On September 26, 1997, on a small Wisconsin high school football field, Tony Romo played the game of his life. Fifteen years later, opposing players still talk about it, recalling minute details of his performance.
On paper, his Burlington Demons should have been blown out. The previous year, as a junior, Romo had led the team all the way to the state quarterfinals. But in 1997, Burlington was promoted to a tougher conference filled with teams from Racine, a brick-and-soot industrial city 30 miles down the shore of Lake Michigan from Milwaukee and a 45-minute drive east of tiny Burlington. Week after week, they were getting picked apart. They had lost three consecutive games.
Their opponents, the Racine Case Eagles, had a star running back named Leu Gillem, a hulking, broad-shouldered senior who was faster and stronger than anyone else on the field. Racine Case was a city school, much larger than Burlington, but it wasn’t Racine Park, the perennial state title contender, a sports factory that has produced athletes such as former Packers offensive tackle Kevin Barry and Steelers running back John Clay. (Caron Butler is also a Park alum.) Case hadn’t had a winning season since 1993. But that year, they had Gillem. They had a chance. By the time they played Burlington, however, if Case was going to make the playoffs, they had to win every remaining game on their schedule. In other words, Case was a team with their backs against the wall.
Romo passed for 392 yards and four touchdowns. But it wasn’t enough.
When longtime Racine Journal Times high school sports writer Peter Jackel wrote up the story the next morning, he led with a touch of romance: “Just as a matter of historical record for when someone comes across this yellowed game story in their attic one day in the next century; that 1997 Case High School football team sure consisted of one tough bunch of kids.” It must have been satisfying for Jackel, born and raised in Racine’s working-class neighborhoods, to see Case finally muscle its way to a little gridiron glory. He quoted Case’s giddy quarterback, Morgan Coyle: “We played Case Eagle smash-mouth football.”
But Jackel had been reporting on high school football for far too long to stop his game story there. As much as the scoreboard confirmed that the story was about how Racine’s perennial underdogs had handed the boys from little Burlington their rears, Jackel knew that wasn’t really all of it.
After Tony Romo replaced Drew Bledsoe in a game against the New York Giants on October 23, 2006, Fred’s, a burger and beer joint on North Pine Street in sleepy downtown Burlington, became a popular place for Romo’s former coaches and teammates to meet with the media. In those days, lots of journalists swooped into town to write the Cinderella story: “Kid from small-town Wisconsin now quarterback of America’s Team.” The dough-cheeked, grinning kid who used to play basketball for hours in the asphalt driveway of his low-slung ranch house in a cul-de-sac of fenceless homes was suddenly the face of one of sport’s most storied franchises. Around the corner from Burlington’s 90-year-old dive bar, Gabby’s Palace, which still has a cheese-yellow bumper sticker on the bar that reads “Support Packing in Packerland,” the Plaza Theater began running Cowboys games on the big screen each Sunday. And Fred’s enshrined several high school and college-era photos of Romo. At a back table, under easy-to-wipe-down translucent shellac, they are preserved next to pictures of the Burlington High School title-winning trap shooting and clay target team.
In many ways, the Tony Romo story was a confirmation of what makes America great. Here was a hardworking kid, charming, polite, and maybe a little naïve, who had a heap of talent, a bunch of luck, and found himself on the cover of Sports Illustrated. He sprang from the image of an America we trick ourselves into believing is the norm and not the exception: a little town of about 10,000 people cut by a main street lined with quaint little brick buildings with storefronts still occupied by a record shop, a toy store, and an independently owned hardware store. Burlington is a town that once gave shelter to persecuted members of Joseph Smith’s fledgling Mormon congregation on their way out west. Small businesses sprouted up to serve the needs of the surrounding farming communities. It is Chocolate City, USA, home to a massive Nestle factory that towers over the field where Romo played football. Stand on any street corner or quiet, house-lined lane, and you will smell the faint scent of chocolate hanging in the air, as if it were pumped into Burlington’s atmosphere by the chamber of commerce, an omnipresent olfactory reminder that life in Burlington is ever sweet.
By the time Romo finished high school, he had earned Associated Press honorable mention All-State honors twice and was selected All-Racine County Player of the Year by the staff of the Racine Journal Times. He threw for 3,720 yards and 42 touchdowns over two years as a starter. But no matter how well you play football in small-town Wisconsin, to college scouts, those arbiters of the futures of young American sporting talent, you don’t exist. The only colleges that were interested in Romo were Division III schools: University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and Minnesota State University-Mankato.
“These are all big names,” Romo says with a flash of his familiar dimpled grin and more than a little sarcasm. “You should know them all.”
Romo’s star high school receiver and childhood friend, Steve Tenhagen, went to UW-Whitewater. During his single season with Romo, Tenhagen earned first-team All-State honors after catching 56 passes for 934 yards and 14 touchdowns. At UW-Whitewater, he set records for most single-season touchdowns and receptions. Now he is the only football coach at Delavan-Darien High School, in another small Wisconsin town about 25 miles from Burlington, who can say he took his wife on vacation with Jessica Simpson.
I met Tenhagen at Fred’s on a sunny and warm Wednesday afternoon in early spring. It was after 4, and the front-of-the-room bar was already full, so we took a table in the corner. Tenhagen stands about 6-foot-4, and, like Romo, he wears a ball cap with a crescent-bent brim that frames his wide, intense eyes. He has large, strong hands, perfect for gobbling up Romo’s passes, and he lays them on the table when he talks, the words coming out mannered and considered.
Tenhagen admits he was a little surprised to see his friend navigate all the way to starting for the Dallas Cowboys. He knew Romo was talented, everyone did, and that he worked hard. “You wanted to be on his team,” Tenhagen says. “That dated back to when we were 6 or 8 years old. Whether it was pickup basketball to tennis, if you played on his team, then you’d win.”
There’s something of a mystique that seems to surround the player. People who know Romo like to talk about his work ethic and what an obsessive competitor he is.
“He was always doing something,” Romo’s basketball coach, Steve Berezowitz, says.
“He was a gym rat,” Jackel remembers.
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.”
Burlington met Case at Pershing Park, a dinged-up and potholed field (since decommissioned for high school football). It sits about 30 yards from Lake Michigan. On that night, September 26, 1997, there was hardly a breeze coming off the glassy expanse of gray. The sky was clear. The air was crisp, 50 degrees. Conditions were perfect for passing.
On the first down of Burlington’s first possession, the Demons try to run and are stopped. On second down, Case’s linebackers push their way past blockers on both sides of the Burlington line, collapsing the pocket. Romo turns left, looks right, and, falling backward, flicks a little 10-yard jump-shot pass to Joe Steffens, who is behind two Burlington blockers, surging forward for another 19 yards and a first down. Burlington tries the run again and fails. It is second and long when Romo makes his first big passing attempt.
During the first possession of the game, Case quarterback Morgan Coyle tried a long pass, forcing the ball downfield with a weak wobble. It is that throw that makes Romo’s first long ball look all the more impressive. On Burlington’s fourth play of the game, the ball is snapped, 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 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. Romo consistently places balls exactly where he wants them, even under pressure. He is forced to scramble and rush throws, and he tries to place balls in the arms of covered receivers.