Of Daring Greatly in Seattle: Tony Romo’s Journey from Pit to Crest to Darkness
The Botched Snap
On a cold January night, the Dallas Cowboys, led by their newly sanctified “Quarterback of the Future,” Tony Romo, trotted into what is now known as CenturyLink Field (at this point in time, it was known as Qwest Field). The atmosphere of the stadium was, as always, electric. For the Romo Cowboys, they were used to it.
As soon as head coach Bill Parcells decided to name him the starter in Week 8, Romo had injected life and excitement not only into the Cowboys’ stagnant offense, but also into its stagnant fanbase. He led the Cowboys to five wins in six weeks, two of which included the unlikely vanquishing of the previously undefeated, Peyton Manning-guided Indianapolis Colts, and the exhilarating five-touchdown-pass performance on Thanksgiving that would raise Dallas over the lowly Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
For a franchise that had spent five straight seasons gulping for air at the quarterback position, Tony Romo, the undrafted kid out of Eastern Illinois — who had once caught the eye of revered offensive mastermind Sean Payton — represented the answer to the desperate cries for help Cowboys fans had been wailing since Troy Aikman’s exit.
Fans of America’s Team who had been idly tuned into the lackluster stylings of Quincy Carter, Ryan Leaf, Anthony Wright, Clint Stoerner, Chad Hutchinson, Vinny Testaverde, Drew Henson, and Drew Bledsoe were now treated to must-see TV featuring the fearless, gunslinging, explosive plays and charming, boyish smile that Tony Romo brought to the field and to the franchise.
Romo’s life was flipped upside down in 2006. The 26-year-old from Burlington, Wisconsin had become the face of the world’s most valuable sports franchise in 10 weeks. With this great responsibility — that of the fabled Dallas Cowboys quarterback position — came the ultimate expectations: win and win big.
Here in Seattle, on that cold, crisp night of 44 degrees, the legend of Tony Romo would take its first 90 degree turn. Unbeknownst to anyone in the Cowboys organization, to the fanbase, or to Tony himself, it would be on this same field that he would coast to his career’s greatest pinnacle, and, ultimately, fall to the darkest void.
And as is the case in most Tony Romo-helmed games, it was a thrill ride.
Romo would lead the Cowboys to close the first half with a touchdown pass to Patrick Crayton and take a 10–6 lead to the locker room. The Cowboys defense, directed by the wisdom and strategy of Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells, swarmed the Seahawks’ offense, and kept them out of the end zone. Just thirty minutes away from victory.
But in the second half, the vaunted Parcells defense began to crack. Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck would wind up hitting big tight end Jerramy Stevens for two touchdowns, while Romo and the Cowboys fell ice cold. Scoring was left up to the defense, who would force the Seahawks into a safety, and to another lesser-known up and comer named Miles Austin, who would return a kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown and keep the Cowboys in the game.
All things considered, Romo and the offense were lucky to trail only by a point with four minutes left in the game. His legend was laid out in front of him. He had the opportunity of a lifetime to lead his team to postseason glory. And everything was going to plan.
After hitting Crayton and superstar Terrell Owens for gains of 11 and 12 yards respectively, Cowboys running back Julius Jones burst through the flagging Seahawks defense and ripped off a 35-yard gain, bringing the ball all the way to the Seattle 11 yard line: chip shot field goal range for Martin Gramatica.
Marion Barber’s 3-yard run and Jason Witten’s 6-yard catch, followed by Seattle burning the last of its precious timeouts, stopped the clock at 1:19. The Cowboys had the ball on the Seattle 2-yard line. All that was left was a glorified extra point.
That is when Tony Romo’s legacy not only veered off the skyrocket it had been riding since Week 8, but it splattered violently into the earth. A crushing moment that many Cowboys fans still cannot bring themselves to stomach. It is what has become known aptly as “The Botched Snap.”
