August 30, 2012


Tony Romo: The Natural : Everything you ever wanted to know about the Dallas Cowboys quarterback you can learn from the greatest high school football game he ever played. (Peter Simek, SEP 2012, D Magazine)

But there was something else. 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."

Romo never thought of himself as a football player. In Burlington, you grew up playing sports, not any one single sport. At first, he played soccer, golf, and basketball, which was always his best sport. He tried out for the freshman football team late in the season only to become a backup safety and "seventh-string quarterback," as Romo puts it. "I was at practice, though," he adds. He spent weekends playing golf with his father at Browns Lake Golf Course, a public track just up the block from the Romo house, or driving from town to town in rural Wisconsin, looking for pickup basketball or soccer games. At night and after games, he played video games, poker, or chess--anything to stay in competition--in the basements of his friends' homes. In 2007, he appeared on the sports talk show Inside the Huddle and shared an embarrassing story about what has to be one of the few individual competitions he didn't win outright during his high school athletic career: a botched first kiss.

Romo's high school football career stutter-started. He seemed poised to become the quarterback for the junior varsity team as a sophomore. Then, during a preseason practice, the JV coach decided Romo needed to be "taken down a notch," as Bondar remembers it. The coach ran a play named "get Romo," and the defense bum-rushed him. Romo broke his finger, knocking him out for the season.

"You have a lot of different practices, and any one player can annoy a coach," Bondar says. "And I think that particular day, he did something to annoy that coach." 

And so, at the beginning of his junior year, in 1996, he was the varsity's third-string quarterback. Burlington lost their first game that year, 15-0 to Hartford, and the Demons' two quarterbacks that day combined for a whopping 12 yards passing. The following week against Elkhorn, coach Steve Gerber put in Romo, and the young quarterback threw for 308 yards, a number no passer in the county had reached since 1984. Romo had managed to do it without ever having played a single game of organized football in his life. 

On September 19, 1997, the week before the game between Burlington and Racine Case, Jay Luther, a short, stocky linebacker and Case's defensive captain, drove out with half his defense to Burlington to watch the game against Park High School. When Luther and his buddies--including running back Gillem, who also played linebacker, and cornerback Keontay Jackson--huddled on a cold night in the wooden bleachers that are set into an earthen berm overlooking Burlington's tiny Karcher Field, with its shortened track that runs through the end zone, they were watching for just one thing: Tony Romo.

Everyone had heard about Romo. The previous season, he had lit up the county, throwing for 1,863 yards, with 26 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions. Burlington beat up teams, racking up wins with score lines like 58-0 and 42-7. And yet, as he would in the Cowboys' playoff game against the New York Giants in 2007 and in last season's opener against the New York Jets, in the state quarterfinal game, Romo threw a late-fourth-quarter interception. Later, the team from Cudahy scored on a last-minute, five-play drive and treated Burlington to a stinging one-point loss.

Coach Gerber, whose first season coincided with Romo's junior year, said that he knew Romo was the school's best quarterback, but he didn't realize just what kind of a natural Romo actually was. 

"In high school, you normally tell the quarterback to look to one side of the field," Gerber says. "Maybe they get through their first or second read, and if you get to your third read, you're moving your ass out of there. But he wasn't that normal kid who could just read the one side of the field. You'd give him one side, and then he'd find a way to get the ball over to a receiver at the end of the third or fourth route on the progression list."

Jeremy James, who became Romo's primary target during his senior year and went on to play at UW-Oshkosh, says it wasn't until college that he began to learn the things Romo did naturally in high school. "My college coaches would tell us, 'Watch cover three, change your offense,' and that's the kind of thing that Tony could just see," James says. "I mean, I'd be making my breaks, and the ball would be right there. And it would go through my hands, because he was throwing on timing, and we weren't at that point yet."

Jackel, too, took notice. "He made a comment to me one time that I never forgot," the reporter says. "He said, 'I just see things in slow motion. I just see it. I see the game well.' And then I read somewhere that he took the number nine because that is the number that Robert Redford wore in The Natural."

That cold night in Burlington, Keontay Jackson saw what all the fuss was about. 

"We went to go scout, like, 'Let's go see what this Romo kid is about,' " Jackson says. "And every bit of it, we were like, 'He is the real deal.' "
Romo threw for 210 yards that night, completing 15 of 37 attempts, including one touchdown and a two-point conversion in a hard-fought 22-15 loss against the conference powerhouse. 

"The talent pool in the city is a little different than the county," Jackson says, "so he didn't have the weapons that we have in the city. But he would call his own plays, call his own audibles, and his leadership--we saw all of that." 

But Luther saw a weakness. 

"Yeah, he could throw the ball," Luther says. "But he didn't have a million athletes on his team. And they weren't very good at running. They didn't have big, huge linemen." 

Luther drew up a plan: line up four linemen and put two linebackers on the edge of the defensive line, right at the line of scrimmage, and rush Romo on almost every single down. 

"We figured we could stop the running game just by playing our normal defense," Luther says. "But rushing him every play, we'd get at him."

Posted by at August 30, 2012 5:29 AM

blog comments powered by Disqus