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At the tail end of a season that saw quarterback Tony Romo rise into the rarefied air of superstardom, the Dallas Cowboys’ golden boy watched his reputation char in the flames of a media firestorm.

Five years into his NFL career, Romo and his headline-hogging social life are far from the relative quiet of Charleston, Illinois, fifty miles south of Champaign- Urbana. In Charleston, which is home to Eastern Illinois University, Romo was a man known about campus for winning the Division I-AA’s prestigious Walter Payton Award after climbing to number three in all-time Ohio Valley Conference passing yards with 8,212. But despite his talents on the field, he was merely a solid player at a mid-sized college on the prairie, and the national tabloids cared little about what he did on a Friday night.

Not any more. The media’s in a tizzy. (And, it’s worth noting, this has Romo’s teammate Terrell Owens in tears.) You surely know the story by now: Romo starts dating Jessica Simpson — the pop princess known for musical treats such as “Push Your Tush” and acting feats including The Dukes of Hazzard — and before you know it Romo’s game goes to pot. Romo’s clearly misplaced his priorities, right? Rational thought thrown overboard? — and at the exhortations of the “men downstairs,” no less!

“The trouble with going to Cabo San Lucas before the NFL playoffs,” wrote Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins earlier this week, after the Romo-led Cowboys fell to the less talented New York Giants in an NFC playoff game, “is that when you come back you’d better win.”

What she’s referring to is, of course, the bye-week vacation that Romo, Simpson, some friends and, yes, Simpson’s family took in Mexico. According to witnesses, the young lovers were seen lounging near a pool, eating meals and, as an unidentified US Weekly source has it, “rubbing each other’s butts.” There’s only one question to ask of Mr. Romo: How dare he? On a week when many of his Dallas teammates were living it up in Vegas, Romo took his MTV darling and her crazy parents to another country — and the son of a gun rubbed butts. What a dog! What a traitor! What a fool!

I’m no expert in what exactly a guy is supposed to do during a bye week (perhaps hermitage, protein shakes and some game film are ideal?), but I’m fairly certain that most NFL players look forward to resting their bones and catching their breath. Whether they do that at home or at an exclusive resort in a sunny paradise or at a Las Vegas craps table matters little, I’d guess, as long as they stay away from excess with the sauce, keep their wrists out of handcuffs and show up to practice on time the following week. Focus is important, without question; I’m the kind of person who likes to work on arduous tasks (like writing this article) in a quiet place without even the possibility of distraction. That said, I know a woman who likes to tackle all her tedious mental chores in crowded spaces with hubbub and distractions aplenty. Go figure.

But this is America (ok, Canada’s in on it, too) where privacy is no longer the province of stars, even if you’re the QB who once lived in a quiet college town down the road from C-U. This brand of deprivation in the life of a celebrity is nothing new, of course. (Somehow, Henri Cartier-Bresson’s 1960 portrait of Marilyn Monroe seems to capture this perfectly.) But it still makes me wince. Maybe if Romo tried to break a world record by walking down 900 stairs on his hands, then that would be newsworthy. Or perhaps if he rescued a drowning child from the choppy Pacific waves, then all the fuss would be warranted. Instead, he just rubbed a little butt and probably had a damn fine meal or two as well. Big deal.

So, as a certifiable football nut, I’m most frustrated because one of the finer young talents in the game has been relegated to the role of tabloid headline motivator — and the “football” part of story seems almost forgotten. And Romo’s postseason football story is quite a compelling saga. Last postseason, he muffed the place hold. This season, with a superior team, he was supposed to be headed for a Super Bowl match up with the undefeated Patriots. But once again, great promise didn’t quite manage to achieve great results.

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For the record, on Sunday the Dallas Cowboys hosted the New York Giants in the second round of the playoffs. Romo, who enjoyed a phenomenal start to the season but tapered off in the final weeks, had a distinctly mediocre game (18-for-36 passing, one TD and one interception) against the Giants. It’s very possible that the heavy media scrutiny got to Romo, but it’s also likely that the physical and mental pressures of a long season played their part. That has been known to happen to other young quarterbacks, such as a guy named Eli Manning, whose own share of late- and post- season woes are now in the rear-view mirror after the Giants knocked off the Cowboys 21–17.

What we’re barely touching on here, in other words, is a fascinating story about what it means to “grow up” in the game of football — and this story comes to us courtesy of one hell of showdown Sunday in Dallas. If Romo’s rep has to take a hit, let it be a hit from a linebacker and not from our favorite talking heads who tire of talking football when there’s some butt rubbing to gossip about instead.