Romo fumbled the snap. He was, after all, the field goal holder. He had been all season. Why change that? Why change when things are humming along smoothly? You can’t break up the mojo: another NFL mantra born in superstition that would haunt Romo’s last days in a Cowboys uniform.
Regardless of why he was still holding field goals, Romo failed in the biggest moment. The Cowboys lost the game 21–20.
A dejected Romo, many of whom, such as his future All-Pro teammate Dez Bryant would refer to as “the ultimate competitor,” had let his team down. His body language did not mince words. He was only able to muster a few soundbites after the game, none of which induced any sympathy from the vicious mob of bloodthirsty Cowboy fans.
Romo lamented, “I just didn’t get the ball down. It obviously cost us the game. I cost the Dallas Cowboys a playoff win. It is going to sit with me a long time. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt this low.”
USA Today’s Jim Corbett would write, “in the loser’s locker room, Romo was in tears at his locker. The midseason savior who had gone 4–1 during his mercurial rise crashed to earth.”
The New York Times’ Lee Jenkins wrote that “he wept on the field and in the locker room. He apologized to his teammates and the Cowboys’ legion of fans. He struggled to speak during his postgame news conference.”
Normally flamboyant and irreverent, a subdued Terrell Owens offered comfort for Romo: “I told him to just hang in there. I told him I’m here if he needs me.”
That night in Dallas, a 14-year-old kid desperate for a Cowboys hero to call his own, would react in opposition to the family members he watched the game with on TV that night. He would react in opposition to the majority of Cowboy Nation. His reaction was of immediate reconciliation for Tony Romo, of empathy, and of confidence.
It’s a reaction I always felt after the near-misses for the next 11 years.
“You know you are going to go through your ups and downs in this game for sure. Obviously, that has happened to us this year. I have never experienced this, so I don’t know how long something like this will sit with me. At some point — I don’t know when, and it won’t be any time soon — you will have to move on and get ready for next season.”
A Legacy on the Cusp of Redefinition
Texas had lost to Oklahoma on a Saturday in October of 2014, but the bars were still open that night. “30–23,” I drunkenly disgorged for hour upon hour the night before the 4–1 Cowboys would face off against the Super Bowl champion Seahawks in Seattle the next day. “30–23. I guarantee it.” In between gin and tonics, I told anybody who could bare to stand the words any longer. “We’re going to go into Seattle tomorrow, and we’re going to win.”
I can’t blame anyone for not buying it. It was the kind of blind optimism I had been employing since some icy fingers let a pigskin loose during what should have been a routine, game-winning 19-yard field goal back in January of 2007. The ridiculous loyalty I lent to Tony Romo despite season after season after season of disappointment never waned. My fellow Cowboy fans, and even more so my friends who were fans of other teams, were sick of it.
But just a few hours after Charlie Strong’s first crack at the Oklahoma Sooners in the Cotton Bowl would come up short, Tony Romo faced another golden opportunity to prove that the Cowboys were good enough to contend for a championship, and that he could be the one to lead them.
There would be no better stage to do so than on the home field of the defending champs. Tragically and unexpectedly, it would be the greatest moment of Romo’s career.
This time, the teams were spared the frigid 44 degree weather of January in exchange for a balmy, rainforest-accommodating 60 degree forecast with 81% humidity. There was no questioning which team had more to prove. The Cowboys were a surprising 4–1, but with wins over the hapless Titans, Rams, and Saints, who could buy them as legit? The Seahawks were rolling right along through their Super Bowl victory lap, and it seemed no one would stand in their way toward NFC home field advantage and another trip to the big game.
The start, for the Cowboys, couldn’t have been more disastrous. A blocked punt was picked up by the tenacious Seahawks special teams unit and returned for a quick touchdown. They had jumped out to a 10–0 lead early and I got a bad case of the here we go agains. It seemed the Cowboys were exposed as pretenders yet again.
Not this time.
Romo led two touchdown drives before the half, and they also added a Dan Bailey field goal as the Dallas defense, composed of riff raff and discarded pieces that no other team wanted, began to lock in and lock out the impressive Seattle offense from the end zone.
