SAN ANTONIO—Yesterday a backup quarterback. Tonight the lead singer.
Don Meredith serenaded a nation with "Turn Out the Lights," Troy Aikman recorded the forgettable "Oklahoma Nights" and we can only assume Roger Staubach hummed some Pat Boone tune while saving babies from burning buildings. But Tony Romo? Never has a quarterback of America's Team stage-dived into such a violent musical scene.
It is Friday, June 15, and the impact of Romo's appearance at the Metal Skool concert in Dallas' Palladium Ballroom depends on your Dallas Cowboys allegiance. To those of us here to tap our toes to cheesy '80s rock and witness the team's latest icon playing head-banger, Romo is maximizing his exposure by embracing the numerous publicity opportunities offered the quarterback of the NFL's most popular team. To those possessing Washington Redskins pennants and zero sense of humor, Romo is staining his image by associating with a tacky, vulgar rock band that makes punch lines out of incest, pedophilia, devil worship and made-up stories about the quarterback's supposed drug use.
"I'm glad this dude makes so much fucking money!" Metal Skool frontman Michael Starr jokes in introducing "special guest host" Romo to 300 or so apeshit fans. "Because, damn, he can snort through a shitload of cocaine!"
With that, Romo, wearing jeans, a white Pink Floyd T-shirt, silver dog-tag necklace and his contagious smile, hops onstage to join the glam metal parody band he fell in love with at a Hollywood Key Club show back in February. You remember the goofy, light-hearted YouTube sensation featuring Romo singing Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" with assists from alcohol and, of all people, Saved by the Bell's Mr. Belding. ("One of the funnest nights I've ever had," Romo says.)
Tonight, however, Romo isn't sharing the spotlight. He's singing. Smiling. Playfully "throwin' the goat"—flashing the Hook 'em Horns-like gesture that at this bash is more about satire than Satan. And, well, acting the part of a metalhead about to rock out with his cock out. And accordingly, the hottest, weirdest band since Spinal Tap is setting the stage, laying its big hair, bad language and cult following at the quarterback's feet.
After former Queer as Folk star Hal Sparks finishes a Skid Row ballad, Romo—holding the microphone upside down as if bleeding the last drop of ketchup from a bottle—belts out "Don't Stop Believing" (his and Tony Soprano's fave) and Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It," his Q rating rocketing and his humble, small-town back story dissolving a little more with each impassioned, only slightly off-key note.
Encapsulating the radical rise of an undrafted free agent suddenly splitting time between Pro Bowl and rock star, Starr screams, "Tony Romo is the shit!"
Tom Landry must be so proud.
And, if he's attempting to keep tabs on Romo, so dizzy.
Because instead of diving into solitary hibernation and clicking the proverbial corner lamp on and off, Romo was quick to erase the pain of his catastrophic bobbled snap that ended the Cowboys' season in Seattle on January 6. With his Metal Skool cameos, holding sorta-maybe girlfriend Carrie Underwood's purse at the Country Music Awards, as well as judging Miss Universe, trying to qualify for the U.S. Open golf tournament, angling for a new contract, appearing on a KLLI 105.3-FM late-night radio talk show called "Big Dick's Wild Ass Circus," throwing a pass to Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice on the 17th tee of a Lake Tahoe celebrity golf tournament in which he finished 11th, keeping alive his link to Jessica Simpson by hanging out with her father, Joe, making monthly appearances at Ghostbar and weekly inclusions on the celebrity-powered TMZ.com and...
"Whatever 'it' is," teammate Terrell Owens says, "Romo's got 'it.'"
Romo wasn't built in a day, but his star has risen overnight.
Seems the only hot spots the 27-year-old missed were ESPN's insipid "Who's Now?" debate and the bawdy burlesque show at Hollywood's Aqua Lounge, featuring none other than new Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips' daughter, Tracy.
"I heard coach had a cute daughter," Romo told Big Dick Hunter during a June call-in. "But I haven't caught her act."
In the most high-profile off-season by a Cowboys quarterback since Aikman dated Lorrie Morgan or Quincy Carter married marijuana, Romo left no doubt he'd grabbed this world by the short hairs.
Imagine if the Cowboys hadn't told him to chill.
Imagine if he wasn't obsessed with becoming a better football player.
