Midwestern origins gave QB a strong foundation
12:41 AM CDT on Sunday, October 29, 2006
By BRAD TOWNSEND / The Dallas Morning News
BURLINGTON, Wis. – Two hours after their son was named the Dallas Cowboys' starting quarterback, Ramiro and Joan Romo sat in their living room, overwhelmed by the magnitude of it all.
News of Tony Romo's promotion was on TV, radio and the Internet on Wednesday. The Romos' phone rang all day. A Dallas Morning News reporter showed up on their doorstep.
Mrs. Romo broke out her famous Danish kringle pastry and childhood photos of Tony. For one afternoon, the Romos' three-bedroom home in this town of 10,000 nestled in Wisconsin's southeast corner felt like the center of the sports universe.
"I would say to people in Dallas, 'If you're patient, he'll go to another level for you,' " Ramiro Romo said. "Just as he has gone up the depth chart in Dallas, his play will go up. I guarantee you."
He knows patience is a lot to ask of Cowboys fans. When 26-year-old Tony takes Dallas' first offensive snap against Carolina tonight, he will be the Cowboys' ninth starting quarterback since Troy Aikman's 2000 retirement.
That's why soft-speaking Ramiro doesn't want to get carried away. But even here, in the thick of Green Bay Packers country, the Tony Romo-for-Drew Bledsoe shockwave was felt full force.
The Packers' Brett Favre is king in these parts, but Cowboys quarterback is one of the glamour positions in sports. Besides, Tony is homegrown, having starred in football, basketball and golf at Burlington High School.
When Cowboys coach Bill Parcells benched Bledsoe and inserted Romo in the second half of last Monday night's loss to the New York Giants, Burlington phone lines buzzed. High school athletic director Eric Burling woke his kids.
"My youngest said, 'Dad, I can't believe it. We're Packers season-ticket holders, and we're rooting for the Cowboys.' "
Tony Romo's ascension might be the most notable occurrence in Burlington since it was declared Chocolate City, USA, in 1986, 10 years after the Nestle Chocolate and Confection Co. opened here.
Who knows? If all goes well the next two months, he might marshal next May's Chocolate Parade.
"Everyone knows everyone," Romo said. "It's neat to come from there because every time I go back they treat you very well and people want to hear how things are going."
For Cowboys fans, Romo represents cautious hope and guarded excitement.
Part of their intrigue is that they know little about the undrafted, 6-2, 225-pounder for whom they have clamored all season – beyond the fact he is more mobile than Bledsoe and has, for the moment, gruff Parcells' nod of approval.
How did Romo rise from pudgy, lightly recruited Burlington kid to NCAA Division I-AA player of the year at Eastern Illinois in 2002 to Cowboys third-teamer to starter?
The clues are sprinkled amid the rolling, tree- and feed-silo-dotted hills of Burlington, which is roughly halfway between Milwaukee and Chicago. The Illinois state line is 25 miles to the south, Lake Michigan 25 miles to the east.
There is the old Burlington High School (a new one opened in 2000), where in 1997 and '98 Romo dazzled – Favre-like, locals say – for undermanned Demons teams whose home field was squeezed by an undersized track that cut through the end zones.
"Coffin corners," chuckled Ramiro, pausing his SUV between the old field and the gym, where three days a week Tony played 6 a.m. pickup basketball games with coaches and teachers.
The Burlington tour continued to the town center, past the movie theater with the photo of Tony in the lobby, to Fred's World's Best Burger. The Tony Romo table was occupied, but the diners kindly allowed a peek at the Tony photos and accomplishments displayed beneath the glass top.
"I'm almost positive: If I'd had him first, I'd have had no other children," laughed Joan, who also has Danielle, 30, and Jossalyn, 28. "He wore me out."
Ramiro and Joan grew up in nearby Racine. They married when he was 18, she 19. Tony was born in San Diego during Ramiro's five-year Navy service.
The Romos returned to Wisconsin when Tony was 2 and built an 1,100-square-foot house in Burlington on a three-quarter-acre cul-de-sac lot, less than a football field from the Burlington Cemetery.
The ideal small-town, middle-class setting, it turns out, for a sports-minded, Methodist-raised boy to grow up.
"We had all the needs," Joan said, "but probably not all the wants."
