Tony Romo – Back To The Beginning
By Dallas Morning News columnist Rick Gosselin
Editor’s note: This story was originally published February 2016.
I’ll be attending my 25th NFL scouting combine next week.
The evolution of the event has been startling. At my first combine in 1992, there were eight members of the media in attendance. I thought it was the league’s best-kept secret. The combine was the only week in the NFL’s calendar year that every general manager, personnel director, scout, head coach and assistant coach was in one city at one time. It was a great time and place to build your league contacts.
There were no NFL public-relations types there, no one to arrange any interviews for us. We stood in the compact lobby of the downtown Crowne Plaza in Indianapolis and snagged whatever interviews we could from whichever players and coaches walked through during the four-day event.
In 1993, we received some surprising help. Notre Dame tailback Jerome Bettis, who projected as a high pick, would stop by the lobby each morning and ask if we needed him or anyone else. We’d give him a few names, and he’d bring those players out to us. The eight of us agreed he should be the charter member of the NFL combine Hall of Fame.
Well, the combine is no longer a secret. There figure to be about 1,200 members of the media credentialed for this year’s event. The NFL will have a public-relations staff in attendance and close to 300 of the 332 players in attendance will be ushered into the media workroom for interviews.
Back when the draft was my life at this time of year, I would go to the combine having researched all 334 players invited. I knew their backgrounds, their stories and their stats. My goal was to try to talk with every player the PR staff brought in to be interviewed. At my peak, I was interviewing 230 players at a given combine. I was always on the hunt for a good story. There were times when a small-college player or a deep snapper came into the room that I was the only person to interview them.
There was one such small-college player I remember from the 2003 combine. He sat down at a round table with eight chairs. Only two of the other seven seats were filled by myself and a friend from The Detroit News, Mike O’Hara. As we sat down, Mike whispered to me, “Why are we talking to him?”
“He won the Payton Award,” I said, then we proceeded to interview Tony Romo.
The rest of the room was waiting for the name quarterbacks in the 2003 draft to show up — Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer, Big Ten MVP Brad Banks, Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year Kliff Kingsbury and the high-profile underclassmen Kyle Boller and Rex Grossman.
Romo was an afterthought that day, just as he was in the 2003 draft. Of the 17 quarterbacks invited to the combine, only 13 were drafted. Romo wasn’t one of them.
Romo was a late addition to the combine as a thrower. Every year the NFL invites two to three extra quarterbacks to Indy to throw to the receivers because often there’s a shortage of arms. Many of the top quarterbacks elect not to throw at Indianapolis, preferring to save their arms for their campus workouts.
I started off by asking Romo about the Walter Payton Award, given annually to the best player at the Division I-AA level.
“I’m not sure how much the Heisman meant to Carson, but it meant quite a bit to me,” Romo answered. “It’s a testament not only to my work over the
years but my team’s as well. I wouldn’t have been able to get there if I didn’t have these players around me. We had four to five All-Americas. It’s going to be great to look back upon when you’re older. It’s exciting.”
I asked Romo if a quarterback from Eastern Illinois felt at all out of place competing at the combine with quarterbacks from Southern Cal, Florida, Texas and Miami.
“I’m not coming here nervous,” Romo said. “I feel I’m a guy who’s going to rise up. I’ve got a lot of confidence. I feel I’m going to show people I belong and that I can outperform a lot of these guys, hopefully.”
You could detect a bit of swagger then — but that swagger hit full throttle when I asked Romo my final question. How did he end up at Eastern Illinois?
“I was good in high school but not great,” Romo said. “Every year in college I got a lot better. That was progressing me to the point now where, five years later, I felt I could have played at a I-A school. At the end of my junior year, I felt I could have played at a lot of I-A schools. In my senior year I felt I could have played anywhere in the country. I’ve gotten better over the years. I’ve learned how to get better.”
With that, the interview was over and Romo was out the door. I wound up listing him as the 11th quarterback on my draft board, a sixth-round value. I was right — Romo should have been drafted. And Romo was right when he said, “I feel I’m going to show people I belong and that I can outperform a lot of these guys.”
Romo has done just that. He has broken all the franchise passing records of Troy Aikman and Roger Staubach, won an NFL passing title and gone to four Pro Bowls with the Cowboys.
It’s stories like that of Tony Romo that have kept the combine one of my favorite assignments these last 24 years.