Editor's note: This is a preview of Michael Silver's column titled "The Gameface," which will appear every Friday during the season.
SAN ANTONIO – Tony Romo sat in the back of the meeting room at the Ihilani Resort and Spa last February, still unsettled from his topsy-turvy trip to paradise. Having ascended from the depths of anonymity to the sudden star of America's Team – only to drop the ball at the worst possible time – Romo had finally shaken off one of the most colossal playoff blunders in NFL history and was trying to enjoy his maiden trip to the Pro Bowl.
The Saints' Sean Payton, who was coaching the NFC by virtue of his team's defeat in the conference championship game, stepped to the podium and addressed his star-studded group for the first time. "You're all great players," said Payton, Romo's onetime position coach with the Dallas Cowboys, "but this week I need some people to step up and contribute on special teams."
Payton paused for comic effect before adding, "Romo, you're holding."
Everyone in the room cracked up, including Romo, whose mishandled field-goal snap with just over a minute remaining in the Cowboys' wild-card-round playoff game at Seattle had doomed Big D to a 21-20 defeat. A month later, the cocksure kid with the quick release had learned to laugh at his ghastly gaffe, which earned him a lifetime membership – with a chair between Earnest Byner and Roger Craig – in the NFL's Untimely Fumble Club.
And now Romo is one of the league's more intriguing protagonists as the 2007 season approaches. Can he propel a talented Cowboys team to its first Super Bowl berth since they won their record-tying fifth 12 seasons ago? Is that what it'll take for him to get paid? Will Carrie Underwood write a song about him if he pulls it off?
And, the most compelling question of all: How will Romo react the next time adversity strikes?
Put another way: Will he always be Bobble Boy? Few people have ever accused me of owning psychic powers, certainly not anyone who read my classic columns predicting the Cardinals to win the NFC West in 2005 and 2006, but I'm here to tell you that Romo will Cowboy up and live it down.
Sometimes you just get a feeling about a player, and Romo comes off like one of those rare leaders who expertly straddles the line between intense drive and imperviousness to pressure. Throw in supreme self-confidence and some impressive physical skills (mobility, accuracy, timing) and Romo has a chance to be special.
Yet largely because of that infamous fumble, Romo, once an undrafted afterthought from Eastern Illinois, still thinks he has to prove he belongs.
"Eventually, you just learn to accept that you made a mistake," Romo said last week after a training camp practice at the Alamodome. "In the end, I think it can help me. I know I worked with a little bit of a chip on my shoulder this offseason, and it's still there."
I was there on that rainy night at Qwest Field when Romo's nightmarish moment played out, and the whole thing was surreal. Even after Romo, who'd driven the Cowboys into position to pull out the victory, did his Edward Scissorshands thing, he recovered quickly. He picked up the ball and began racing around left end toward the first-down marker and, a yard later, the end zone.
For a split second Romo seemed certain to make it – the fumble would've merely provided a deliciously dramatic twist to the fairy tale. But the Seahawks' Jordan Babineaux dove at Romo's heels and stopped him a couple of feet short, and suddenly it was all over: The Cowboys' season, Romo's status as the league's feel-good story and, it later turned out, Bill Parcells's decorated coaching career.
Almost immediately, I flashed back to the conversation I'd had with Romo a couple days earlier at the Cowboys' headquarters. It was the first time we'd ever spoken, and I was impressed by his understanding that what he was about to experience would dwarf everything that had happened up to that point.
Having been a revelation in the weeks after Parcells' decision to bench Drew Bledsoe in late October – culminating in a five-touchdown, 306-yard passing clinic in a victory over the Buccaneers on Thanksgiving – Romo had leveled off in the season's final months. Now, he realized, none of that meant anything.
"This is where the fun begins," he said. "As a quarterback, you get too much credit when you win and too much of the blame when you lose, especially now. But that's the position you choose.
"I talked to Deion Sanders the other day, and he said, 'You know this is all people are going to remember.' I'm not really the nervous type – it's more like I'm excited, because this is about the funnest thing there is. I mean, this is what people live for. One play can determine the fate of everyone in this organization."
So, when Romo's fate was revealed, the quarterback wasn't just awash in his own devastation.
In the locker room Cowboys owner Jerry Jones gave Romo a hug and spoke of the bright future that lay ahead. ("Snaps happen," Jones says now. "As a quarterback, he did his job." So far Jones hasn't felt compelled to offer Romo, whose two-year, $3.9 million contract expires after this season, a lucrative extension, but neither man seems stressed by that. "I just think they want to make sure," Romo says. "What good does it do for them to get it done now, except for the money they might save?")
After Romo dressed and showered in Seattle, his father, Ramiro, reminded Tony that "in sports, it's either going to be heaven or hell. The great thing is you'll get a chance for redemption." Later Romo read a text message from Payton telling him to be proud of all he had accomplished and insisting, "People are going to remember you for what you do after this, not for this."
Then Romo flew home, slept a couple hours and started obsessing about all the people he let down. "He's really a people-pleaser," Ramiro says of his son. "That's what was killing him."
