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Friday, November 14, 2008
Updated: November 21, 12:08 PM ET
Romo always knew he could play

By Mike Loveday
ESPNRISE.com

It is hard to believe that Tony Romo once went overlooked. When he was in high school, the star quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys did not attract the attention of many colleges, despite his many athletic accomplishments.

Tony Romo
Tony Romo was a three-time All-American and won the 2002 Walter Payton Award while at Eastern Illinois.

That is why Romo is perfect as yet another example in our continuing series on ESPN RISE about prominent professional athletes who were relative unknowns in high school. These are athletes who weren't on numerous recruiting lists, who weren't called by college coaches, but who still had the desire and the work habits to eventually make their NFL goals become reality.

Romo attended Burlington High (Wis.), where he became the first athlete to earn all-state honors in three different sports -- golf, football and basketball.

"A lot of us thought basketball was his best sport," said Eric Burling, Burlington's athletic director.

"Basketball was probably his favorite thing to play. He was starting on varsity as a sophomore. Everybody could see he thrived on the basketball court," said his high school basketball coach, Steve Berezowitz. "Basketball was one of those things that he really stood out in. He stood out in the conference and in the county. By his senior year, he was a super basketball player."

Romo averaged 24.3 points, 8.8 rebounds 4.7 assists and three steals per game in his senior season -- capping the year with the conference co-player of the year award.

Romo excelled on the football field, too. He threw for more than 3,700 yards and 42 touchdowns in his two years as starting quarterback, but even with those numbers, he garnered only minor interest from colleges.

Eastern Illinois became interested during Romo's senior year after he decided to play football rather than basketball in college even before his senior basketball season began.

"Basketball started, and he had already made a decision that he was going to try and play football his first year. No one around here started looking at him in terms of basketball until he averaged 25 [points] a game his senior year. Then the mid-majors started having some interest," Berezowitz said. "Tony's always been one of those guys that looks ahead, and I think he knew basketball was going to have its end point. I think he knew that the door was a little bit more wide open in terms of where football could have taken him."

He chose wisely.

After playing in three games his freshman year at Eastern Illinois, Romo took over the starting job full-time in 2000. He excelled, throwing for 2,583 yards and 27 touchdowns, numbers he continued to improve upon.

By his senior season, he was setting records and winning awards.

That year, Romo completed 63 percent of his passes for 3,165 yards and threw 34 touchdowns, earning the 2002 Walter Payton Award. That honor is given to the most outstanding college offensive football player in Division I FCS.

Romo finished his career as Eastern Illinois' all-time leader in touchdown passes (85) and was the first Ohio Valley Conference football player to be named the conference's offensive player of the year in three straight seasons.

But just like high school, once Romo was finished with college, few NFL suitors came calling. His performance at that year's NFL Combine did little to impress scouts.

"I felt good, like it was a step for me to show people what I could do, but I didn't throw as well as I wanted to," Romo told the Chicago Tribune's Melissa Isaacson in 2006. "I'm pretty realistic about my talents and I felt I wasn't as good as some of the other guys there. I struggled that day. I just wasn't ready at that time."

Tony Romo
Romo has been to two Pro Bowls and made the playoffs twice since taking over as the Cowboys starting QB in 2006.

NFL teams seemed to agree. Romo went undrafted and signed a free-agent contract with the Dallas Cowboys in 2003.

Romo did not attempt a single pass in each of his first three seasons with the Cowboys, a rarity for a guy who earned honors at every stop in his athletic career, but in 2006, after starter Drew Bledsoe struggled, Romo got his chance.

And just like in high school and college, once he got his chance, he took it and has not let go.

Romo threw for 2,903 yards in that first season and led the Cowboys to the playoffs. The only negative for Romo that season was a botched hold on a potential game-winning field goal in a playoff loss to the Seattle Seahawks.

That one mistake has not held Romo back. An All-Pro in each of his first two years as a starter, Romo has led the Cowboys to the playoffs both of those seasons.

The 2008 season began well for Romo. The Cowboys were the preseason favorite to win the Super Bowl. Back in Burlington, Romo received yet another honor when he was inducted into his high school's Wall of Fame.

No one is overlooking Romo now.

Mike Loveday covers high school sports for ESPN RISE.