Tony Romo inspired countless aspiring football stars and other young athletes during his 14 seasons with the Dallas Cowboys.
Then there’s Chris Hanna, a young filmmaker from El Paso who was equally motivated by the recently retired quarterback, and not just for what he did for Hanna’s favorite team on Sundays.
Hanna’s fledgling production company lacked big-budget resources or industry experience, but he knew they had the talent. They just needed a breakthrough. So why not pursue a documentary about Hanna’s idol?
Three years later, the feature-length documentary Now or Never: A Tony Romo Story is playing at festivals around the country.
“My quarterback was Tony Romo,” Hanna said. “He doesn’t have the ultimate legend status, but there’s so much more that defines a person. He kept defying the odds and breaking through doors. It resonated within me.”
The 27-year-old director sees parallels between his filmmaking journey and Romo’s unlikely rise to fame in the NFL. Romo was raised in a small town in Wisconsin, got a late start in football (after switching from basketball), starred at unheralded Eastern Illinois University, was signed by the Cowboys as an undrafted free agent, and eventually became the starter for almost a decade.
Hanna’s documentary idea picked up steam after he met with freelance Dallas writer (and longtime D Magazine contributor) Michael J. Mooney, who wrote an in-depth story about Romo’s career at a crossroads for Texas Monthly in 2016.
Mooney is one of several interviewees in the film, including friends and family members recalling his upbringing in Burlington, Wisconsin, a town of about 10,000 people southwest of Milwaukee.
“From there, it just kind of grew,” Hanna said. “It became a completely different film.”
Hanna convinced Romo that he was the right filmmaker for the project in part by sharing his own connection to the quarterback-turned-broadcaster, and not just as a fan.
“We had to prove to them that we knew how to tell his story, because we’re not the NFL and we’re not ESPN,” Hanna said. “We just wanted to get a shot and get the story right. They opened the doors for us to make the film, and they got really excited about it.”
Most of the film focuses on Romo’s family and his roots, involving multiple trips back and forth to Wisconsin for Hanna and his crew over the course of three years. They also secured the necessary rights with the NFL and the Cowboys to license game footage and logos.
Meeting with Romo’s father and grandparents was a particular highlight for Hanna, in part because of his Latino heritage.
“Knowing that he’s Mexican-American, that his grandfather worked the ranches, and he comes from an immigrant family that crossed the border to give their family a better life, it means a lot to myself and Mexican-American people here in El Paso,” he said. “His father and grandfather embrace where they come from. That inspires people out here. To know that somebody of that celebrity status comes from a family who had to sacrifice, it tells you that you can come from anywhere and still make greatness happen.”
After screenings this summer in Burlington and El Paso, the film has several festivals booked, including two North Texas showings within a week of one another. Hanna hopes audiences will become attached to Romo’s story as he has.
“It’s not a film about the Cowboys. It’s not just a sports movie or a football movie. A lot of people can relate to Tony Romo’s story. It’s made for everybody — people who want to succeed in life,” Hanns said. “It was just a dream come true. I met my hero, somebody who inspired me in my own life, and was able to tell his story.”
NOW OR NEVER: A TONY ROMO STORY will screen on Sunday at the North Texas Film Festival in Plano, and on Oct. 3 as part of DocuFest at the Angelika Film Center. Hanna will attend both screenings for a Q&A afterward.