Ten years ago, Tony Romo entered his first training camp as the Dallas Cowboys’ unquestioned starting quarterback.
Back then he was the Cowboys’ best hope since Troy Aikman retired. When he took over in the seventh game of the 2006 season, the Cowboys took off and made the playoffs. Romo-mentum was everywhere. He was everywhere. The Cowboys mattered again.
On the drive to San Antonio late in July 2007 for training camp, with Jason Witten behind the wheel and Terence Newman in the passenger seat, Romo sat in the back. On the small television screen, Steve Perry sang “Don’t Stop Believin’” from a Journey concert in 1981. Romo sang along with him.
Workin’ hard to get my fill
Everybody wants a thrill
Payin’ anything to roll the dice
Just one more time
Some will win
Some will lose
Some were born to sing the blues
Oh, the movie never ends
It goes on and on, and on, and on
Now 36, Romo is still rolling the dice, and the movie is still playing on and on.
“It’s gone quick,” Romo said, sitting on the back of a golf cart during a break in a seven-on-seven tournament he hosted in Burlington, Wisconsin last month. “Sometimes it feels like ages ago when you think about when you first started playing. But that’s why every year is so precious and why it matters so much. That’s why you’ve got to make each year the best you’ve had.”
As the 2016 season begins with Saturday’s first training camp practice in Oxnard, California, Romo remains the Cowboys’ best hope. Perhaps their only hope.
He played in only four games last year because of a twice-broken left collarbone. The Cowboys won three of them. The Cowboys won just one game in 12 tries without Romo. They had their worst record since 1989 when they went 1-15 in Jerry Jones’ first year as owner and general manager.
But now Romo, who had surgery in March on his collarbone, is healthy again. Can he make it through the 2016 season healthy? Nobody knows, but if he does, the Cowboys will be in contention. He is proud of the fact that he has never played in a meaningless game in his career.
Romo holds the franchise records for passing yards and touchdowns. He has a 78-49 record as a starter, but he is defined mostly by what he has yet to do. He does not want to get introspective as to what has happened over the last 10 years, when he has gone from an unknown, undrafted free agent to one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL.
“It’s not the time to look back,” Romo said. “You’re continuing to go forward. You learn what you learn, and you evolve.”
And he believes there is more to accomplish. On several occasions in the offseason, Romo was asked how much longer he wanted to play, and almost every time he changed the time frame. First it was 3-5 years. Then it was 4-6. Then it was 6-8. He even joked he had another 10 years in him.
He believes he is playing his best football because his knowledge is equal to his physical skill.
Romo has said if he is good enough to win a Super Bowl, he will win a Super Bowl. If he’s not, then he won’t.
As the years pass, the odds get more difficult.
“I think what you find over time, my job is to continue to get better, so if our team is better or worse, that doesn’t affect our chances,” Romo said. “I just need to get better. If we’re not quite as good, OK, we still have a chance. If we’re really good, then we’re definitely going to compete for championships. We know what our goal is. We know what our aspirations are and what achievement means in this sport. And that’s why we do what we do.”
As much as the Super Bowl drives Romo, he does not allow himself to think of what winning one would be like or what it would mean for him and his legacy.
“You can’t look ahead and see something years down the road,” Romo said. “You don’t know how things will play out. You don’t know what you’ll become. But you have to believe you’re trying to be something and trying to get somewhere. That belief is really the difference in making it and not making it.
“It’s the unwavering belief that you’re just going to make it happen and you’re just going to get to where you want to go.”