IRVING, Texas – Roy Wittke has this story, and it says a little about going from nowhere to somewhere. It's a little yarn that took place on Oct. 22, 2001, on a bus ride between Richmond, Ky., and Charleston, Ill. But when Wittke is telling the story, that trip – the actual bus ride – has nothing to do with the point he's getting across. It's more of an anecdote. Something that tells you how Tony Romo got to this point.
Think of it as one of the middle chapters in a 3½-year tale about going from overlooked I-AA draft prospect to the starting quarterback and sudden savior of the Dallas Cowboys.
On the day of that bus ride, Romo and his Eastern Illinois team had just squeaked through a 21-17 win over Eastern Kentucky. It wasn't a particularly special afternoon for Romo – two touchdowns, two interceptions, 134 yards passing in what would be a relatively mundane page in an otherwise distinguished small-school career. But it was the six-hour bus ride that opened some eyes. Or rather, what happened in the middle of it. When the bus stopped for a break after about three hours on the road, somewhere on I-65 in the middle of Indiana, the players piled out to stretch their legs. All save for Romo, who sought out his equipment bag and dug through it for a football. A few minutes later, he had gathered some teammates, and headed for the rest-stop parking lot.
To work on his throwing motion.
"He was just like that," said Wittke, who was Eastern Illinois' offensive coordinator at the time. "It's just the way he was. It wasn't anything that was phony. It wasn't an insincere act by a guy trying to gain attention. That was Tony."
Like many of the Eastern Illinois coaches, Wittke has reveled in the success and celebrity of Romo the last few weeks. And Wittke can take special enjoyment knowing that he was the one who unearthed the player who has spent the last week on the lips of every NFL analyst and flickering on the images of almost every national sports show in the country. Other than the vast improvement in his game, the kid he sees now is the same one he found in tiny Burlington, Wis. (pop. 10,836), a discovery that was made after Wittke's parents started sending him clips about the kid from the Racine County newspaper. Same dimples. Same aww-shucks confidence. Same face that looks like every kid who ever has mowed your lawn.
"I read where he told some reporters that if they hung out with him, they'd be bored," Wittke chuckled. "That's probably a true statement. He's not exactly filled with glamour."
Not yet, anyway. Especially not if Cowboys coach Bill Parcells has his way. Parcells has done his best to keep Romo grounded since the Thanksgiving Day game, when Romo threw five touchdown passes in a win over Tampa Bay – tying the franchise single-game mark matched by Troy Aikman, Roger Staubach and three others. In a way, that game only hardened Parcells' typical contrarian posture.
If there was anything that sent the coach scrambling for the mute button on the TV, it was Bucs coach Jon Gruden coming out and saying "I thought it was Aikman out there," and Buccaneers cornerback Ronde Barber calling Romo "as prepared as anybody we played this year."
Parcells countered that with statements like "put the anointing oil away" and saying that he "doesn't eat the cheese." Which is basically a way of saying he doesn't give a damn that fans are hanging faux "Tony Romo" banners in the ring of honor, or that the ga-ga press in Texas is comparing his five-game debut to those of by Tom Brady and Kurt Warner.
In case anyone forgot, Brady and Warner won Super Bowls in their first years as starters, and each took home the game's MVP trophy. So in Parcells' book, Romo has done nothing but, well, get off to a decent start. And just in case Romo forgets that, Parcells levels a little reminder. Like the day he saw Romo in the practice facility and took a little jab after he'd appeared on a sports talk show.
"Hey, it's my celebrity quarterback," Parcells said. "Can you maybe complete a pass today?"
Of course, Parcells hasn't stopped the rest of the world from gulping in the NFL's Tex-Mex edition of Fernandomania. From the true rumors (he has hired a publicist to manage his overnight fame) to the false ones (he hasn't gone out on a date with Jessica Simpson … yet), Romo has taken an old nickname and made it all the rage without the 'roids.
And at the same time, he's remained remarkably close to the ground. In a way, it's reminiscent of when Tom Brady first lit the world afire with the Patriots – the days before he was on the cover of GQ, before he was dressing like an extra in a Burberry advertisement, and long before anyone knew who Bridget Moynahan was (or the fact that they were dating). So maybe this is Romo's period of innocence, a race to the top of the league like Aikman before him. Or maybe he's just the latest flash-in-the-pan, hot today and forgotten tomorrow quarterback.
Whatever the case, it's an undeniable point that he has made a difference on the field in his first five starts. All the important numbers are up for his top four pass catchers: Terrell Owens, Terry Glenn, Patrick Crayton and Jason Witten. And while it's rarely pointed out that Romo stepped into the middle of a fantastic collection of offensive pieces, it can't be forgotten that he has negated the unit's biggest weakness – a porous line that only accentuated Drew Bledsoe's heavy-footedness.
