helmets and jerseys and things his dad got kind of ticked. He said, ‘This is a private party, we’d appreciate some privacy.’ But Tony just put his hands on his dad’s shoulders and said ‘Don’t worry about it dad, it’s OK, I’ll do what I need to do.’ It probably took about a half-hour before the crowd dwindled down, and from what I could see, he didn’t turn down anybody.”

Few who truly know him would have expected anything but the same accommodating nature to continue to resurface despite his superstar status around the league and within the hobby. Guess the ole saying is true, you can take the boy out of the small town, but you can’t take the small town out of the boy. Amen to that. SCM

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