"Assuming I didn't do anything but party all off-season is just wrong," Romo says after the Cowboys' first training camp practice at The Alamodome July 25. "You see those five or six events on TV, but it's just six nights in six months. I go to Mexico for Memorial Day, and it's news. But the cameras weren't there when I went back home to Wisconsin or all those days I was at Valley Ranch busting my butt trying to get better. I've heard the criticism, and I'll roll with it. At the end of the day, my teammates know where I was...working, right beside them."
We attended the concerts, watched the TV clips and gobbled the gossip from Romo's second season. What we didn't hear were Cowboys officials—including owner Jerry Jones—telling the quarterback to be picky about his public appearances, especially those potentially casting him in a negative light or drawing into question his commitment to football over fun. (Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank, whose quarterback is in the eternal doghouse, dreams of such dull headaches.)
Says a team source, "Tony got a pretty good talking to."
What we didn't see was Romo, three days before leaving for the Pro Bowl in Hawaii, throwing passes in the team's indoor practice bubble at Valley Ranch under the watchful eye of new offensive coordinator Jason Garrett.
"One of the best things about Tony is he's a gym rat," Garrett says. "He had his fun, but his approach to football and his work ethic in the off-season were fantastic."
Contrary to his reality, Romo's skewed image as a one-hit wonder shirking the playbook for the party could have been even more exaggerated. There's no YouTube evidence of his performance with Metal Skool in Dallas because he agreed to sing only if his set wasn't videotaped by the band. There are no snapshots from his participation in the Dallas Observer's St. Patrick's Day Parade or Donald Trump's celebrity golf tournament in California because he, albeit grudgingly, skipped both events. There's no dirt from his final two weeks of vacation because he spent them at home in tiny Burlington, Wisconsin, conducting his annual youth clinic and playing catch in the backyard with Dad.
Romo is at his best when impulsively scrambling and improvising, but he also knows when to stay in the pocket.
"He's very popular and very marketable right now," says Romo's Dallas-based publicist, Vivian Fullerlove. "But what he wanted most of all in the off-season was down time with his family and, first and foremost, time for football. A lot of offers came his way, and he passed on the ones that didn't fit in."
In 2007 he'll co-host a weekly radio show with receiver Sam Hurd, appear in AT&T's TV ads and likely finish with more touchdowns than interceptions and more wins than losses. Still, barring another monumental gaffe, a shoving match with T.O. or a Super Bowl title, isn't Romo's upcoming season destined to be relatively boring?
Last August, of course, Romo's private life was about as scintillating as poached eggs.
As Drew Bledsoe's backup he could've gone to a Metal Skool concert but paid cover like the rest of us. As an alum of Eastern Illinois yet to throw his first NFL pass, he would've had to spell his last name—probably twice—for Carrie Underwood's publicist. But then it happened.
Former head coach Bill Parcells yanked Bledsoe at halftime of the October 23 Monday Night Football game against the New York Giants and inserted Romo. His first pass was intercepted, and he threw two more picks in the 36-22 loss, but the fuse was lit. Led by Romo's energy and effectiveness, the Cowboys won five of their next six games and suddenly the world developed an insatiable fascination.
Who is he? (A small-town, big-values kid from a dot on the map with a population less than the average attendance at a Cowboys training camp practice. Part Mexican, a descendant of immigrant grandparents Ramiro and Felicita, now living in Crockett, Texas.) What is he like? (Lives in a condo by the Galleria. Doesn't cuss. Wears his baseball caps backward. Drives an Expedition SUV.) What does he like? (Golf. Videogames. Injecting the words "...at the end of the day" into conversations. His Treo cell phone, which has been known to feature Johnny Cash's "I Walk the Line" as its greeting.) Is he the next Gary Hogeboom or the next Staubach? (To be determined, but we're leaning toward the latter.) Does he still pinch himself?
"I never sit back, look at my life in the third person. I'm just living," Romo says. "At the same time, I realize how lucky I am."
Dwarfing other variables, the Cowboys' '07 fate will be directly tied to Romo's play. New coaching staff, re-invigorated owner and upgraded starters be damned, if Romo sputters it all goes to Hades in a wicker carry-on.
"More than anything, we need our quarterback to be great," Jones says during his state-of-the-union press conference on the eve of camp. "We need Tony to perform at a Pro Bowl level, and we have every reason to believe he will."
