The College Recruitment of Tony RomoSeptember 15, 2015
It was a Saturday morning in April 2012 when Tony Romo addressed more than 70 high school quarterbacks at a Nike Elite 11 regional camp at AT&T Stadium, then known as Cowboys Stadium. After offering his words of wisdom to young quarterbacks hoping to one day follow in his professional footsteps, he then stayed a few minutes to watch the players go through drills.
With the event featuring football's future signal-callers competing and learning from former pros, Romo was like a moth to a flame. He took in the majority of the camp as an enthused spectator on the sidelines, watching the quarterbacks put in work in an effort to become the eventual faces of college football.
"I just love football," said Romo, trademark smile showing and tag-teaming with his 5 o'clock shadow. "For me, I'm always around the complex throwing, so it's always neat to teach some of the stuff you've learned. I would have loved it back at this age if I was there."
Growing up in Burlington, Wisconsin, in the 1990s, Romo didn't get many of the chances athletes of today get. He also didn't have the luxury of being a highly touted recruit, like several of his peers or even some of those he offered advice to at the Nike camp.
It's amazing how life works sometimes. Now 35, Romo has gone from the quarterback who had to play Division I-AA (now FCS) football to the face of one of the most well-known teams in the NFL in the Dallas Cowboys.
For a guy who could very well finish his career owning nearly every passing record in Cowboys history, the journey along the way hasn't been easy.
Hard Work and Loyalty
Born in San Diego, Antonio Ramiro Romo was the kid who won everybody over after his family moved to Burlington. Even at a young age, he was friendly, energetic and athletic.
And competitive. Ultra-competitive. Need proof? Sunday night's come-from-behind win against the New York Giants would make a great Exhibit A in his case.
"We first played tee ball together," said Jeff Tenhagen, a classmate and teammate of Romo's at Burlington High School. "That competitive nature has always been there."
Growing up, Romo seemed to play everything: football, basketball, baseball, soccer, golf. He wasn't known for having a tennis background, but he once challenged the high school's No. 1 varsity singles player and beat him, according to Tenhagen and his older brother, Steve Tenhagen, also a high school teammate of Romo's who's now in his second year as Burlington's head football coach.
When Romo finally got his opportunity to start as a junior, he delivered. Over and over again. He went from a third-string quarterback to someone who threw for more than 3,700 passing yards and 42 touchdowns in two seasons at Burlington. His career also included all-state honorable mention honors for both his junior and senior seasons.
Everybody seemed to take notice. Everybody, however, except for the Division I college scouts. Romo graduated high school in 1998 and, for whatever reason, couldn't get a scholarship offer from in-state school Wisconsin. Or Minnesota. Or Illinois or Iowa or Indiana or any other Big Ten school surrounding the state.
"We've tried to rationalize it," said Steve Gerber, Romo's high school coach. "When he was at Burlington, the enrollment was around 1,100. We had one of the smaller schools in our conference. We had a lot of success with teams that were our size enrollment-wise, but I think that played against him.
"When you competed against the bigger programs, that was when you get your kids looked at. We just didn't have that pedigree, and I think that went against him."
Romo did, however, manage to receive interest from University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and Minnesota State University, Mankato—two schools that weren't Division I but did offer a chance for him to hone his craft.
There also was a small state university in Charleston, Illinois, that took interest. As a Division I-AA school, Eastern Illinois, coached by Bob Spoo, offered a partial scholarship. Romo accepted.
"I remember it was a last-ditch effort that Colorado came to check him out," Jeff Tenhagen said. "But at that point, he was already committed to Eastern. That's where he was going, and he just wanted to pay his dues."
Romo overcame a slow start at Eastern Illinois, ultimately impressing his college coaches when they nearly gave up on him. Because he struggled early, Spoo considered moving Romo to a new position at the end of his redshirt freshman season.
"They wanted to make him a tight end," Gerber said.
Offensive coordinator Roy Wittke thought it was best to give Romo a last chance at quarterback, and understanding the situation, Romo did what his peers said he does best: He challenged himself and pushed himself to the extreme.
The decision to keep him at quarterback turned out to be a good one, to say the least.
"I've been doing this 30-plus years," Wittke told S.L. Price of Sports Illustrated in 2013. "He was, by far, consistently the hardest-working kid in practice I've ever been around."
Recruiting: Football or basketball?
From 2000-02, Romo was the three-time Ohio Valley Conference Player of the Year, as well as a three-time All-American quarterback. In December 2002, Romo became the first Eastern Illinois and OVC player to win the Walter Payton Award, which is given to the nation's top Division I-AA football player.
Romo finished his college career with 8,212 passing yards and 85 touchdowns. He wore No. 17 in college, and in October 2009, Eastern Illinois retired his jersey.
