Tony Romo, who is 32 and in his prime as an NFL quarterback, comes from an altogether different era. That's all I can draw from the current issue of D Magazine, in which Peter Simek drills down into a single high-school game to explain Romo's ascent from small-town jock-of-all-trades to a guy with the second-highest NFL passer rating ever. Drama defused - Romo loses the game. But he threw for almost 400 yards and got a mention in the local paper, helped to put him on track for a scholarship at a small Midwestern school and eventually to the Dallas Cowboys.
If that sounds cloyingly quaint, try to recall those medieval days of 1997, when your Facebook wall was the inside of your locker door or the outside of your fridge. YouTube has compressed the world into a phone-sized space where anyone can pin a clipping to the cork board in the corner diner. What makes Romo's story so attractive is the relative puniness of the break he did get. But then, if you have such gigantic talent, maybe you just need a few modest breaks on the way to spending Jerry Jones' money and doinking Jessica Simpson.
Three moments stand out in this story. The first comes at the end of a section in which old high school teammates recount memories of Romo back when. Typically these oral histories of great athletes hinge on the feats of improbability they could perform at a precocious age; specificity, usually, is key to the effect. A high school teammate of Romo's says that kids knew from age 6 that to be on Romo's team - "whether it was pickup basketball to tennis" - was to know they'd win, setting up the best quote in the story:
Paul Bondar, a former Burlington star defensive end who now sells insurance to trucking companies, remembers that even when they were sitting in a friend's basement, playing video games, there was something other about that Romo kid. "It's like a force field that you can feel around him," Bondar says. "He wills the situation. You know what I mean? You can feel it."
Hey, now - "a force field that you can feel"! That doesn't explain fully Romo, but it puts us in the parking lot. Credit pure winner-guts and metaphysical phenomena for him tossing for 308 yards in his first-ever organized game, in his junior year of high school. (And for an offense that saw its top two quarterbacks throw for 12 yards total the week previous.) But this brings us to the second memorable moment in this story: A bomb by Romo on Burlington's fourth snap against Racine Case.
Romo trots three steps back, plants his feet, and launches a high, arcing pass. When the ball comes out of his hand, it flies. It doesn't looked pushed, as [Case QB Morgan] Coyle's long ball did, or really even thrown at all. Rather, it appears Romo has merely convinced the football to take off by its own volition, carving its way up into the night sky and back down to the earth, sailing just over the fingers of a leaping Keontay Jackson and square into the arms of the streaking receiver, Jeremy James, who runs 25 yards for what is made to look like an easy Burlington touchdown.
"He threw a touchdown right over my head," Jackson says, the memory still fresh 15 years later. "I thought I had the jump on it, and he had the perfect amount of touch."
It is hard to decide what is most impressive about Romo's throw: its lovely shape, its pinpoint precision, or how the ball comes out of his hand, even before Case's defenders are able to push Burlington's offensive line a couple of steps off their marks. Watching the grainy video all these years later, we might almost confuse the past and the present, to mistake the Romo throwing at Pershing Park with the Romo who plays in the NFL.
Case eventually outclassed Burlington. By the fourth quarter, Case has the game sewn up, despite Romo's inspired return from a chin bleeder that he had stitched shut on the sideline. Maybe he racked up a cartful of his yards in garbage time (though Simek makes a point of mentioning how routinely Burlington receivers dropped passes that day). Regardless, Romo finished with 392 yards passing in the loss. Peter Jackel, a longtime local sportswriter who would rarely cover schools as small as Romo's, filed a story for the Racine Journal Times about the game in which he underscored how Romo could "ever throw the heck out of a football." A childhood friend of Jackel's got the story and recruited Romo to come play quarterback at Eastern Illinois - no UW, no Ohio State, but for Romo, enough of a break to find daylight in life.
So here's the other poignant moment in this story. Jackel, this reporter who has covered Wisconsin high school sports for 33 years, thinks back to watching Romo make good at Eastern Illinois.
"They don't get a lot of coverage at Eastern Illinois," Jackel says. "And when he won the Walter Payton Award [given to the best Division I-AA football player], I remember he called me that night."
The Racine paper is the only one Jackel has ever worked for, and Racine is the only city he has ever lived in. Over his three decades covering high school sports, he has seen a number of competitive, talented kids from the city make their way out and up in the world of sports, only to disappear.
"There are a lot of people who try to big-time you, and they won't return my calls," Jackel says, "But Tony is the opposite. He is one of my favorite people of all time."
Tony Romo: The Natural [D Magazine]