In a Burlington high school yearbook photo, Romo flashes his winning smile. photography courtesy of Burlington High School


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.

In the first half, Romo throws an interception and is sacked once, but he is still leading the Burlington Demons down the field with every possession. His team could have easily scored two more touchdowns in the first half if balls hadn’t been dropped.

The Burlington defense, on the other hand, can’t stop the bleeding. Gillem powers through the Burlington defensive line, scoring on 82-yard and 51-yard touchdown runs. Jackson also has his revenge, returning a Burlington kickoff for a touchdown.

Early in the third quarter, it finally unravels for Romo. On a second down, with five yards to go, Romo takes the snap, and, in an instant, the offensive line evaporates. He scrambles out of the pocket, running while looking downfield. He motions with his left arm, trying to get one of his covered receivers to make a move, trying to take the nothing of the play and turn it into something. He doesn’t see Dave Nielsen, an outside linebacker standing in the flat 10 yards away. Nielsen sprints and collides head-on with Romo, lifting him off the ground and slamming him down on his back.

“He ran right through him,” Luther remembers. “While Romo’s throwing, he’s throwing it across his body, and he leaves himself wide open. And he gets laid out.”

The ball pops out of the quarterback’s hand and into the arms of safety Robby Collum, who runs it 53 yards for yet another Case touchdown. As Collum sprints for the end zone, though, the linebacker Nielsen just stands over the flattened quarterback, gazing down at him, worried that he has just knocked the life out of the kid.

“You could have put that on a poster,” Jackson says. “Do I help the guy out? Do I leave him there? Do I ask him if he is okay?”

On the game tape, we never see Romo get up, but we do see Nielsen for a moment, stone still, head hung.

“We thought he got a concussion,” Luther says. “He was woozy. We knew we got him.”

Peter Jackel saw Tony Romo play football for Burlington only a couple of times that senior year. He saw Romo play the second game of the season against Racine Horlick, a game in which Romo passed for only 123 yards, his second least productive game of the season. Racine County’s outlying towns are part of Jackel’s beat, high school sports programs he has covered for 33 years, but like any reporter making decisions about where to emphasize coverage, it makes sense for Jackel to watch the inner-city powerhouses more closely.

“Just from a travel point of view, we don’t cover them that often, maybe a game or two a year,” Jackel says. “I think we’ve only got one photograph of him playing in Burlington in the archives.”

But Jackel wrote weekly previews for the paper. He saw the numbers Romo was putting up, and he wrote briefs and features when the player won awards.

“Nobody ever did what he did before,” Jackel says. “He was putting up 250 yards every game. Usually, around here, it was five for 12, with 83 yards. With him, he was a complete natural.”

Jackel is a hard-worn kind of guy with a great, heavy head; a lumbering walk; and a rapid-fire tongue. From his desk at the Racine Journal Times, he begins to produce clippings, manila folders with box scores that date back decades. He pulls out game stories and features, articles that track Romo’s progress out of Racine County and onto college at Eastern Illinois. Jackel takes pride in how he tracked Romo’s career through the years, always watching his surprising progress from the home front. “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.”

Romo became the Cowboys’ starting quarterback in 2006. photography courtesy of Corbis

Jackel, it turns out, grew up in the same Racine neighborhood as Romo’s mother, Joan. He went to St. Catherine’s, while Joan went to Park. Her grandfather once played for the Racine Raiders, the semipro football team. Romo’s father, Ramiro, also grew up in Racine, playing soccer for St. Bonaventure, a private school just outside the city that was repurposed as a jail after closing in the 1980s. Tony Romo was born in San Diego when his father was stationed there with the United States Navy. When they returned to Wisconsin, Ramiro settled the family in Burlington, where he was a carpenter and worked in construction, and Joan worked as a cashier at the Sentry, a grocery store.

Jackel and the Romos grew up at a time when Racine could still call itself “the Industrial Capital of the World,” when there was a chance that older neighbors had worked in a manufacturing plant alongside the women who had played for the Racine Belles, the World War II-era baseball team immortalized in the film A League of Their Own. There was a time in Racine, as Jackel tells it, “that when Park played Horlick, it was like the Super Bowl. People used to be hanging off the rafters.”

Jackel pulls out the pages he was looking for, Burlington’s box scores from 1996, and heads to the photocopier. “But that was a little before my time,” he says.

Racine’s motto now is “Racine: A Nice Place To Live.” It is painted in a mural featuring an eagle on a brick wall up the hill from Pershing Park, overlooking an empty parking lot in Racine’s windblown downtown. Up the block, Jay Luther, the old Case linebacker, tends bar at the Ivanhoe Pub.

“If you talked to me 15 years ago, it used to be a little more rough,” Luther says of his hometown. “And I remember when I was a kid, it was pretty bad. It’s actually coming together. We’re not a normal city yet, but there are a lot of hard workers and people who want to work. Just the jobs ain’t there sometimes.”