A robust resume for someone who once called himself "very raw" in football.
"I didn't think about college football until halfway through senior year," Romo said in Star-Crossed: The Story of Quincy Carter and Tony Romo, a film produced by the Dallas Cowboys.
Even with the numbers he put up as a quarterback, the Division I looks weren't coming in football. But when Romo wasn't shining as Burlington's quarterback, he was showing his skills as the school's point guard, nearly averaging a double-double as a 6'2" guard—24.3 points and 8.8 rebounds—and was a three-year letter winner. He also averaged 4.7 assists and 3.1 steals.
"Oh yeah, basketball was his true love when we were kids," Steve Tenhagen said. "But when he stepped on that football field his junior year...it was like you knew. He was just the ultimate competitor. It didn't matter what he was playing; he always played with confidence knowing he'd put his team in the position to win."
Romo's peers always wondered if that passion for basketball kept him from earning a Division I football scholarship offer. By running the basketball team at point guard, he wasn't using the offseason to work on his skills at quarterback.
Basketball was his first love, but his first big game at quarterback during his junior year was memorable. According to a September 2012 article in D Magazine, Romo threw for 308 yards against Elkhorn—a number that, per the article, "no passer in the county had reached since 1984."
Romo was good at football and basketball, but after having a long conversation with his father, and after examining the obsession of both sports, he asked himself one question that helped him make a decision for the future.
"What could you be better at?" Romo said in Star-Crossed.
Romo wanted refinement to his game as a football player, and Eastern Illinois gave him that chance. Although he would have liked to play Division I ball, Burlington—not being a large, go-to school for college football recruiters at that time—wasn't attracting the big-name schools.
"At the time, there wasn't a whole lot of [football] players coming out of Wisconsin," said Steve Tenhagen, who played and set records at receiver for Wisconsin-Whitewater. "Nowadays, a lot of kids are getting looks with video and the Internet. It was harder to get that kind of stuff out back then.
"I definitely knew Tony's skill set was there, and the potential was there. I couldn't believe some schools didn't offer him a walk-on opportunity. It'd be pretty safe to say he'd have a shot of playing."
What may have been the most admirable thing about Romo, Jeff Tenhagen said, is that he never publicly questioned his recruiting process. Romo took the opportunity given to him and made the most of it.
Playing for the in-state Badgers, the Tenhagens said, was a dream of nearly every high school football player looking to play at the next level. For Romo, Eastern Illinois was his destiny, and he welcomed it with open arms.
"He never lulled on about stuff like that," Jeff Tenhagen said. "He never said anything about why any of the Big Ten schools didn't give him a look. If anything, he just used everything as a means to get better."
Not getting recruited heavily may have prepared Romo for his experiences just before the start of his professional career. He made himself eligible for the 2003 NFL draft, and he watched 13 quarterbacks get taken.
Unfortunately, Romo wasn't No. 14.
"When he got to Eastern, he was motivated," Gerber said. "And when he didn't get drafted, I think that motivated him even more. He wanted to prove to everyone that he belonged [in the NFL]."
That draft included household-name quarterbacks Carson Palmer and Byron Leftwich. It also included Drew Henson, Gibran Hamdan and Brooks Bollinger, quarterbacks Romo has emphatically surpassed statistically.
Romo wasn't thought to be good enough to play in the Big Ten. Coincidentally, Henson (Michigan), Hamdan (Indiana) and Bollinger (Wisconsin) all were Big Ten starters.
Fast-forward to the start of the 2015 season. Romo entered his 13th season with the Cowboys and has multiple franchise passing records. He entered Sunday's game against the New York Giants with 33,270 passing yards and 242 touchdowns.
"Look at where he's come from," Jeff Tenhagen said of Romo. "He wasn't drafted like he wanted, but now he's one of the top five quarterbacks in the world. We've seen it our whole lives. Every time he gets involved with something, he ends up working to be the best at it."
Romo was a 2008 inductee of the Burlington High School Wall of Fame. He already has his college jersey retired, and when he hangs up his cleats as the Cowboys quarterback, he's expected to one day be a member of the Cowboys Ring of Honor.
As the ultimate competitor, Romo is the poster child for perseverance. He's gone from backup to starter since high school as an undrafted, under-recruited athlete.
Yet his story may be one of the most popular when discussing working from the ground level up.
"I said this in high school," Jeff Tenhagen said. "If there's going to be someone who makes it big around here, there's no doubt it was going to be Tony. Everything he's done, he's risen to the occasion."
"He's such under a microscope now, but that's OK," Gerber added. "It's part of that position, especially in Dallas. Everything he's gone through, it's really something he'll reflect back on when he stops playing."
Damon Sayles is a National Recruiting Analyst for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow Damon via Twitter: @DamonSayles.