Dino Babers had a strong reaction the first time he saw Jimmy Garoppolo throw a football in person.
Babers had just accepted the head coaching job at Eastern Illinois, coming from an assistant coaching stint at Baylor after Robert Griffin III’s Heisman Trophy season. He went to his first spring practice in 2012 to evaluate his new quarterback, a Rolling Meadows High School graduate who was entering his third college season.
“I saw him throw the ball five times,” Babers said, “and I turned to one of the administrators on campus and said: ‘This kid shouldn’t be here. There should be like 40 to 50 Division I coaches that should get fired because this guy should be at a lot higher level than what he’s at.’ ”
By the end of their two seasons together at EIU, Garoppolo had won the Walter Payton Award, given to the top offensive player in the Football Championship Subdivision, and was on his way to becoming a second-round draft pick by the Patriots in 2014.
Eight years later, Babers and two more of Garoppolo’s former EIU coaches, all now at Syracuse, will head to Miami to watch the quarterback start for the 49ers in Super Bowl LIV against the Chiefs. Doug Millsaps, who coached Garoppolo at Rolling Meadows, also will be there, among the 18 people Garoppolo told reporters he has in his game-day party.
When the game kicks off at 5:30 p.m. Sunday, it will be a proud moment for the coaches who helped Garoppolo rise from a youth linebacker and running back to an under-recruited Chicago-area quarterback to a budding NFL star on the game’s biggest stage. And it will be an exciting time for the community that watched the process unfold.
“It’s a fantastic story of the little guy that makes it big,” Babers said. “A lot of people not having a lot of belief in him, (him) not having a lot of followers early. But he sure does have a lot of followers now.”
Jimmy G. fans
Dozens of boys in purple football jerseys gathered before the camera this week and called out in unison their good-luck wishes to Garoppolo and the 49ers in a video posted to Facebook.
“We’re die-hard Bears fans, but we’re even bigger Jimmy G. fans,” said Terry Cappelen, who coaches the boys in the Rolling Meadows Youth Football program.
Cappelen’s 10-year-old son has had friends over to watch the NFL playoffs, and they’ve been “going nuts” over Garoppolo’s run with the 49ers, he said. For the program’s football banquet in the fall, Cappelen enlisted the help of Garoppolo’s older brother Mike to get a video of Jimmy congratulating the players on their season. They now feel like they’re on his team.
It’s not often a quarterback from the Chicago area plays in the Super Bowl. The last — Mount Carmel’s Donovan McNabb in 2004 with the Eagles — was before those kids were born. Garoppolo’s rise from obscurity makes him even more relatable.
“We talked about how it’s possible for anybody from our area, that if they work hard and put in the time and effort, they can make an impact like Jimmy did,” Cappelen said. “He’s essentially one of those kids. It’s nice to have a role model like that they can look up to.”
Garoppolo grew up in northwest suburban Arlington Heights as the third of Tony and Denise Garoppolo’s four sons. He told reporters at the Super Bowl this week that baseball was his first love but he began to focus on football in high school.
Like Babers, Millsaps has a story about the first time he saw Garoppolo throw, as a Rolling Meadows freshman.
“The ball is coming out of his hands the way it did, and he’s wearing No. 29,” Millsaps said. “And I’m thinking, ‘Why are you wearing that number? You’re a quarterback.’ He said, ‘No, I’m an outside linebacker (like his brothers) and I’m a running back.’ And I said, ‘No, you’re a quarterback.’ ”
Garoppolo became the starting varsity quarterback his junior season. He worked with local quarterbacks coach Jeff Christensen to refine his technique and had big enough stats in his senior season to receive Tribune All-State special mention. But for reasons he still ponders today, colleges didn’t heavily recruit him.
Taylor Graham (Wheaton North, Ohio State), Chandler Whitmer (Downers Grove South, Illinois), Tommy Rees (Lake Forest, Notre Dame), Miles Osei (Prospect, Illinois), Mike Perish (Marist, Western Michigan) and Tyler Benz (Maine South, Eastern Michigan) were among the Class of 2009 Chicago-area quarterbacks who signed with FBS schools.