A 17–10 Dallas lead, however, did not feel big enough. Just thirty minutes away from victory.
Seattle would take a late lead, 23–20 with just over 8 minutes left in the fourth quarter. It would be on the ensuing Cowboys drive that Tony Romo would make one of the most iconic plays and cap off one of the most enduring drives of his legacy.
After picking up an initial first down, the Cowboys were hampered by a Travis Frederick holding penalty, setting up a 1st and 20 from their own 31-yard line. An emergency dump off to DeMarco Murray for no gain and an incomplete pass to Dez Bryant a play later would bring up 3rd and 20 with five minutes remaining and the game on the line.
Romo took the next snap from the shotgun, an obvious passing play. Yet it was doomed from go: DeMarco Murray would fail to chip deadly Seahawks rushman Bruce Irvin, and all-pro left tackle Tyron Smith was left in the lurch trying to pick him up. Irvin had a clear shot on the 34-year-old quarterback whose botched snap over six years prior had single-handedly cost the Cowboys a playoff win and a shot at destiny.
But in a moment, there was Tony Romo: a sitting duck, a crippled, old, injury-prone, choking, disappointing, interception-throwing underachiever; and, in a moment, he wasn’t there at all. A quick jab step toward the pocket, and a juke back out, spinning to his right, Romo escaped a sure sack.
The play was a microcosm of Romo’s entire career. You’ve got one of the smartest, most disciplined centers in the game in Travis Frederick, who never gets called for holding — he does. You’ve got an All-Pro left tackle in Tyron Smith who never misses that block — he does. You’ve got the leader of a Super Bowl defense in Bruce Irvin bearing down on you, unblocked, unabated, hoping to earn a clear path to the quarterback — he does. And yet, with the highest of odds against him, with freak mistakes by his almost always trustworthy teammates, with circumstances outside of his control, with nothing but failures and mistakes clouding his prospects for success, Tony Romo found a way to push through.
He maneuvered through the makeshift remainder of his pocket, his rabbit-like quickness shedding another attempt from the now prone Irvin grabbing for dear life at Romo’s feet, and delivered a 23-yard strike to Terrance Williams who somehow magically kept the tips of his toes in bounds and sustained the drive.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Seahawks linebacker Bruce Irvin would later admit. “But it’s easier talking about it than when it actually happens.”
It was fantasy. It was never supposed to happen. It shouldn’t have happened. It had no right to happen. It defies all logical thought. And that’s Tony Romo: the undrafted free agent from Eastern Illinois turned leader of the prestigious fraternity of America’s Team, carrying with him the weight of all the expectations and criticisms one could ever imagine, fighting through it all, and continuing to defy the odds.
Of course, the Cowboys had the Seahawks completely demoralized at this point. Murray would pound his way to the red zone and cap off the drive with a rushing touchdown. And although Murray would score the touchdown, the moment, and the image that Cowboys fans would remember him by forever, was all Romo.
There was a marked difference in Romo’s tone after the win than the one of the 26-year-old kid who had been quarterback of America’s Team for a few weeks back in 2006. Romo was more measured, mature, composed, patient.
“I think our team now understands that we do a lot of things pretty well and I think we have the ability to kind of impose yourself on other teams.” He said.
The scars of his past had led him to that confidence, that ability, as he always called it, to “stay in the moment,” and not lose sight of the goals no matter the adversity, no matter the circumstances. 14-year teammate and best friend Jason Witten would corroborate this “no excuses” attitude after the game:
“I think that showed the maturity of this team. We expected to win. We knew this was going to be a challenge and we stayed the course.”
And while Witten’s words would do more to emphasize a team-first mentality, the subtext was all about Romo, that great wizard who spun out of a Bruce Irvin sack on 3rd and 20 and delivered the most improbable of wins to a franchise maligned for its mediocrity. But that’s something Romo, who would later, in the darkest moment of his career, demonstrate just how much he admired team ahead of his own esteem, would never, ever, claim credit for.