Two-and-a-half weeks later, when Parcells announced he was stepping away, Romo felt especially guilty. "The worst part is that I'm a pretty nostalgic guy," Romo says. "I'd had a feeling Parcells might be close to the end, and I like to see great players and great coaches go out the way they're supposed to. I really feel like I let some parts of his legacy down."
To be fair, with the prickly, egocentric Parcells having been replaced by no-frills coaching veteran Wade Phillips, many of Romo's teammates feel like high-fiving him for having helped facilitate that change. Told of Romo's misgivings over his possible role in Parcells' departure, one veteran defensive player said of the quarterback, "He did us all a favor."
Though Romo got some attention over the offseason for non-football pursuits – attempting to qualify for golf's U.S. Open, which he'd done for the past several years, and accompanying Underwood to the Academy of Country Music Awards in Las Vegas – it would be a mistake to assume he's been basking in the glow of his newfound celebrity.
"I did three things this offseason, and they all lasted one day," Romo insists. "I'm the kind of guy who, if I'm sitting on the beach, I'm stressing out … and I want a football in my hands. If I've been away from it even for a couple of days, I get that pit in my stomach and start thinking, 'Someone's getting better than me. Someone's out learning something I don't know.' "
He says his romance with Underwood, she of the voice so golden it turned even Simon Cowell into a fawning fan, is grounded by a common thread: "You come from a smaller place and get thrown into the limelight, and to sustain your success you can't turn your back on what got you there in the first place."
In other words, he's not just attracting a famous hottie, he's peering into her soul, too.
It's enough to make a guy want to spontaneously break into song, which Romo says he does with alarming frequency in Underwood's presence. "I'm an incredible singer … not," he says. "But that doesn't stop me."
Even more dubious is Romo's song selection. It's one thing to butcher a benign tune, and quite another to do a warbling Steve Perry while reprising a Journey hit that, were his version to have been featured in the Sopranos finale, would have ended things conclusively for Tony and everyone else in that Jersey diner.
Says Romo, "I love 'Don't Stop Believing.' "
Of course he does.
And you'd best believe he won't.
TAKE IT TO THE ATM
Brace yourselves: After a quiet offseason, Cowboys receiver Terrell Owens needs some attention soon – and he'll figure out a way to demand it. … We all know Monday Night Football ain't what it used to be, but Ron Jaworski will make it a whole lot better than it was last year … Though receiver DeSean Jackson and quarterback Nate Longshore are getting most of the hype, back Justin Forsett will be Cal's most prolific offensive player this season.
LIES, LIES, LIES
1) Lane Kiffin was recently hospitalized because of prolonged exposure to the Raiders' offense.
2) Now that I no longer work for a national magazine, all of my access will dry up.
3) Preseason football matters.
OXYGEN-DEPRIVED THOUGHT FROM ABOVE
With Pacman Jones set to put out a hip-hop single, can the "Make It Rain" tour be far behind?
LET'S DO SOME DON JULIO SILVER SHOTS FOR …
Barry Switzer, whose sharp sense of humor will liven up FOX's pregame show. As Switzer showed during January's Fiesta Bowl telecast, he and onetime adversary Jimmy Johnson are quite comfortable poking fun at one another … and themselves. If all goes well, they'll tell the story on the air about the night they dressed up in drag. … We also let the tequila flow for the wicked Kristina Thorson, one of Cal's all-time softball greats and, as of earlier this week, rookie of the year for the National Pro Fastpitch (NPF)'s Philadelphia Force. The heavily tattooed pitching wizard is closing in on a modeling deal that will allow her to display her unique look to the masses. Meanwhile Thorson's equally tatted fiancée, Erik Robertson, is toiling in Chargers training camp as he attempts to make the team as a rookie free agent. (Robertson has already earned the nicknames "Freakshow" and "Take" – short for "The Undertaker" – in the locker room.)
YAHOO! SEARCH WORDS OF THE WEEK
"Alexander Redskins defender tackle without helmet."
TRIPPIN' ON E(MAIL)
"All right, Silver's back! Was this move to Yahoo an attempt to escape all the hate mail at SI? I look forward to reading emails from readers ripping you as usual. Hopefully very soon …"
Thanks, but I can't see it happening. Yahoo!'s readers are too polite and restrained to inflict that kind of cyber-damage.
"You are a complete idiot. I hope you get a chance to survive when the power goes out. Don't ask me or Peyton (Manning) for a cut of meat when your starving."
Uh, perhaps not. On a positive note, the classic spelling/grammatical/apostrophe atrocities seem to have carried over as well.
"Your article was disgusting and pathetic. Why are you trying to lessen what (Michael) Vick has done? He is a murderer of innocent victims. You speak of the drunk-driving accident … that's just it, it was an ACCIDENT!!! Vick did everything on purpose. YOUR COLUMN SUCKS!!! PETA does wonders for innocent animals that can't speak for themselves. How dare you speak negatively of them."
Great, Erica, now you've gone and made me PETA's next target. This is not good. Next thing you know, they'll be waiting outside Heinz Field in December, ready to squirt ketchup on my mink coat when I exit the stadium.
