The best QB you've never heard of: Garoppolo making his mark at Eastern Illinois

The best QB you've never heard of: Garoppolo making his mark at Eastern Illinois
October 18, 2013, 1:30 pm
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Two months ago, Eastern Illinois quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was nothing more than a fringe NFL prospect; the kind of guy who toils in FCS anonymity for four years while debates rage about Johnny Manziel's ability to play at the next level.
 
But something changed, and it changed quick. Garoppolo threw for 361 yards and three touchdowns in Eastern Illinois' Aug. 31 season opener at San Diego State, a 40-19 win over an FBS program that won nine games in 2012.
 
Garoppolo hasn't slowed since. Through six games, the Arlington Heights, Ill., native has completed 66 percent of his passes for 2,359 yards with 28 touchdowns to four interceptions.
 
All of a sudden, Garoppolo's parents have been inundated with calls from agents hoping to sign their son. They've heard projections as high as the second round of next year's draft. 

It's been a two-month whirlwind that's seen their son vault into the national football conscience. And it hasn't showed any signs of slowing. 

"It's hard to believe," Garoppolo's mother, Denise, said.

"This happens to other people," his father, Tony, added.

***

Garoppolo wasn't groomed as a quarterback from the day he could hold a football. He always figured baseball would be his sport -- his mom insisted he would've made a fine player had he stuck with it -- but gave it up because the game "got a little boring for me." 

He played football growing up, too, but never quarterback -- even though his coaches begged him to be one from the day he put on pads. Instead, Garoppolo followed in the footsteps of his older brother, Mike, playing outside linebacker and running back.

Still, Garoppolo's father recalls his son leading his pee-wee team in touchdown passes, since they'd run halfback passes to maximize his son's skill set. But a desire to play quarterback didn't come about until Garoppolo's junior year at Rolling Meadows High School.
 
Rolling Meadows didn't have a quarterback lined up, so Garoppolo -- who played varsity as a linebacker his sophomore year -- decided to give it a shot. 

"I was a decent athlete at the time," he said. "I could throw the ball well because of baseball, so it worked out."

A player's college star generally rises his junior year of high school. That's when coaches take notice, and fly across the country to sit in living rooms with prep kids and parents to wax poetic about their program.

Garoppolo didn't get much of that. As a greenhorn quarterback, Garoppolo didn't really know what he was doing his junior year, and in turn didn't generate much interest from programs around the area.

"I didn't know what cover-6 was, what cover-2 was," Garoppolo said. "I was just kind of running around with my head cut off."

After his junior season, Garoppolo huddled with his coaches and began to nail down the finer points of the position. But by then, it was too late -- an offer from college football's top flight wasn't coming. 

Illinois, Northwestern, Purdue and Western Michigan showed some interest, but backed off a few games into Garoppolo's senior season. But while Garoppolo wanted a Big Ten or FBS offer, the main thing for him was to find a place to play.

A few FCS schools came calling, with Illinois State the first to offer. Montana State wanted him, too. But neither were good fits -- Illinois State had a freshman starting at quarterback, while Montana State was too far away.

Then Eastern Illinois came into the picture. There was an immediate opening at quarterback, and campus wasn't far from his family. 

And, if Garoppolo and his family were allowed to think big, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo went there, too.

"Everything happens for a reason, I've told myself that for three years now," Garoppolo said. "I can't be any more happy with my decision coming to Eastern, and it's worked out so far. Hopefully have to stay on the right path and everything will keep going the way it is."

***

Garoppolo broke Romo's school touchdown record of 85 with his first scoring throw Sept. 28 against Eastern Kentucky (he now has 93 for his career). He blew by the school completions record held by current Saints coach Sean Payton earlier in the year, and broke the school record for total offense last week against Austin Peay. He only needs 190 passing yards to break that school record, too.

All those marks were in reach before the season, though, so Garoppolo's parents figured breaking them wouldn't change much for their son.

"Being Tony Romo went to the school and he was coming up on his records and all that stuff, so there was always the thought that maybe he'd get a tryout," Tony Garoppolo said. "And (Romo) didn't get drafted, so maybe Jimmy would be in that situation."

Now, those records are a nice touch that have helped drive media coverage. It's all pretty new to Garoppolo, but he hasn't let the interviews and NFL talk go to his head. 

"We try not to focus on the NFL and all that stuff too much," Garoppolo said. "If it's going to happen, I'm going to have to have a tremendous season anyways." 

Standing at 6-foot-3, 222 pounds with a strong arm and excellent throwing mechanics, Garoppolo has the look of an NFL quarterback, even if he's not thinking that way just yet. He's had his parents handle the brunt of the NFL hype, and doesn't ask them about what they're hearing from scouts or agents.

What they're hearing, though, is a promising shot at next year's draft and, before that, a hopeful bid to the Senior Bowl. His father is an electrician and his mother is a personal chef, but they've each added new jobs as the conduit between their son and the next level.

"It's quite overwhelming," Denise Garoppolo said. "It's like, when we talk to people, we'll ask them other questions other than about Jimmy because that's all our life is right now, is Jimmy World. It's very exciting."

But it's been impossible for Garoppolo to have a completely narrow mindset about his game. That childhood dream is within reach, and even if he's dropping lines about staying focused on the task at hand like an NFL veteran, he knows what he's accomplished and what could be next. 

"It's always in the back of your head, I can't lie," Garoppolo said. "It's something that's always lingering there, and you think about it from time to time. I believe I can play at the next level, it's whether the scouts and NFL coaches believe I can. It's really their call, not mine."

There's still plenty of time between this weekend, the Senior Bowl, the NFL Combine and the NFL Draft. Those latter three events likely matter more than the stats Garoppolo puts up in the regular season and playoffs. 

But Garoppolo and his parents aren't allowing themselves to think ahead. After all, two months ago, none of this seemed possible. 
 
"I could see how people could let it get to them and really start believing it," Tony Garoppolo said. "We don't want to be that way, we're not that way, Jimmy's not that way. We're taking it for what it's worth, and right now it's a lot of hype and interviews like this. 

"But really, until he makes it, then we'll believe it."