The Los Angeles Times’ Sam Farmer would recall, “the site of Dallas quarterback Tony Romo’s career low point — a botched hold on a 19-yard field goal attempt at the end of a January 2007 playoff game at Seattle — looked closer to a turning point for the suddenly scorching Cowboys.”
And in that moment, on that late Sunday afternoon in Seattle, Tony Romo was on top of the world. And in that moment, if only for a brief time, I was vindicated. Having never doubted that Tony Romo would be the one to lead us to a championship, it felt like I had finally broken through some great barrier myself. And my former detractors could do nothing but shake their heads and smile at my deranged loyalty to number 9.
He Dared Greatly
The storybook ending that Romo’s gritty 2014 campaign deserved was robbed by a controversial incomplete pass in Green Bay. A twice broken clavicle rendered the 2015 season a complete dumpster fire.
Enter: 2016. The Cowboys, believed by many to be better than the 4-win team that took the field a year prior, were able to draft Ezekiel Elliott, DeMarco Murray’s “replacement-and-then-some” with the fourth overall pick in the draft.
Less noticed at the time was what happened in the fourth round, when the Cowboys selected quarterback Rayne Dakota Prescott from Mississippi State with the 135th overall pick. Even less noticed was when backup quarterback Kellen Moore broke his leg in training camp, giving way to young Dak as the backup quarterback.
As the Cowboys chugged along through training camp, and the preseason’s dawn was on the horizon, Romo would comment that he felt like this was “the best team you’ve ever had.”
Romo wouldn’t play in the preseason opener against the Los Angeles Rams out of caution. After all, he was still recovering from surgery on his clavicle. He would however last a couple of series against the Miami Dolphins a week later, leading a touchdown drive.
And, now, looming on the Cowboys’ preseason schedule was a visit to Seattle. The place where Romo was once at his lowest, and the place where he had crushed the demons of his past in 2014.
He would last three plays.
“In a weird way, I feel good about the fact that — that was probably as tough a hit I took on the back as I have in the last five years. From that regard, I feel very lucky that it can hold up and you can keep going.”
The crunching, awkward, unsettling tackle made by Cliff Avril (one could have hoped it would be Bruce Irvin, the very man Romo made lunch out of just two years prior) sent sharp pain through Romo’s twice-repaired back, and the fans of America’s Team held their collective breath.
“At the moment when you go down — you crunch. And so your back gets squished. You kind of feel the, almost like a sensation of if someone gave you a stinger in your shoulder or something — where it just feels hot for a second and then that just dissipates after a minute.”
Romo would deny the severity of the hit. He insisted, along with Jerry Jones and Jason Garrett, that he was not injured, that he had even tried to go back into the game.
“It’s football. You’re going to get hit and things happen. I don’t think we’ll have another one as far as a hit that is that timed and perfect on the back. That really is just a — full, right down on top of you. That’s as extreme as one as you don’t want to have. It’s a good sign that I came out of it.”
But, as we would come to know in the coming days, Romo was injured. He had a fracture in his back, and the prognosis was that he would miss 6–10 weeks.
The news fell on the Cowboys fanbase, who had just endured a 4–12 season without Romo, like a ton of bricks.
Jason Witten would offer that “people are going to bet against him, that’s fine, and I don’t think that’s unfair to do so. But if you know what he’s about, which everybody in this building does, he’s going to be back sooner than probably expected and he’ll play better than anybody thought he would because I know that’s what he’s about.”
The rest, as they say, is history. Dak Prescott led the Cowboys to a 13–3 record and the #1 seed in the NFC playoffs. Romo saw one final drive in relief in the last game of the season, leading the Cowboys to a touchdown — a pass to, of all people, Terrance Williams, who had served as magician’s assistant in Seattle just two years prior.