Jackel grew up with another man in Racine who would figure into Romo’s life. His name was Roy Wittke, a Wisconsin Eau-Claire football player and coach at Montana State University and Central Missouri State before eventually becoming a quarterback coach and offensive coordinator at Eastern Illinois University.

“I went to grade school with Roy,” Jackel says. “And Roy’s father sent him an article that I wrote about Tony. And he went and recruited him after reading that article. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have really known about him.”

Romo remembers first meeting Roy Wittke his senior year at a basketball game well after the football season had ended.

“His parents lived in Racine, and they were like, ‘Yeah, this kid is in the newspaper,’ ” Romo says. “So he came and checked out a basketball game. I threw one behind-the-back pass or something.”

During his senior year basketball season, Romo made third team All-State, higher honors than he received in football. Even Romo’s football coach thought his quarterback would go on to play basketball in college.

“Honestly, when we found out he was going to Eastern to play football, it was a surprise to a lot of us,” Coach Gerber remembers. “We thought it was going to be basketball somewhere, for sure.”

But Wittke didn’t drive all the way out to Burlington, Wisconsin, to recruit a basketball player, and unlike the Division III schools courting Romo at the time, he wasn’t offering the player a chance to continue playing both sports in college. No, Wittke had come for a football player, and he wanted to sign the football player he had read about.

When Tony Romo was taken to the sideline in the third quarter in the game against Case, he was in bad shape. He didn’t have a concussion, but he was shaken, and he had a gash on his chin from where Nielson’s helmet had snuck up under his face mask. “It was more just bleeding than it was painful,” Romo says, underplaying the injury. But to stop the bleeding, a Burlington coach had to stitch Romo’s chin right there on the sideline.

“Probably today, you wouldn’t put a kid that was in that condition back in,” Gerber says. “And I’m not real proud to say it was a different time, but he wanted to keep playing. And so he was stitched up and went back in.”

At first Romo’s return doesn’t go well: a no-gain run, a blocked pass. But he begins to settle down and make completions: 15 yards, 23 yards. He lobs perfect balls to his receivers, along the sidelines, straight up the middle in traffic. Sometimes the balls hit the receivers’ hands and bounce to the ground. No matter. Romo regroups: 6 more yards, 12 more yards.

“Man, they whipped it,” Luther remembers. “And the whole second half was no huddle, which was very exhausting.”

After Romo took his big hit, Burlington possessed the football for the entirety of the third quarter, converting a long drive into a touchdown on the very first play of the fourth quarter. Case managed one more touchdown, but at that point, it didn’t much matter. The game was decided. Case would win. Now it was just the Tony Romo show.

Romo scored his next touchdown with just two passes, favoring the middle of the field. Then Burlington recovered an onside kick, and Romo was at it again, running plays from the shotgun, no huddle, reading the defense, and marching down the field.

“We did a lot of what you call check-with-me’s,” Coach Gerber says. “At the line of scrimmage, he reads the defense, and then he has three or four choices based on what they ran.”

Case’s players start to notice what is happening: the seizure of complete control, Romo’s ravenous hunger.

“He knew what he was doing,” Luther says. “He doesn’t look like your prototypical quarterback in high school. He knew where to put it. It was probably the most exciting thing I’ve ever been involved in.”

After watching Romo in that game, Jackson says he believes that if Romo had played with any of the Racine city schools, they would have won the state championship. “It just doesn’t happen,” he says. “You knock a guy out, he comes back in, and he just torches you some more. It was just a game that you don’t ever forget. I think if he goes to a city school, he goes to a high Division I university. We had all the exposure in the city. At given games, Wisconsin was there, Nebraska was there, Ohio State was there. All the scouts come into the city, because you find good talent with good competition.”

At Pershing Park that September night, there were no top-notch scouts to witness what Romo did. His 392 yards represented the most prolific passing performance of his high school career. It was the kind of performance that you would think would earn most young athletes in most cities across America at least an introduction to a scout from a big-deal Division I university. But not Tony Romo. To get noticed, Romo had many more years of hard work ahead of him, many more years of playing second string to lesser quarterbacks, quietly challenging himself each day to get better and better.

But there was one person who took notice of Romo’s performance at Pershing Park that day, and though it wasn’t a man with pull at a top-flight university, he was a local boy who happened to have a grade-school friend named Roy Wittke and a pen and a game story to write. And so after taking care to record the 51–34 score in the Racine Journal Times and describe just how strong-hearted those Case Eagles played on that September night, Peter Jackel added one more line to the lead of his story.

“Oh, and while we’re at it,” Jackel wrote, “could a kid named Tony Romo ever throw the heck out of a football.”

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