Considering how '06 crash-landed, that confidence is confounding.
Upon naming Romo the starter, Parcells admitted he wasn't "100 percent sure it's going to work." Jones labeled the switch from a 14-year veteran to essentially a fourth-year rookie "a step back."
Disgruntled fans even launched tonyhomo.com.
After his sizzling start peaked with a win over the previously undefeated Indianapolis Colts and a five-touchdown performance against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Thanksgiving, Romo nose-dived to a 1-3 finish and entered the playoffs with stagger instead of swagger.
Then, the most infamous hold in NFL history.
Having guided the Cowboys to the Seahawks' 2-yard line, Romo knelt in preparation for kicker Martin Gramatica's chip-shot, bet-the-farm 19-yard field goal that would give Dallas a 23-21 lead with 1:15 remaining in their Wild Card playoff game. Romo's transcendent bobble detoured the kick and re-routed an era. The resulting chaos and 21-20 loss sealed the deal on Parcells leaving, Owens staying, Phillips arriving and Romo's legacy—no matter how many Super Bowls—forever including a hiccup.
His rehab, however, began immediately. In an emotional, gutsy appearance that made you want to reach through the TV and hug him, Romo met the media in a somber room under Qwest Field. He admitted fault, accepted blame and valiantly refused to let that welling tear trickle down his cheek.
In the ensuing dark days back in Dallas, Romo received encouraging phone calls from Owens, Staubach, Aikman and tight end Jason Witten, who says it took his friend about two weeks to show his face in public.
"I've been asked about it five or six times," Romo says, obviously joking. "I wished it didn't happen but it did, and I can't change it now. I've got to move on, and honestly, I'm too engrossed in this season to worry about how last season ended. Thankfully, my holding days are over."
Says Phillips, "That mistake was as a holder, not a quarterback. There's really nothing psychologically to get over as a quarterback, because he played a great game and had them in position to win the game."
Adds Owens, "With Tony, you know it will just make him stronger."
While veteran backup quarterback Brad Johnson now handles the holding, Romo has miraculously resumed his grip on a frenetic, infatuated Cowboys nation. During camp fans unfurl 6-foot Romo posters, relentlessly chant his name after practice and escalate the volume with the slightest fist pump from their beloved quarterback.
In a town that still reviles Jackie Smith for a dropped pass 28 years ago and hasn't totally pardoned Mavs guard Derek Harper for inadvertently dribbling out the clock against the Los Angeles Lakers in 1984, how the heck has Romo—whose singular, solitary screw-up cost the Cowboys their first playoff win in 10 years—avoided being crucified?
Simple. His pedigree qualifies him as an underdog. His hobnobbing with Underwood, Miss Universe and even Metal Skool has transformed him into a small-town kid suddenly larger than life. His dimples and "aw, shucks" demeanor wow the women. His delivery—from side-armed to back-pedaling to anything but classic—connects with men. He's not following a legend but merely a litany of post-Aikman failures including Randall Cunningham, Carter, Anthony Wright, Ryan Leaf, Clint Stoerner, Chad Hutchinson, Drew Henson, Vinny Testaverde and Bledsoe.
But, mostly, it's Romo's talent. Regardless of his very recent past, we want to believe—we need to believe—that Tony Romo is the here and now.
And we're not alone.
"The kid's 6-5 including a playoff loss, but I think everyone recognizes he has a winning charisma you just can't teach," says legendary Cowboys scouting guru and NFL.com analyst Gil Brandt during a practice at The Alamodome. "The other 10 guys believe he's going to make a positive play whatever the situation. He's a special personality that just lights up a room. He's a lot like Roger [Staubach] in that way."
When introduced to Romo at last spring's NCAA basketball tournament in Atlanta, Brandt's son, Hunter, had an urgent question for the quarterback.
"He goes, 'What's Jessica Simpson like?'" Brandt says. "Tony just laughed it off, but he's got that spark that relates to us old guys, the young kids and everyone in between."
Despite the I-AA background and the three-interception second half against the Giants, Romo dazzled in his first start. Before a national television audience on a Sunday night in Charlotte, North Carolina, he helped erase an early 14-0 deficit by throwing for 270 yards and a touchdown in a 35-14 coming-out party. In the wake of the dynamic debut Parcells, as if a red Corvette were injected into his miserable mid-life crisis, invoked the name of Johnny Unitas. NBC's John Madden compared Romo to Joe Montana. Aikman called him "amazing." Sports Illustrated dubbed him "Tony Terrific."