Just as he had not been replaced as field goal holder during the 2006 season, Cowboys coach Jason Garrett, and even some of the Cowboys players, acknowledged that they had to ride the hot hand and couldn’t mess with the mojo — in that good old sports superstition fashion.
Romo was lauded for gracefully stepping aside to make way for Prescott as the starter in a career-culminating, heart wrenching speech he gave to Dallas media at the Cowboys’ practice facility in November.
Little did any of us know during that 6-minute speech, the season would be the last for Tony Romo.
“You almost feel like an outsider. Coaches are sympathetic, but they still have to coach and you’re not there. It’s a dark place. Probably the darkest it’s ever been. You’re sad and down and out and you ask yourself why did this have to happen. It’s in this moment you find out who you really are and what you’re really about.” He recited the words with the most genuine and somber of countenances, the boyish grin of 2006 shrouded by the wrinkles of a scarred man in mourning.
“You see football is a meritocracy. You aren’t handed anything. You earn everything. Every single day. Over and over again. You have to prove it.”
“I feel like we all have two battles or two enemies going on. One with the man across from you. The second is with the man inside of you. I think once you control the one inside of you, the one across from you really doesn’t matter. I think that is what we are all trying to do.”
From the pit of the botched snap, to the crest of the miracle play in 2014, to the darkness of the back-breaking hit, Tony Romo was done. And his words of humility, team, and persistence will echo in the halls of Cowboys lore for eternity.
Epilogue: Nowitzki in Context
The great tragedy of competition, and of sports, is that there is always a loser; there will always be someone who comes up short despite what they may or may not deserve.
Dallas, Texas has played host to an assortment of legends throughout its tenure as one of America’s greatest sports markets. We all know the names, and the most recent leader of Dallas sports has been the Mavericks’ future-Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki.
For years, critics lampooned Nowitzki’s ability to lead his team to a championship. After several deep playoff runs, the Mavericks, under Dirk’s direction, finally made it to the NBA Finals in 2006 where they were thwarted by the Miami Heat in a series that saw Dwayne Wade shoot 97 free throws in six games (a shade over sixteen a game for those without a calculator). They followed up this devastating loss with a 67-win season, only to be eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by an 8-seeded Golden State Warriors sans Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant.
The jury was in. Nowitzki could never do it. He was not a winner. Destiny for him did not include a championship. And yet, four years later, the German-born wonder guided the Mavericks through the 2011 playoffs, launching past the defending champion Lakers, the youthful, surging Thunder, and the villainous Heat in the Finals, delivering the championship to Dallas and cementing the legacy he had sought to redeem.
In some respects, Tony Romo is the alternate side of Dirk Nowitzki. What if Dirk had never achieved the championship? What if those critics had been right? What if it just never happened for Dirk? What if he could not lead the team to the top of the mountain? Tony Romo is the second face of Dirk Nowitzki. He is the darkened, scarred, mangled face of the man that went through all the same highs and lows and tragedies, and yet never felt that sweet resolution of final accomplishment.
No one doubts Dirk Nowitzki’s legacy. All will doubt Tony Romo’s. And yet they approached the game the same way: with that never give up, fight ’til the end, give everything you have, and continue battling through all the hardship mentality that is so hard to come by in sports.
Dirk Nowitzki’s career began with a regular season game in 1999: on the road in Seattle. That’s where Tony Romo’s career began, rose to its greatest heights, and, tragically, concluded.
Every time I think about Tony Romo, now and forever, I’m reminded of the famous excerpt from Theodore Roosevelt’s Citizenship in a Republic:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
Tony Romo: that undrafted kid from Eastern Illinois who clung to a roster spot for two years, worked his way to the backup role, replaced Drew Bledsoe, was thrust into the spotlight as the pilot of America’s Team; who cost his team a playoff win, who dazzled fans with his Houdini acts, who fought through year after year, play after play, injury after injury for a chance at the ultimate accomplishment, only to tragically fall short.
He dared greatly.