Years before he became one of the finest statistical passers in NFL history and before he called a Super Bowl as CBS Sports’ lead color analyst, Tony Romo was just another insecure kid on Burlington’s practice field in need of some validation.
It was late September in 1996 and what a thrilling time it was to be a football fan in Racine County. Brett Favre and Reggie White were on their way to leading the Packers to the Super Bowl XXXI championship, ending a quarter century of post-Lombardi blues in Green Bay. Closer to 天天乐棋牌, a super destroyer of a lineman at Park named Kevin Barry was en route to becoming the Associated Press Player of the Year in Wisconsin.
As for Romo, he was a raw junior quarterback trying to earn some respect on the varsity. At practice one afternoon, mild-mannered first-year coach Steve Gerber, who had replaced local legend Don Dalton prior to that season, watched a slightly errant pass from Romo sail through the hands of a receiver.
Addressing the receiver and not even looking at Romo, Gerber reassured the receiver of better days to come.
“Great route!,” Gerber said. “Good job! Don’t worry, Tony won’t miss you in a game.”
Going on 24 years later, Gerber has no recollection of that incident. But for Romo, it was a transitional moment when his coach endorsed him in front of his teammates at a time he desperately needed a shot of confidence.
“I’ll tell you right now, that comment right there is one of my favorite moments in the history of any coaching moment I’ve ever had because he was basically telling the receiver, ‘Don’t worry about it. Tony ain’t going to miss when it counts,’ “ Romo recalled in a telephone interview from Dallas on Monday afternoon.
“And I loved that! At my core, it made me just love him, respect him and want to do good for him. And it kind of helped me and shaped me in trying to lead teams in college and the NFL after that.”
Romo didn’t stop until he had led the Demons on one of the best runs in the program’s rich history that season. Developing strong chemistry with tight end Steve Tenhagen, now Burlington’s coach, and split end Jeremy James, Romo compensated for his inexperience with a natural ability to make plays.
It was an ability that would put him behind center for the Dallas Cowboys 10 years later after entering the NFL as an undrafted free agent out of Eastern Illinois in 2003. And it was an ability that was instrumental in moving the Demons to the doorstep of a state championship that season.
A new era
Dalton, who had been Burlington’s coach since 1969, retired at the age of 54 following the 1995 season. He was going to be an almost impossible act to follow considering his teams had gone 202-57-1 with 22 Southern Lakes Conference championships and 10 WIAA playoff appearances in 27 seasons.
Accepting that daunting challenge was Gerber, Dalton’s longtime offensive coordinator who had gradually re-tooled Burlington’s three-yards-and-a-cloud of dust mindset into a more pass-oriented style. Quarterback Ryan Hoffman, who had led Burlington to the Division 2 semifinals in Dalton’s swansong season, had graduated and intensifying Gerber’s pressure even more that summer was having to find a replacement.
One possibility was a kid who had entered Burlington two years earlier as a soccer player and had minimal experience as a high school quarterback.
“We didn’t know that much about Tony,” said the 65-year-old Gerber, who is retired in western Burlington. “We heard he was a good athlete, but I really can’t give you too much depth because, not only has it been 25 years, but I honestly don’t remember too much about him.”
Complicating matters all the more is Romo, who flashed encouraging signs during summer practice, dislocated the middle finger of his right hand when it struck Barry’s helmet during a preseason scrimmage against Park.
With the enormous shadow of Dalton lurking out there, Gerber was suddenly forced to scramble with Burlington’s season opener at Hartford on Aug. 30 just days away.
And a disaster it was. The Demons managed just 58 total yards. And the two quarterbacks Gerber used with Romo sitting out combined to complete two of nine passes for 12 yards and two interceptions in Burlington’s 15-0 loss.
What was going to happen with Gerber’s program?
Despite that train wreck of an opener, Gerber believed in his offense. Following the advice of defensive coordinator George Barry, he had switched the 6-foot-4 Tenhagen, whom Romo considers to have been the Demons’ finest player that season, from split end to tight end to draw more favorable match-ups. There was also James, who had a 4.6-second speed, to draw attention.
“We knew they were good receivers,” Gerber said. “And we knew that Tony was raw, but that he’d learn.”
When Burlington hosted Elkhorn Sept. 6 in its SLC opener, Romo played in his first varsity game. And all he did was complete 26 of 33 passes for 308 yards, with touchdown passes of 16 yards to James and 37 to Tenhagen.
This time, it was Burlington’s defense that faltered, allowing Bill Stallings to rush for 221 yards and three touchdowns. And the Demons slipped to an unthinkable 0-2 after a 34-14 loss.
But this Romo kid had some kind of game.
“We moved the ball very efficiently and we had a lot of explosive plays,” Romo said. “We just didn’t score as many points. That’s a little on me because I wasn’t as good situationally that first game playing football at a level that mattered.
“We lost, but it also felt like, ‘OK, we can do something,’ because it was the first time we played together and we showed ourselves mentally that, ‘We’re going to move the football this year.’ I threw a couple of interceptions, but we had a lot of yards (392) and we were able to show that we could move the football aggressively.”
That’s just what happened with Romo slowly developing chemistry with James and Tenhagen, both seniors.
