Mac Engel

Despite fame, Cowboys’ Romo never got too big for his hometown

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo (9) smiles as he steps onto the field for warm ups before a game against the Indianapolis Colts, Sunday, Dec. 21, in Arlington,.
Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo (9) smiles as he steps onto the field for warm ups before a game against the Indianapolis Colts, Sunday, Dec. 21, in Arlington,. AP

The Chamber of Commerce now features a Tony Romo display.

So does the Burlington Menswear shop next door.

Down two blocks, Fred’s Burgers has a Romo shrine, and a table with photos from his athletic days at Burlington High School.

On the four main roads leading into this community of nearly 11,000 are signs that say this is the hometown of “Tony Romo, NFL quarterback.”

The high school has a display case for Romo outside its cafeteria. On page 10 of the Burlington magazine, Romo is featured as a local celebrity.

A little more than eight years ago, none of this was here in Burlington, Wis., when Tony Romo was named the starting quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys.

A little more than eight years ago, Romo was winning so easily and everything not only looked possible but imminent.

Despite incredibly bad odds at making it in the NFL as an undrafted rookie free agent, much of what was projected for Romo all the way back then actually has happened.

Some of it has not.

There has been joy, highs, lows, sadness, injury, marriage, children, fame; when he was growing up here and aspiring to be the local golf pro, all of what has happened was implausible. All of this doesn’t happen to kids from Burlington.

At the core of his success remains this place, and these people.

This quaint and impossibly endearing community of a little more than 11,000 has changed since he became the starting quarterback, as he has. Their essence remains a basic decency that supports, and never forgets, the other. There is a deep mutual pride between the two.

“Tony ... that’s my baby,” said Simon Pedone, 74, owner of Romo’s favorite pizza place in town, who has known Tony and his family for decades.

“Tony’s the same,” said his former high school coach, Steve Gerber. “He really hasn’t changed. He always comes back. He always includes us.”

Tony Romo hit the big time, but he never big-times Burlington.

Midwest Mayberry

This town, located 30 miles south of Milwaukee, still reeks of the same humility and small-town kindness it always has.

Despite its location between two major cities, Chicago and Milwaukee, the type of growth that can turn it into a giant suburb never happened. There is not even a Starbucks here. There is nary a hint of pretense about Burlington, which is its charm.

When Romo walks into Burlington Menswear, where he had his suit made for his high school prom, he does so wearing his normal, unpretentious off-the-field uniform.

“Khaki cargo shorts, T-shirt and a hat,” said Shelly Leverenz, who has run this store since Romo was a kid. “He really is an everyday person.”

“One thing I never thought I would see is Tony in a suit and tie like you see him wear for the interviews after games,” Romo’s high school basketball coach, Steve Berezowitz, said.

When Romo hit it big in the fall of 2006 and the entire 2007, this community wanted to rise above how much fun being famous can be, much like Romo himself.

But like any normal human being, it was too much fun not to revel in the fame. There was their Tony being interviewed by Al Michaels, playing against Brett Favre, dating Carrie Underwood and even Jessica Simpson.

“There was a 50th birthday party for his dad here, and he came back and he brought Carrie Underwood with him,” said Romo’s high school teammate, Steve Tenhagen, who is now head football coach at Burlington High School. “That was a big deal. I think more people were more excited to see Carrie Underwood than Tony.”

It was only slightly surreal to see one of their own all over the place, from ESPN to NBC to the pages of US Weekly. It was only slightly surreal to see their Tony sign a six-year, $67 million contract in the fall of 2007. Burlington is not a shanty town, but that kind of wealth doesn’t normally reside here.

When Romo returned then, and now, most of these people are dying to say hello, get an autograph or simply to be in the presence of fame. They also want to leave him alone.

“I think he has signed everything here now, so no one bothers him anymore,” Gerber said.