Phillips, who watched Romo from afar last year as defensive coordinator of the San Diego Chargers, has even linked his new quarterback to three of his old ones—Doug Flutie and Hall of Famers Jim Kelly and John Elway.
"Tony can make plays other guys can't make," Phillips says.
Romo threw while jumping. He slung it under defensive linemen side-armed. He lofted it over defensive backs—seemingly ill-advised—while in reverse. He passed for 2,903 yards with 19 touchdowns, 13 interceptions and, despite only 10 regular-season starts, became the first Cowboys Pro Bowl quarterback since Aikman in '96.
"He's not the most orthodox guy, but in his case that's an asset," Aikman said during a Fox broadcast late last season. "The bottom line is he's got a great feel for the game, a nice touch on the ball and he consistently makes plays. Looks like the Cowboys have found something with him."
Now, what exactly do they do with him?
Romo, who grew up idolizing the rocket-armed Brett Favre (nobody's perfect, eh?), often tries to squeeze a watermelon through a keyhole. When moving around in the pocket he sometimes forgets to protect the ball. And with only 11 starts under his belt and five different tutors in his head, his confidence isn't yet unshakable.
"I still think of myself as somewhat of a question mark," Romo says.
With Garrett and new quarterbacks coach Wade Wilson, Romo has worked this off-season on a quicker escape from under center and ball security amongst traffic in the pocket. He remains a gifted and instinctive athlete, seemingly with eyes peering out his ear hole. His release—reminiscent of Dan Marino—is perhaps the NFL's quickest and, evidenced by a gorgeous 60-yard bomb that landed perfectly in Owens' cradle during camp's first practice, his accuracy has dramatically improved.
"We're not going to tinker with his throwing motion, because he's got a good stroke," Garrett says after a workout. "With Tony it's about being as fundamentally sound as possible with his footwork and instilling some pocket discipline. It's an ongoing process and one that will never end. The things we're working on with him are the same things I remember Troy working on in his 12th year."
Says Romo, "My goals have changed. I want to get to that next level. If you're content, you're in decline. I know I'm not there yet. I'm not 'now,' as they say. But in the bottom of my stomach I've got a yearning to get better."
It's Romo's talent and temperament that led to Sports Illustrated recently ranking him 11th among NFL quarterbacks. It's why Jones passed up Notre Dame's Brady Quinn in the draft. And it's why expectations in San Antonio are again flirting with a championship season.
"We've got the key pieces in place to do something very special," Romo says. "If I play like I'm capable, I can see us having a lot of success. I'm not ready to say it's Super Bowl or bust, but I expect us to be a darn good football team."
Says Owens, "This is our year. We've got more than a good chance of this team getting to the Super Bowl."
As with any franchise without a playoff win since 1996 and coming off a 9-7 season that forced the retirement of a Hall of Fame coach, the Cowboys will encounter hurdles.
Grounded as he seems, Romo enters the season in the final year of a contract paying him a relatively paltry $1.5 million. While he'd like a new, long-term deal in place before the September 9 opener against the New York Giants, Jones is waffling between locking up a rising superstar and waiting to see if Romo is indeed the real deal.
"I know it's impossible, but I want it both ways," Jones says. "I want to pay him now and get him some security, and I want to wait to see how he'll respond to being a full-time starter. That said, it won't be a distraction. In my 18 years Tony's as impressive a guy as I've come across as far as his coolness and his business sense."
Romo, who scoffs at the suggestion he could increase his negotiating leverage by holding out of camp, promises his contract status won't affect his performance.
"I'm indifferent, honestly," he says. "If the team feels like paying me now I'm fine with it. If not, that's fine too. It won't change my daily approach to helping this team win one bit. My agent doesn't like to hear this, but I love playing this game. If it's for $100 or $1 million...whatever. I don't need reassurance through money. I don't want the game to become about money. Sometimes when that seeps in it takes away the fun."
And with Phillips—or is it without Parcells?—training camp is decidedly more enjoyable. Inheriting a playoff team returning as many as 20 starters, Phillips' casual style is an about-face to his prickly predecessor. Bill was New Jersey bully, Wade a cornier-than-Fletcher's Texan.
