Cowboys receiver Terrell Owens sprays quarterback Tony Romo with water after a game against Cleveland. The two had a big day as Romo threw for 320 yards and Owens had five catches for 87 yards and a touchdown. (Al Tielemans/SI)
Tony Romo is always sad, and we are always happier for it. I was perfectly happy with that equation until I saw him on the sidelines this past Sunday after his third and final interception against the Redskins ended any hopes for a comeback and a playoff spot for the Cowboys.
His ascension to the role of starting quarterback for America’s Team, and his story as a whole, mirrors a lot of Tom Brady’s in New England. Both after thoughts in the draft (Romo undrafted, Brady in the sixth round), both started as anonymous back-ups to Drew Bledsoe, before taking over the reigns and slowly invigorating the hopes of a fan base in despair. Even that despair is on par with one another: the Patriots did go to a Super Bowl with Bledsoe, the Cowboys of course were actually America’s Team in the early ‘90s – or they were at least successful.
That’s about where the paths of the two quarterbacks start to diverge. Brady won a Super Bowl in his first trip to the playoffs, and two more after that, and threw in two other Super Bowl appearances and a record setting undefeated regular season just because. Romo has never steered the Cowboys anywhere near contention, with but one playoff win in his career. Brady is one of this generation’s best, and in most conversations for best ever at his position. Romo is none of those things. Brady is married to Gisele. Romo was once the celebrity couple du jour with Jessica Simpson. And the list goes on.
But who is Romo? He’s the most ridiculed athlete in sports, but he can’t be the only quarterback in the league throwing interceptions and costing his team games, can he? This season. Romo: 19 interceptions, 8-8 record. Brees: 19 interceptions, 7-9 record. But Brees was without his coach, and he has the championship pedigree. We leave him alone. What does Romo have? He has enough on his resume to reaffirm our suspicions that he’s not that great, and he promotes those ingrained expectations of ours with every poor play he makes. He has the ignominy of being the quarterback of one of the most despised franchises in the league.
He ignites memories of Charlie Brown every time he walks off the field dejected. He is also the anti-hero that we’ve created. He’s a reminder that in sports, tragic figures don’t always get our sympathies, that there’s not a way for us to script the pleasant ending as we please. If only we were so kind as to offer him up as tragic. He wishes we would do that much.
He’s proof that athletes are upheld as archetypes, and not all of them great. There’s the athlete with the intangibles but not of pure talent, or the physical specimen who only needs time to put it all together, or the overpaid athlete whose skills could never match his dollars, or the infectious hard worker who defies the odds and stands among the greats. And then there’s Romo. He seems to fit none of the above. He tries his best, he fails. He’s not great, but who ever laid such unworthy expectations on him to begin with? We made him out to be an archetype that doesn’t exactly fit.
Which reminds me of Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero With A Thousand Faces”, in which the author theorizes the journey of an archetypal hero as its been told in mythological tales across many cultures.
If athletes are indeed archetypes, and they either succeed or fail, then Campbell’s steps of the hero’s journey can be applied to almost anyone we follow in sports.
The initial steps include the call to adventure (Romo is signed by the Cowboys, becomes their starter) and the crossing of the first threshold (enters the playoffs for the first time). The next phase starts with the road of trials (botched hold against Seattle, the hero fails in his first major test or ordeal), the meeting with the goddess (dates Jessica Simpson. See! This is all falling into place) and the woman as temptress (goes on vacation with Simpson during Cowboys first round bye, loses playoff game the next week. Again, this is working too perfectly).
And then, this is where we lose Romo in the comparison. The hero takes the magic flight, he becomes the master of two worlds, he becomes competent in both the inner and outer worlds. He is champion.
There’s no such third act for Romo – not now, maybe not ever – and he may just fade away, neither an anti-hero because he exemplifies none of the qualifies of one except for how we choose to paint him with our brush strokes, or a hero because circumstances – some, not all, his fault – prevent him from completing the journey.
TL; DR? Tony Romo is still sad, and I think I’m starting to feel for him.