James caught 37 passes for 578 yards and eight touchdowns and averaged a healthy 15.6 yards per reception that season.
“Jeremy was a classic outside receiver who could run and you knew he was going to run the route correctly,” Romo said. “He had speed and he had a burst and he also had an ability to extend himself. If the ball was too far out in front, he could time his jump. You had a wide range for throwing him the football.”
Making Romo’s receiving riches even more spectacular was Tenhagen, who went on to a record-setting career at UW-Whitewater. Tenhagen caught 56 passes for 933 yards and 15 touchdowns in earning second-team All-State honors that season. He averaged 16.6 yards per reception.
“Steve was almost unguardable because of his size and his skill set for just reaching the high point of the ball,” Romo said. “I played football for a long time and I can tell you right now that Dez Bryant and Steve Tenhagen come to mind when I talk about people being able to position their body and go up and get it at its high point and always come down with it.”
Burlington was 0-2, but the table was set for something special.
It all came together for the Demons in their third game when they rolled to a 41-7 victory over Lake Geneva Badger. They followed that with lopsided victories over Union Grove, Delavan-Darien and Westosha Central.
In that game against Westosha Central, which Burlington won 58-0 on Oct. 4, Romo completed 13 of 16 passes for 192 yards and five touchdowns. One week later, he connected with Tenhagen for a 65-yard touchdown strike in the fourth quarter of a tight 19-17 victory over Jefferson Oct. 11.
Burlington stormed into the playoffs with a 7-2 record two weeks later. And that converted soccer player had thrown 21 touchdown passes in just eight games.
But Gerber points out that the SLC wasn’t nearly as strong then as it is today. Burlington had allowed just 77 points in eight conference games, but how would this team hold up when the going truly got rough?
“We knew we were doing our thing, but against who?” Gerber said. “Some of those games were running clocks.”
Making their run
Until Burlington moved its high school to its present location in 2001, it had never hosted a playoff game in football. The asphalt track for track and field ran through part of the west end zone at Dinty Moore Field at the previous location, rendering it non-regulation for playoff games.
That meant the Demons would have to be road warriors throughout the playoffs once again and it started in just about the most challenging conditions imaginable. When they played their first-round game on Oct. 29 at Greenfield, the wind and rain were so severe that players were all but blinded by the elements.
Yet, Gerber wasn’t going to abandon what got the Demons to that point. And that meant the ball was going to stay in Romo’s hands.
“Every throw was like a shot put,” Romo said. “I thought the snap was the most important thing. Every single play felt like the ball could be fumbled at the snap. When I say it was raining, it was a torrential downpour. And it really felt like, ‘Every time I get the snap, it’s 50-50 that I get this ball!’”
Somehow, Romo completed eight of 15 passes for 131 yards, with touchdown passes of 30 yards to Tenhagen and nine yards to Tenhagen’s brother, Jeff. And Burlington moved on with a 17-6 victory.
Next was a rematch against Badger at Lake Geneva, where Romo passed for 166 yards and a touchdown in Burlington’s 41-6 victory. This was modest production for Romo at that point, but Gerber remembers that game for one of the most memorable plays he saw his quarterback make.
It was a play that underscored the certain something Romo possessed.
“We had run some kind of bootleg and he was being tackled,” Gerber said. “As he was going down, he just heaved it and it was to the middle of the field. “I’m kind of thinking, ‘What the hell is he doing? If you’re going to do that, throw it to the sideline!’
“Sure enough, it was a completed pass. It was only for about 15 yards, but if you could see the tape of it, you’d react the same way I did. There were plays when he would extend the play. He did that with Dallas all the time.”
With that victory, the Demons advanced to the quarterfinals. But looming in their way was undefeated Cudahy, which hosted the game. Behind quarterback John Navarre, who went on to set several passing records at Michigan and played a couple seasons for the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals, Cudahy was averaging 40 points a game that season.
A Burlington defense led by tackle Keith Kendall and nose guard Brad Koballa twice stopped Cudahy inside the Demons’ 15-yard line, but the magic ran out for Romo that night. He was intercepted four times, including once in the end zone after Burlington had advanced to Cudahy’s 3-yard line early in the third quarter. And the Demons’ season ended with an agonizing 16-15 loss.
“That’s still, to this day, one of the toughest losses I’ve had in my life,” Romo said. “I feel like I let my team down that game. We should have won that football game, but I was not good enough. Or I wasn’t ready.
“It still hurts to this day.”
Burlington, realigned into the formidable Southeast Conference the next season with such heavyweights at Park, Horlick and Oak Creek, slumped to 3-6. But Romo was still named the All-Racine County Player of the Year as a senior in 1997 on the strength of such games as one against Case at Pershing Park.
Even though Burlington lost 51-34 that night against Case, Romo completed 26 of 50 passes for a career-high 392 yards and four touchdowns.
He went to achieve what few players from Racine County have ever accomplished. And it all started with that 1996 season, when Romo had the Demons in strong contention for a state championship.
“That’s when I fell in love with the game of football,” he said. “And I feel it was very special to have the people around me — the coaches and teammates I had — and that we were going through something together that was really meaningful.
“I love competing and trying to get the best out of ourselves. And that season, I felt I was just driving the bus with a lot of good players around me.”