"This is the first time I've read an article on a subject of this magnitude and thought to myself ‘This Michael guy is a complete buffon.' My god man you are a complete moron."
OK, for you first-time readers, here's the first rule of many: When calling the writer a buffoon, you must first learn to spell the word.
"You are a total schmuck for attempting to compare Manning's hunting trips with Vick's dogfights. That you can even draw that comparison shows you probably lived your whole life in the city. If you had ever lived in the country, you would realize what a stupid comment that was. Hunting is the world's oldest sport. Without hunting, the animal populations involved would be a lot worse off, with starvation, overcrowding and disease running rampant. Deer are so plentiful in a lot of areas that annual hunting licenses are insufficient to thin the herds enough for them to be healthy. There just isn't enough room for them anymore due to human construction. And the suffering of these animals is in many cases instantaneous. If not, it's over in a matter of moments. In order to keep the populations under control, hunting is necessary. Dogfighting is different. Unlike deer, which at least have a fighting chance of survival, these dogs are trained at a young age to be vicious attack animals. They weren't born that way. It takes YEARS of abuse to make them dogs that are useable in dogfights. Then, they are put in a fight to the death, and if they win, what's the reward? Probably back to the cage to heal enough for the next fight. If they can't, they are tortured and then finally killed and dumped like garbage. Comparing hunting with dogfighting shows you really are an idiot. Sounds like you know nothing about hunting, and you seem to know little about dogfighting either, considering you even made the comparison. Like I said. Schmuck."
Tom, I just have one question: When you bust out the Yiddish phrases on those hunting trips, do you get a lot of raised eyebrows?
"Just a great job. Finally, a good reporter!"
Jarrett Lone Bear
Thank you. You have the greatest name of anyone who has ever emailed me and, for what it's worth, would be a welcome addition to our crew at California Memorial Stadium when the Golden Bears take on the Volunteers on Sept. 1.
"Your column trying to compare shooting a deer with killing fighting dogs is stupid! Are you a complete Idiot?"
Well, as Fate would have it … apparently I am.
"Michael, fantastic article. This is a nation of hypocrites, and it seems, these days, no one can muster any outrage unless it's orchestrated for them. Where is the hue and cry over spousal abuse? If one is specifically concerned over animal cruelty, where is the outpouring of emotion over sport hunting? You think the Vice President ate those birds he was shooting at when he accidentally hit his friend in the face? I constantly 'lol' over those who contend that hunting deer is sooo much more humane than dogfighting as to justify the imbalance in outrage. This notion rests squarely on the belief that "every" hunter has deadly perfect aim and delivers a kill shot every time. And even with that absurd logic, it still assumes that there's something innate which makes a dog less 'killable' than a deer. And while we preen in our moral rectitude, there are a few hundred million people in India who would consider the quintessentially American notion of 'hamburger' as patently barbaric. None of which excuses dogfighting and its intended cruelties, but there's a tiny gap between what Vick is alleged to have done versus things which are routinely condoned or treated with indifference in our society. That makes it very difficult to explain and justify the huge gulf separating our emotional reactions to this case in comparisons to other forms of cruelty."
Wake Forest, N.C.
Your comments are interesting and well-expressed, but to be honest, you had me at "Vice President."
"Michael: I read your columns on SI, and decided to see you on your new venue. While I understand your point, I think you're missing the critical difference between most of the other NFL cases and Michael Vick. Michael Vick didn't make a mistake while being drunk, he deliberately bred dogs to torture them. He trained them to fight, and viciously killed them when they didn't perform. And he did it for around six years. The difference is between a mistake, and choosing to raise dogs to fight to the death for your ENTERTAINMENT! Even those that weren't killed outright were held in deplorable conditions and conditioned for the sole purpose of dying a bloody death. That is the difference: poor judgment after drinking or planning the deaths of hundreds of defenseless animals in his care. I hope you are the kind of person who can understand that distinction. Good luck with your home …"
Hey Doug: First of all, thanks for switching over and joining the revolution. Secondly, I do understand the distinction, and call me crazy, but I believe the gross negligence that causes the death of one human (planned or otherwise) is more heinous than the planned murder of numerous animals. Given the fact that the person in question drank and got behind the wheel again, I think he's worthy of our unending scorn. I realize not everyone agrees with me, but I'd venture to guess that those who've lost people close to them because of drunk drivers would tend to be in my camp.
You really need to let a story idea ferment for a while before you type it and email it to your editor. Your argument is pointless and sounds like something a fifth grader would come up with. Here is a little advice: put down the doobie, put the cork back in the bottle and think about what your writing. I will never get the time back in my life that it took me to read your column. I am only a few minutes older for the process.
New Windsor, N.Y.
Hey, Chris, thanks for the advice. Since I type with two hands, that makes a lot of sense. To return the favor, here is one suggestion for how you can better spend those few minutes from now on: familiarize yourself with the proper contraction for "you are." I'm sure my daughter, who completed the fifth grade in June, would be happy to help … when she's not busy coming up with my story ideas.