Eventually, the interest level was too big, and his mom and dad moved from the modest, 1,500-square-foot home in Burlington a few miles north to a neighboring community. People would simply drive by the single-story home to stop, to point, to take pictures. Tony and his two sisters no longer lived there, and his parents, Ramiro and Joan, no longer wanted the hassle.

Those were minor problems, and they were fun. There are other problems that come with fame, and they are not so much fun.

Wonderful story

Because he is the quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys, a lineage of Meredith, Staubach and Aikman, Romo receives adulation and criticism to a degree most of the people in Burlington are unaccustomed.

At first, there was none. It was all fame, smiles, and happiness. I was even contracted to write a book about him, Tony Romo: America’s Next Quarterback. It was only a matter of when Romo won a Super Bowl with the Dallas Cowboys.

He is a wonderful story.

And then Romo bobbled that snap in the 2006 playoff loss in Seattle. And then he went to Cabo. And then the Cowboys blew home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with a divisional-round loss against the New York Giants in the ’07 postseason.

And then the blowout, season-ending loss in Philly in ’08. A playoff win in ’09 was erased in the season-ending injury in Week 6 in ’10. And then the season-finale, playoff-preventing losses in ’11, ’12 and ’13. And then more injuries, too — busted ribs, busted back, bad ankle, busted lung.

The largest thread was Romo. As much money as he has made, and as much fun as it has been, the accompanying criticism to “being close” can cut deep if you care.

“Of course it bothers you because you know how much he cares,” Berezowitz said. “When I hear people say he doesn’t care, or whatever, I can’t believe it. People don’t realize how much he wants to do for the Dallas Cowboys.”

Romo has become one of the most over-analyzed, criticized and frustrating players in the NFL. For those who only know him as No. 9, starting quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys, it’s fantasy football chatter. For those who know him as Tony, and text him, call him, attend his wedding, or know his mom and dad, all of this talk can sting. It is detached, and it is mean.

It did bother Tony at first, but it can still get to some of his friends.

“I do think his parents are hardened to that now,” Gerber said.

They will all love Tony regardless of what happens in the Cowboys’ NFC playoff game in Green Bay on Sunday, but they want it for him even if it comes at the expense of their beloved Packers. They want it for him because they know him, and he always includes them, so they feel it.

Still one of them

When Romo first became the starting quarterback, he was often seen wearing Burlington Demons T-shirts in postgame interviews.

“The first time he tried to qualify for the U.S. Open, the golf bag was the one I gave him when he played for me in high school,” said his high school golf coach, William Berkholtz. “I am pretty sure he has a better one now.”

Every year, he has taken a big group of friends on golf outings to locations such as Palm Springs, Calif. Every summer, Romo returns to Burlington to hold a football summer camp at the high school for teens, and for kids. The crowds are usually capacity. Romo teaches, talks, signs autographs, but at his core he is still one of them.

“I got here at the high school one day, and there is Tony playing a game of 21 in basketball,” Berezowitz said.

Despite the fame and wealth, wife and kids, Romo is still the same kid that Berezowitz remembers using duct tape to keep wearing the same pair of favorite shoes in high school. He is still the same guy who did not care what number he wore in basketball. Home is Dallas now, and likely will be forever, but Burlington will always be the real home. His circle of friends includes lots of wealthy and famous people now, but it will never not include these people and this town.

“I went to his wedding, and I got to sit and talk to Roger Staubach for 30 minutes,” Berkholtz said.

After more than eight years as the starting quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys, everyone here realizes this will not last forever. He is 34 with a bad back, and they all know now these opportunities are not to be taken for granted. That is why so many people here will be pulling for the Cowboys over their Packers: the Packers will have another shot, but Romo will only have so many more.

They want it because they want it for him. They want it because as big as Tony Romo is, he never big-timed Burlington.

Follow Mac Engel on The Big Mac Blog at star-telegram.com/sports/.

Mac Engel, 817-390-7697

Twitter: @macengelprof

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