BLOOMINGTON, Minn. – Sometimes, John Romero, a police officer in Oakland, Calif., likes to surprise his friends and acquaintances, those who know him only so well.
They’ll be talking about football, and Tom Brady’s name will come up, because it’s difficult to talk about football without mentioning Brady. And of course, if you are familiar at all with Brady and his accomplishments, you are familiar with his incredible backstory: that he was once the longest of long shots, that the Patriots selected him in the sixth round of the 2000 NFL draft with the 199th overall pick. The 198 players selected ahead of Brady included Courtney Brown, a defensive end from Penn State, the draft’s first pick. They included a future Hall of Fame linebacker, Brian Urlacher, and six quarterbacks, none of whom had a career remotely comparable to Brady’s. And they included seven players drafted by the Eagles, among them defensive tackle Corey Simon and wide receiver Todd Pinkston.
The final player the Eagles picked that year was John Romero, a center out of the University of California-Berkeley. The Eagles chose him with the draft’s 192nd selection – seven picks before the Patriots took Brady. And when Romero tells people this, their eyes widen, because the story of Tom Brady is tethered to the stories of those 198 players, those 198 missed opportunities to draft the greatest quarterback in football history, the quarterback who could become the first NFL player to win a sixth Super Bowl if the Patriots beat the Eagles on Sunday night. And the Eagles had seven of those opportunities, and John Romero represented the last of them.
“That’s always my claim to fame,” he said in a recent phone interview.
Romero’s connection to Brady is actually stronger than that mere coincidence and circumstance. The two competed against each other in high school – Romero at St. Mary’s College High School, Brady at Junipero Serra – went on a recruiting trip to Cal together, and hired the same agent ahead of the 2000 draft. “Tom is a great guy,” Romero said, “and he was a great quarterback.” Two of Brady’s receivers at Junipero Serra, Romero remembered, were reminiscent of Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, “guys who are probably underrated, underestimated as far as they’re not the 6-4, 6-5 receivers you see nowadays. Back in high school, Tom was throwing to some small receivers, and I guess that ability carried into the pros.”
Brady went to Michigan, but Romero’s visit to Cal sold him on the school and the football program. In 1998, as a junior, he was named honorable-mention all-Pac-10 and was just one of just two offensive linemen to start all of the Bears’ 11 games. (The other was guard John Welbourn, whom the Eagles selected in the 1999 draft’s fourth round and who played five years for them.) In the 1999 Cal football media guide, ahead of his senior season, Romero was listed at 6-foot-3 and 315 pounds and was described as “the acknowledged leader of Cal’s offensive line.”
“He was big, strong, agile,” former Cal head coach Tom Holmoe, now the athletic director at BYU, said in an email. “He was also a steady performer and a consistent competitor. Going into the 2000 NFL draft, John was considered one of the top centers in the country, and I felt at the time he was a good pick for the Eagles.”
It’s understandable that the Eagles didn’t bother taking a chance on Brady. Few NFL talent evaluators, if any, regarded him as worthy of a high pick, and quarterback was not a particularly high priority for the Eagles at the time. They had selected Donovan McNabb with the No. 2 overall pick in 1999 and were so comfortable with his backup, Koy Detmer, that they ended up releasing their previous year’s opening-day starter – Doug Pederson – just as training camp was ending. Instead, coach Andy Reid and general manager Tom Modrak took measures to add talent and depth to other areas, particularly the offensive line.
The Eagles signed right tackle Jon Runyan that offseason to a six-year free-agent contract, and they used two draft picks on offensive linemen: guard Bobbie Williams from Arkansas in the third round and Romero in the sixth. Three months later, Romero signed a three-year deal with the Eagles for a reported $875,000, including a $50,000 signing bonus.
“Big Red was a great coach,” Romero said. “He was a lineman’s coach because he was a lineman. He played, so he understood what linemen go through. Very intelligent as far as football. I got the opportunity to snap in seven-on-sevens and in the individual drills with McNabb and Detmer. I got to see from a head coach’s perspective what the quarterback is looking at, listen to what they’re getting instructed on. It made the game a little quicker, for me at least.”
It helped only so much. As the 2000 preseason neared its end, the Eagles released Romero so that they could sign center Hank Fraley, then re-signed Romero days later and added him to their practice squad. The following season, he tore a pectoral muscle, an injury that prevented him from participating in May minicamp and training camp. In late August 2001, the Eagles cut him. The Buffalo Bills signed him, and he bounced from there to the New Orleans Saints to the St. Louis Rams, who released him in August 2003. He never appeared in a regular-season NFL game.
Caught in what he called “the big machine of the NFL,” he lapsed into depression.
“Like every player, when you realize you’re not in demand anymore, you go through a little bit of that,” he said. “You’ve got to figure, a guy who has an average career spends 2½ years in the NFL, and played for three-four years of college and high school. For an early twenty-something, you could have spent half your lifetime playing this game, and then all of a sudden, it’s taken from you. You don’t have that aspect of your life.
“You battle through it, and you move on, right? I would have liked to have played longer than I did, but I am very appreciative and very thankful for the opportunity I got to play and see the professional level. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and a very small percentage of people put on pads and cleats and scrape the blood and mud from the field off them. If anything, I walked away with a great experience.”
He moved to Seattle and played in a semipro league there, and he found it helped to wean him off the addictive nature of the sport, to shift to a new stage in his life. Having decided to return to school to pursue a career in nursing, Romero went on a ride-along with a friend of his who was a cop in a drug unit. The 10-hour shift exhilarated him.
“It was the excitement,” he said. “I think you find a lot of athletes of all levels go into law enforcement. That excitement, you’re used to it. You want that adrenaline all the time. It’s not a fit for everybody. For me, it was a perfect fit.”
In November 2008, he graduated from the Oakland police academy and was sworn in as the department’s 803rd officer. He’s no longer the lumbering giant he once was. He has lost 100 pounds since his playing days. “I’m a big linebacker,” he said. Within the last year, he has taken on a new assignment: Marijuana became officially legal in California on Jan. 1, and Romero is tasked with dispensary enforcement, with understanding and policing how much pot a person can have, how much a person can use, and when and where a person can use it.
He imagines, he said, that this is what it must have been to be a law-enforcement officer as Prohibition neared its end, and if he did not turn out to be Tom Brady, he is happy to consider himself a 21st-century answer to Eliot Ness.
“Now,” he said, “I understand I’m seeing history being made right now.”
The man selected seven picks after John Romero could find himself saying the same thing Sunday night. And in a story within Tom Brady’s story, only the team that drafted John Romero can stop him.