"They're real similar, actually," Romo says. "Except for the language. Bill's was a little more salty."
Phillips' offense, now in the hands of Garrett, features the same weapons as a year ago with a commitment to further capitalizing on Owens, stretching secondaries with Witten down the middle and flipping passes to running backs Julius Jones and Marion Barber in the flat, a la Emmitt Smith in the '90s. Phillips' defense, an attacking 3-4 scheme aimed at creating sacks and turnovers, will move hard-hitting safety Roy Williams closer to the line of scrimmage but be susceptible to big plays.
The Cowboys should at the very least be a playoff team, and at the very most go 11-5, win the NFC East and play in the NFC Championship Game. Which, of course, is about the scariest thing a first-year head coach can hear, aside from "I'm Chris Hansen with Dateline NBC...what exactly are you doing here?"
The question marks are few but significant. Can Gramatica be a dependable kicker? Will leading pass rusher Greg Ellis recover from last year's season-ending Achilles injury? Will free-agent investments Leonard Davis (guard) and Ken Hamlin (safety) be assets or albatrosses?
And not if—rather when and how—will T.O. erupt?
As opposed to last year when he only rode a stationary bike in camp, was only called "the player" by Parcells and was thrown passes only after the first quarter in games, Owens is being treated like a human being with superhuman skills.
"Hey, Terrell Owens!" Garrett barks toward the receiver during the first practice. "Listen up."
Trying both to maximize his talents and minimize distractions which last year included sleeping during meetings, an accidental drug overdose, a vague knowledge of the playbook, a broken finger and a league-leading 17 drops that diluted his league-leading 13 touchdowns, the Cowboys are dedicated to feeding Owens the ball in various spots from differing sets. The first play of camp, for example, was a reverse to No. 81.
"Last year? I don't remember that. I'm having a memory lapse," Owens jokes during camp. "Just remember that what I did was with 1 ½ hands. Seriously, it was a lack of concentration on my part, and I can't really put my finger on why. I'm happy this season. I have no reason not to be happy."
After regularly arguing with receivers coach Todd Haley and only thinly disguising his disgust for Bledsoe's sub-par play last year, Owens so far has a seamless chemistry with Romo. Still, you'd have to be crazier than Lindsay Lohan to think the two won't bump heads at some point.
"We've got great communication, and he's a great quarterback, but the best I've played with?" says Owens, repeating a ridiculous question. "It's hard to say he's up there with Steve Young. He knows he's got a ways to go before that. But he's got that kind of talent."
Before his first touchdown pass this season, fans are already treating Romo like Ring of Honor royalty. The chanting. The fawning. The cell-phone pics. The autographs. The expectations.
"I understand when we win on Sunday it makes people in Dallas happier, and that's cool. It's how it should be," Romo says. "And sure, at the end of the day, people act differently around me now than a year ago."
And vice versa.
In his prime Aikman fraternized with the country band Shenandoah, even checking into a Los Angeles hospital for back surgery in '93 under the alias of the group's drummer, Mike McGuire. And we could have sworn that giant at the Godsmack gig at the Palladium last month was offensive tackle Marc Colombo. But not since Nate Newton served 32 months in federal prison for toting pot in the back of his truck has a Cowboy played nice with such a nasty, notorious group as Romo and Metal Skool.
Back onstage in Dallas one band member jokes about boinking another's mom, someone accuses someone else of boinking his own sister, then they play some guitar-cranking, hair-slinging songs we all boinked to in the back seat 20 years ago and everybody has a good time. The only line-crossing groans come when lead guitarist Satchel strategizes on avoiding unwanted pregnancy by seducing girls so young that "their fallopian tubes aren't yet developed..."
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Finally, with Romo's set complete and his last bow taken, Starr offers his prediction on the upcoming season:
"Tony, you're going to have the best season ever. If not...shit, man, you'll be replaced by some other dude and you'll never sing with us again."
Even considering Romo's ascension, Starr has no idea how close to the truth he is concerning a fickle position in the most fickle of towns. Romo just might lead the Cowboys to Super Bowl XLII February 3, 2008, in Arizona. Or...
Yesterday a backup quarterback. Tonight the lead singer. Tomorrow a backup quarterback.