Before you go getting your britches in a twist at the questionable mentions of “Tony Romo” and “Hall of Fame” in the same phrase, be wholly advised that the word “college” comes before the “Hall of Fame” tabbing. We all know Romo’s pro escapades were ne’er quite worthy of a finely brandished gold bust at Canton, as getting over the playoff hump and ascending to Super Bowl glory escaped his clutches far too often to elicit immortal enshrinement into such an exclusive club.
Lifelong fans can vividly recall painful images of a young fledgling Romo botching the snap on a crucial kick attempt in Jan. 2007 (which #9 nearly made up for by hurriedly scurrying towards the end zone in a conquest rendered fruitless by Jordan Babineaux’s game-saving shoestring tackle).
And who could forget the infamous “Dez caught it” game?
Romo’s Cowboys tenure will forever exist in frustration, and that’s thanks in large part to his successive playoff woes (he holds a puny 2-4 overall mark when the games mattered most). But while he was never able to seize control of the big one, Romo’s spry arm talent and natural X and O’s affinity catapulted him to ownership of several franchise records at the QB position – and the latter quality, into a handsomely-paying starring role with CBS Sports at the announcer’s booth.
He’s likely to carve out a much more prominent football niche for himself speaking than he ever did playing, but don’t let his preternatural play-predicting and touch-screen television wizardry fool you. Romo’s long been a student of the game, and the aforementioned attributes have preceded his reputation since his days as an unheralded signal-caller at small town Eastern Illinois.
His story is a quintessential representation of grit, determination and advantageous capitalization on serendipity. Had it not been for a pivotal decision following his high school sports career, we may have never heard of Romo in the first place. He was a four-sport savant as a youngster at Wisconsins’s Burlington High School. In fact, he almost chose basketball over football after finishing his term there as the school’s all-time points leader with a gaudy total of 1,080. He also split time between golf and – get this – tennis.
Despite being a focal centerpiece of some mid-major hoops programs’ recruiting boards, Romo opted for pads and cleats over shorts and sneakers, choosing to attend neighboring Eastern Illinois to play for legendary coach Bob Spoo.
EIU, a NCAA Division-AA, or FCS school as modern analysts would label it, was hardly a football powerhouse, and with subpar resources to use for selling points in their attraction negotiations with prospective athletes, the school’s coaching staff was forced to use alternate means to discover, and potentially sway suitors in their direction.
That’s exactly how they found Romo. Roy Wittke, the Panthers’ offensive coordinator at the time, couldn’t find much cumulative scouting data on Romo after hearing his name through the recruiting grapevine. He hadn’t even seen the man play in person.
But what he did notice was an innate athletic awareness, and quick-triggered decision-making that leapt off of the screen as he delved through Romo’s football and basketball footage tape (yes, he looked at both).
It was a risky gamble to bring the little-known signal-caller aboard, but it paid tremendous dividends from the outset. Romo established himself as a film junkie once he arrived in the Prairie State, and his loving propensity for off-field homework translated to the gridiron almost immediately.
He threw for 2,583 yards and 27 touchdowns as a sophomore in 2000, completing 59% of his passes and ranking second in Division I-AA competition in pass efficiency. The prodigious display netted him an All-America honorable mention, and the-Ohio Valley Conference’s Player of the Year award.
Year three beckoned more of the same. Romo upped his proficiency through the air, connecting on 138 of his 207 pass attempts for 2,068 yards and 21 touchdowns. And his team reaped the benefits of his presence, finishing as the OVC’s top unit in 2001, a feat they'd repeat the next year with Romo lethal as ever – calling their shots and dissecting opposing defenses like a surgeon.
His senior season’s statistical output shattered previous quarterbacking records (EIU, although not formidably notorious, was home to football stalwarts Sean Payton and Mike Shanahan). He posted 3,418 yards, 34 touchdowns, and walked away with the ever-coveted Walter Payton Player of the Year award, plus another OVC POTY for good measure. Oh, and throw an All-America nod in the mix as well to top off an explosive offensive display.
Romo would go undrafted in the 2003 selection process, but ended up signing with Dallas at the heed of none other than Sean Payton himself.
Six years later, he’d return to Charleston as the Cowboys’ starlet poster child for his college jersey’s retirement, and for bestowment into EIU’s Hall of Fame.
And 12 years after that, face discernible and name notable as ever, he’ll get to relive the glory days once again as he overlooks his sanctification among college football’s greats.
Congratulations to Tony Romo for his 2021 induction into the College Football Hall of Fame.