And the spark that he has provided has vaulted Dallas into the NFC's elite, perhaps even to the top of the conference depending on how one feels about the quarterback issues in Chicago and the not-so-minor fact that Romo is the only quarterback to face off with Indianapolis' Peyton Manning this season and walk away victorious.
Not bad for a kid who was invited to the NFL's annual scouting combine in 2003 mostly as a throwing arm for running backs and tight ends. Yes, Romo got to mingle and work out with all the big names on display during that week – Carson Palmer, Byron Leftwich, Kyle Boller and Rex Grossman. But Romo didn't exactly wow anyone. In fact, it was the Bears who had watched him keenly at Eastern Illinois. So much so, their area scout even wrote up a pretty good evaluation. But at the end of draft weekend, Romo went unselected while the Bears had taken Grossman in the first round.
"The Bears and the Packers – they were the two teams I was hoping for going into the draft," Romo said, with a hint of disappointment.
And when 20 or so teams called to talk contract once Romo became an undrafted free agent, Green Bay and Chicago weren't among them, either. Not that he's complaining. Mostly he takes the draft snub with a grain of salt – although he can name plenty of the quarterbacks selected in front of him.
"Byron Leftwich, Kyle Boller, Chris Simms – a kid from Indiana [Gibran Hamdan] who I don't even know if he played more than five games," Romo said.
But in all fairness, even Romo has a hard time bashing teams that let him slip through the cracks. He looks back at his experience, and submits honestly, "I wasn't as good at throwing the football at that time as I've developed the last few years."
"I just wasn't ready at that time, like Bill tells you," Romo said.
And there it is. The humility that's so sweet, it almost has to be an act. Just like when he looks at the Cowboys and tells a press throng, "I don't think it has much to do with me." Surely this is theater. Just like the Johnny Unitas biography peeking out of his locker, in plain view of anyone who arrives to interview him. Certainly nobody could be so unblemished after toiling for 3½ years as an NFL backup – the bulk of which were spent being known as that guy on the depth chart behind Quincy Carter/Chad Hutchinson/Clint Stoerner/Anthony Wright/Ryan Leaf/Vinny Testaverde/Drew Henson/Drew Bledsoe.
But the coaches who know Romo best protest such a notion.
"It's not an act or a publicity ploy or anything like that," Wittke said. "That's actually him. He's a well-grounded, down-to-earth guy."
Added current Eastern Illinois coach Bob Spoo, "I think that's what endeared him to all of his teammates over the years, the fact that he is so unassuming."
Spoo should know. He had to be won over by Romo, too. Almost eight years ago, when Wittke showed him a tape of Romo and suggested Eastern Illinois recruit him, Spoo resisted. The kid Spoo saw on tape wasn't the kind that wowed you. His arm wasn't great. He wasn't all that mobile. And they already had offered a full ride to another quarterback in Chicago. At best, all they could offer Romo was a partial scholarship.
"I didn't know if I was willing to take a shot on him," Spoo said. "But Roy convinced me."
And it wasn't a fairy tale after that, either. Much like his NFL maturation, it took time before Romo was able to step in and click.
"The speed changes at every level, and Tony wasn't quite ready to deal with some things his freshman year," Spoo said. "He didn't have a sense of urgency. To be honest, I thought I was vindicated by the way he performed his freshman year. I thought I was right in my assessment that he didn't have the capabilities to play at the I-AA level. But after that freshman year, boy, he picked up the tempo. A quarterback got hurt, he was the next guy in line and went in and almost the same scenario that's happened with the Cowboys happened back then."
Over the next three years at Eastern Illinois, Romo worked to improve his arm strength … and his throwing motion … and his mobility in the pocket. Even now, his former coaches get a kick out of all the talk of Romo's mobility. As Spoo related of his speed, Romo once scrambled for a 70-yard touchdown run in college, and a local sportswriter quipped the next day that Romo "had time to finish a sandwich on the way."
But those coaches also point to it and say that's another testament to Romo's stubborn push to improve his game. In a way, it's ironic. Now with the Cowboys, Romo wears his No. 9 jersey as homage to Roy Hobbs, the character Robert Redford portrayed in the movie "The Natural." Yet, Romo's own athletic progression has been anything but.
"If there's something unique about Tony, that's it – the improving he forces in himself," Wittke said. "In the last four years in Dallas, I never heard him say one negative thing about opportunity, playing time, guys moving ahead of him or whatever. Tony's focus has been completely on getting his play to the point where he forced Dallas to play him."
Without a doubt, he's done that. From a rest area parking lot to flirting with his succession of Aikman and Staubach in Big D, Romo's game might be the only thing that has changed along the way.