The video game craze was starting, but Tony spent most of his time outside, or in the gym during harsh winter months.
Ramiro started as a carpenter, rose to commercial-builder foreman and now is a construction superintendent. Joan worked various jobs, including the clubhouse counter at the nearby golf course, where during his elementary school days, Tony squeezed in a few holes before going to school in jeans wet with dew.
He didn't play youth football because Burlington had none. Like his father, he played soccer. Upon arriving at Burlington High, his fall sport was soccer. But, as he discovered, that required a whole lot of running.
"I don't want to say Tony was lazy," laughed Burlington assistant athletic director Scott Hoffman, who coached Romo in recreational soccer and basketball during his middle school years. "He was smart, smarter than most coaches.
"He would always look for the shortcuts, how to finish drills the quickest. Tony wanted to get to game day."
'Kind of a screwball'
Romo quit soccer early in his freshman year and decided to try football.
"What position?" Ramiro asked him.
"Quarterback," Tony said.
Everyone considered it a success when Tony started for the freshman B team. His football, basketball and golf coaches saw raw talent, but Burlington basketball coach Steve Berezowitz recalls that Tony was "kind of a screwball."
The woodshop teacher told the coaches that Tony was such a hazard, he would pass him only if he promised to not take any more shop classes.
Tony usually did his homework on the school bus – just enough to maintain a B average and appease his parents – while leaving extra time for sports.
At home, he'd pop in football and basketball instructional videotapes, rewinding them so often that he wore them out. Joan had to buy three Pete Maravich basketball tapes. One of the football tapes included instruction from Favre and Bledsoe.
After his video sessions, Joan would catch Tony's passes with a pillow until Ramiro got home from work. Ramiro still has a fat ring finger and crooked pinky from catching them.
Tony kept a notepad next to his bed, in case a play or fundamentals thought came to mind in the middle of the night. While visiting his apartment two weeks ago, Joan saw a pad in Tony's bedroom and another in the bathroom.
At Burlington High, a broken finger curtailed his sophomore football season. But as a junior, he flourished in coach Steve Gerber's spread offense.
"The normal high school quarterback that I worked with – that kid would see one side of the field and maybe get as far as the second read on that side of the field," said Gerber, who was Burlington's head coach from 1997 to 2002 and is now a teacher there.
"Tony was one of those kids who could go left to right and back to the left and see the secondary read back on the other side."
Berezowitz was 22 when he took over as basketball coach before Romo's sophomore year. An admitted screamer in those days, he was extra hard on Tony because he saw untapped potential.
"We always say Berezowitz prepared him for Parcells," Joan said.
"Tony really grew up between his junior and senior year, as a person, as a student, as an athlete," said Berezowitz, who still talks to Romo weekly and travels with him to the NCAA basketball Final Four each year.
But before Romo's senior year, 1,100-student Burlington was placed in a larger-classification conference with schools twice its size.
Romo made the All-Racine County football team and was honorable mention all-state in basketball after averaging 24.3 points, but both squads finished with losing records.
Perhaps that is why he received little interest from major-college recruiters. Even Eastern Illinois didn't come around until late in the fall, telling him he would have to be a backup because it had a starter.
"Dad, I'm going to start," Tony told Ramiro when the recruiter left that night.
For all that Tony has accomplished, one might expect the Romo home to be filled with plaques, photos and mementos. Instead, the walls and shelves mostly are filled with family photos. The exception is his Walter Payton Division I-AA player of the year trophy in the living room.
Most of Tony's sports stuff is stored in Rubbermaid containers in the basement, awaiting the day that he has his own house. He has a girlfriend in Florida but shares an apartment with high school buddy Nick Sekeres, now a Plano middle school teacher.
While sitting in the stands at Burlington games on Friday nights, Ramiro and Joan usually get a call from Tony, asking how the game is going. They hear crowd noise on the other end of the line because Tony and Nick will have "found" a high school game in the Dallas area.
"There's been times along the way when I've thanked God that Tony's gotten this far," Ramiro said. "I'll say, 'He did pretty good, he's a good kid, he's not going to advance any further, whatever."
Standing at the kitchen table while Joan showed off Tony's baby pictures, Ramiro taps his finger on the table for emphasis.
"But you know what? Every time he's proven me wrong. I'm not going to doubt him anymore."