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When Tony was in elementary school, his mother worked the counter at the Brown's Lake Golf Course in Burlington, Wis., where Tony was raised. She would bring her son to work with her every day at 6 a.m., and Tony would scoot around the course before school, playing random holes. (It is no accident that Romo is now a scratch golfer.) The bus would come to the course to pick him up, and when it arrived, Joan would summon him with the public address system usually reserved for calling golfers to the 1st tee: "Tony, the bus is here."
Golf and basketball were his passions, but in the fall of Tony's freshman year at Burlington High he went out for soccer to keep in shape. Finding freshman soccer too low-key, he instead joined the football team, sat on the bench as a quarterback and safety that year and missed his entire sophomore season with injuries.
Romo--the best athlete in town--willed himself into the starting quarterback's job as a junior and threw for 308 yards in his first start. A year later Burlington went 3--6, and Romo got few calls from recruiters. "You know those guys who threw a nice, tight spiral in high school?" says Romo. "That wasn't me." In truth, he was better at basketball (a 24-point average as a senior), but as a 6'2" scoring guard he surmised that he had a greater upside in football and accepted a partial scholarship to Division I-AA Eastern Illinois in Charleston, Ill., four hours from home.
ACT II: The Perfectionist
College football was a shock. Even mid-level Division I-AA football. "He was raw," says Roy Wittke, Romo's coach at Eastern Illinois. "I don't want to paint a negative picture of Tony, but when he got to Eastern, he didn't know how to practice or how to compete in practice to make himself better." Tom Brewer, one of Romo's best friends at Eastern Illinois and now his roommate in Dallas, says, "The coaches at Eastern were incredibly tough on Tony. They didn't think he could play, period."
In pushing Romo to work harder, Eastern's coaches helped create a monster. From late in his freshman year, Romo began staying on the field after every practice to throw. He threw to roommates late at night in lit parking lots all over the campus and to his father on the vacant lot next to their house in Burlington when home on vacation. "I threw the ball so much that there was no way not to improve," says Romo. "I threw six days a week, lots of hours a day, the whole year. I never stopped."
He would tape games and watch NFL quarterbacks to emulate their mechanics. How do Brett Favre and John Elway get so much velocity on the ball? How does Peyton Manning play-fake like that? Why is Troy Aikman's footwork so perfect? "We'd be watching Monday Night Football and Tony would see something and we'd have to run outside and play catch under the streetlights," says Shawn Finnin, another college buddy. "That was six, seven, eight years ago, and my hands still hurt."
Romo ascended to the starting quarterback job at Eastern as a third-year sophomore, but the work didn't stop. "In Tony's junior year we played Eastern Kentucky on the road, and Tony and the offense did not play well," says Wittke. "So we're on the bus home and we stop at a rest area. What does Tony do? He gets a football out and starts throwing in the rest area parking lot."
In three seasons Romo accumulated 85 touchdown passes and 8,212 passing yards. He won the Walter Payton Award, the I-AA Heisman, as a senior, yet went undrafted. "We had reports on him because he was very productive in college," says Tampa Bay Buccaneers pro personnel director Mark Dominik. "His mechanics were a little scary. He didn't have a great release. He was on our radar screen, but like everyone else we took him off the board."
Romo had no illusions. He'd gone to the NFL scouting combine in the winter of 2003. Carson Palmer was there. And Byron Leftwich. And Kyle Boller. "In my heart of hearts," says Romo, "I knew those guys threw the ball better than me."