By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Brace yourself, Tony Romo also has a publicist.
But unlike Li'l Kim Etheredge, Terrell Owens' monstrosity of a mouthpiece, Vivian Fullerlove doesn't smack her gum, use her client's salary as a grossly misguided punch line or, from all indications, get her hair did at Salon de Katrina.
In fact, Fullerlove is so insightful—clairvoyant, even—that it's as if Romo has hitched his wagon to her.
"The first time I met him, I told him I believed in his potential to become a real star," Fullerlove says from the offices of her Dallas-based VLF Media & Promotions. "I think that's why he trusts me. I'm not one of these people all the sudden jumping on his bandwagon. I had a gut feeling about him when he was the No. 3 quarterback, not No. 1."
Because Romo just got better, Fullerlove just got busier.
When you're anointed quarterback of America's Team and you commence the era with consecutive impressive starts, secrets are bound to slip out. After last Sunday's mind-boggling loss to the Washington Redskins, Romo spent Monday in Los Angeles taping segments with Fox Sports Net's Best Damn Sports Showand the NFL Network and flirting with Jay Leno's booking department. On Tuesday he hosted his weekly Inside the Huddleradio show on ESPN's KESN-103.3 FM with teammate Bradie James. He's got an endorsement deal with Prestige Ford and an upcoming appearance on the cover of Dallas' Modern Luxurymagazine.
Sooner rather than later, the world will learn that Romo drives an Expedition SUV, shares a Dallas townhouse with high school buddy and Plano schoolteacher Nick Sekeres, is sweet on Jessica Simpson, golf and video games and recently changed his cell phone greeting to Johnny Cash's "I Walk the Line."
Oh yeah, and despite those dimples on his cheeks and those millions on his checks, he's single.
"It's official," Romo says in front of his locker at Valley Ranch last Wednesday. "Me and the girl from Florida are done."
Romo wasn't built in a day, but his star is rising overnight.
"He doesn't swear, and he's genuinely a great guy," says Fullerlove, who met Romo during his radio show in 2005. "I don't pretend to know sports, but I'm good at reading people. And I could tell right away that Tony was ready to be groomed for some really big success."
Admit it—like I am—you weren't ready for Romo. Nobody this side of Fullerlove gave him unconditional acceptance. Coach Bill Parcells said he wasn't 100 percent sure of the switch. Owner Jerry Jones called it "a step back." Disgruntled fans of Drew Bledsoe even launched www.tonyhomo.com. Because really now, how's a 26-year-old from Eastern Illinois gonna lose a girlfriend and win a Super Bowl?
After two spectacular Sundays, Romo has at least turned a quarterback controversy into a quarterback coronation.
He's completed 66 percent of his passes for 554 yards, three touchdowns and only one interception. Against Washington, if not for two blatant drops by Owens, Romo hit 26 of 36 for 360 yards and three touchdowns. Even after hiccups by his receivers and his defense, Romo positioned the Cowboys for a classic climax with a gutsy 28-yard throw in the last 10 seconds. But in a bizarre ending only Rod Serling saw coming, the Cowboys somehow turned a potential game-winning 35-yard field goal into a loss.
The D.C. disaster changed Dallas' record from 5-3 to 4-4. But it doesn't change the fact that Romo seemingly has "it."
"It's like a metamorphic change," Owens says while slipping into gray velour sweats across the locker room from Romo. "He just knows how to play quarterback. With us it's like two guys who for some reason just click and have that uncanny ability to feed off each other."
A product of small-town, small-market values in Burlington, Wisconsin, Romo is uncomfortable in yet underwhelmed by the sudden spotlight. After the victory over the Carolina Panthers October 29, he had 44 text messages on his Treo, including one from Dallas legend Nancy Lieberman. A spike in calls forced him to change his cell number. The squatter owning www.tonyromo.com began asking $25,000 for the site's rights. And the usual handful of fans at Romo's radio gig blossomed to more than 100.
Today, the heartbeat of a team. Tomorrow, the heartthrob of a nation.
"It's nice to know so many people care about you," says Romo, whose locker is littered with a fresh load of fan mail, countless pairs of silver Reebok cleats and that wristband/playsheet in unbelievably tiny type, proof he is blessed with superhero sight or a cozy relationship with Dr. William Boothe. "A lot of people might not like the attention. But I think it's great."
Romo wears a blue T-shirt, the beginnings of a playoff hockey beard and a Cowboys cap during the interview. Near the end he changes hats. From the start, he's altered moods.
You know by now that Parcells would rather start one of those "Who Am I..." e-mail chains than an inexperienced quarterback. But Romo instantly ramped him into an animated, passionate, almost human coach, like a red Corvette injected into a miserable mid-life crisis. In Carolina, Parcells went kissin' crazy. In Washington, he actually left his feet to call a crucial timeout. And last week at Valley Ranch the most impersonal coach in the history of the Cowboys stopped a racquetball game between employees to administer a hands-on, lighthearted lesson.
"When you guys hit the ball, don't just stand there and look at it," Parcells joked. "You fuckers like to admire your work too much."
Despite Parcells' improved outlook, the only true believers in a Cowboys post-season are the same nimrods who refer to three straight away games in the NFL as a "road trip." To lead Dallas to a Super Bowl, Romo would have to overcome the worst pedigree of any big-game quarterback in NFL history: Division I-AA. Undrafted. Zero professional success. And, as if we didn't have enough to worry about with T.O.'s sleepy head, now it's his slippery hands.
After three and a half seasons under Parcells, the Cowboys are what they are: An undisciplined team with a .500 record.
Don't fret. Dallas is on the verge of two discoveries that, regardless of record, would make this the most productive season of the millennium:
Romo might be the quarterback of the future.
Parcells might be a thing of the past.