Meanwhile, then-EIU offensive coordinator Roy Wittke, who also coached Tony Romo, became fixated on Garoppolo, with a recommendation from Christensen.
“The things that really stood out: No. 1, his quick release, compact motion, and No. 2, how accurate he was,” said Wittke, now director of player development at Syracuse. “He was just so efficient. He was the first guy we took after we had Tony that we thought potentially had the physical skill set and tools to be a guy — and I’m not saying we thought he was going to be a second-round draft pick or anything — but we thought he was a guy who had the potential to get into a camp like Tony did.”
Wittke said he saw glimmers of that potential over Garoppolo’s first two seasons at EIU, which he picked over Illinois State. But the arrival of Babers — and his offense — helped unlock it. Garoppolo threw for 5,050 yards and 53 touchdowns with just nine interceptions as a senior in 2013.
“I wasn’t getting recruited (in high school), so I didn’t think I had it,” Garoppolo told reporters in Miami this week. “I was trying to figure out what I was doing wrong. But going to Eastern Illinois was the best thing that ever happened to me. It was an opportunity to play, opportunity to compete, and then Coach Babers came in, and the rest handled itself.”
“The rest” started when Patriots coach Bill Belichick made Garoppolo Tom Brady’s apprentice for 3½ seasons before a midseason trade to the 49ers in 2017 put him in position to become a full-time NFL starter.
‘A crazy ride’
Garoppolo’s NFL path to Sunday’s game has been filled with interesting twists.
Learning under one of the most successful quarterbacks of all time. Serving as a backup for two Super Bowl teams. Making his first two career starts due to the Patriots’ Deflategate scandal.
Signing a $137.5 million contract extension a few months after his trade to the 49ers. Tearing his left ACL three games into the 2018 season. Raising eyebrows when he told reporter Erin Andrews that bouncing back to start 8-0 this year “feels great, baby.”
Playing a complementary role to the 49ers’ running game in two playoff victories. And now preparing to go head to head with Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, last season’s NFL MVP, in the Super Bowl.
But despite the national renown, Garoppolo’s coaches still view him as they did when he was the popular yet humble player who walked around EIU’s campus because he didn’t have a car.
“The guy still wears his EIU backpack on national TV going to NFL games,” Babers said. “That’s kind of how he is.”
Millsaps retired from his job as a Rolling Meadows physical education teacher last year, which has made it easier to attend more of Garoppolo’s games. Before each, he hangs out and tosses around a football with the crew of family and former teammates Garoppolo keeps close.
Tony Garoppolo helps make sure of it, considering 49ers tight end George Kittle’s allegation that Garoppolo is the “worst texter of all time” is apparently true.
“They haven’t changed a whole lot,” Millsaps said. “I’m sure Jimmy has to be a little more guarded, but the whole family is as accepting and inviting as they ever were. … Sometimes people lose themselves in fame and fortune, and this family absolutely has not done that.”
Garoppolo has mentioned his older brothers, Mike and Tony, a couple of times in the lead-up to the Super Bowl. He credits them for helping him stay even-keeled — and for knowing when to keep his mouth shut in the face of critics. His former coaches don’t doubt it.
“He has a couple of older brothers that I truly believe keep him in line a little bit,” Wittke said. “I would think that’s probably a necessary thing for a guy that looks like he does.”
Added Millsaps: “They wouldn’t let him get away with anything. Even to this point, I’m sure he’s scared of Mikey, no matter how many big guys are chasing him.”
The buildup of Super Bowl week — and its lengthy media sessions — allowed reporters in Miami to pick Garoppolo’s brain about his journey, and he expressed appreciation for how far he has come.
“Coming from a small school in Eastern Illinois, starting as a linebacker in high school, it’s been a crazy ride,” Garoppolo said. “But I’ve enjoyed every bit of it and couldn’t be happier to be here.”
All around Rolling Meadows and Eastern Illinois, they can’t wait to see what’s next.