Former EIU teammates: Patriots QB Garoppolo has what ‘it’ takes

Former EIU quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo warms up on the first day of practice as the likely starter for the New England Patriots as Tom Brady (background) serves his suspension for his role in Deflategate.  (Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

 This story, originally posted on Aug. 13, 2015, is updated after former Eastern Illinois quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo found himself back in the spotlight Wednesday. A federal circuit court denied Tom Brady’s request for a re-hearing. Barring an appeal to the Supreme Court, Brady’s four-game suspension for Deflategate will stand. Garoppolo heads to New England Patriots’ training camp on July 30 as the projected Week 1 starter.

The New England Patriots aren’t projecting how the offense may operate with Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback when Tom Brady serves a four-game suspension for violating the league’s integrity policy in the Deflategate controversy.

But Garoppolo’s longtime personal coach and former Eastern Illinois teammates shed some light on what they do know Brady’s backup will provide.

“I’ll promise you that he’ll be prepared,” said Jeff Christensen, who has coached Garoppolo for eight years, “and he brings an unbelievable amount of moxie to the table.”

Added former teammate and roommate John Wurm: “There’s something special about him. He’s always under control. It’s crazy, but he reminds me of Tom.

Jimmy Garoppolo wasn't highly recruited out of high school but impressed a lot of people with his play at Eastern Illinois. (Courtesy Sandy King, EIU Athletics)
Jimmy Garoppolo wasn’t highly recruited out of high school but impressed a lot of people with his play at Eastern Illinois. (Courtesy Sandy King, EIU Athletics)

“He’s just got that ‘it factor’ that you don’t see a lot.”

A second-round pick, Garoppolo has completed 20 of 31 passes for 188 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions in 11 appearances the past two seasons.

For his part, Garoppolo has tried to fly under the radar as much as possible, speaking in the most generic terms when asked about Brady and refusing to say anything remotely boastful.

“There’s an endless amount of things that I have to work on,” Garoppolo said upon his arrival at Patriots training camp last year. “We’re all out here just trying to get better every day … There are little things every day that you focus on.

“You’ve just got to take it day by day, really.”

In his first or second spring practice at EIU, receiver Jeff LePak ran a dig route, and he was between two linebackers.

“The gap was small,” LePak said. “But he anticipated my break, and he put the ball right there, between those two guys. It was unbelievable.”

Off the field, LePak said Garoppolo was “fun-loving” and “goofy.”

But on the field, Garoppolo capitalized on a quick release, nimble feet and a deep understanding of how opposing teams would defend him.

He started eight games as a freshman, and Garoppolo improved each season thereafter, culminating with his senior year, when he passed for 5,050 yards and tossed 50 touchdowns.

He broke most of Tony Romo’s school records.

The Panthers went 12-2 in Garoppolo’s final season.

“The energy and the buzz that was around the team, I don’t know that there has been that since — from what people in town said since the ’78 team that won the (Division II) national championship,” said Rich Moser, the Panthers’ associate athletic director of media and public relations. “People were talking about football.”

But Wurm appreciated something else about Garoppolo: His encouragement.

A linebacker, Wurm battled several injuries throughout his collegiate career, including a hip surgery. But heading into the 2013 season, Wurm felt healthy and confident. In the season opener against San Diego State, however, Wurm drilled a fullback, and he suffered a shoulder injury.

After the 40-19 victory in San Diego, the Panthers celebrated but Wurm wasn’t much in the mood.

“I was devastated,” Wurm said. “I had just gotten back to my form. But he told me I was going to come back and help the team.”

Wurm played the final three games of the season.

“I’ve been saying he’ll be a first-round pick since he was a sophomore,” Wurm said. “I just know he has ‘It.’ I can’t explain it.

“I have no doubt that he’ll be one of the greatest.”

Christensen recalled calling the Chicago newspapers and insisting that Garoppolo, who played at Rolling Meadows High School, was the state’s best quarterback.

But the newspapers always dismissed Garoppolo because his statistics weren’t good enough.

Garoppolo got very little interest from colleges, and he decided to go to Eastern Illinois, where Christensen had played.

Christensen believes in Garoppolo long-term, but he does offer some concern about the present.

“I just know how this league is,” said Christensen, a fifth-round pick of the Cincinnati Bengals in 1983. “Anything could happen. Does he have the ability to go out there and go 3-1? Yeah. But let’s be honest, he’s a 22-year-old kid, and he’s going to need breaks. A good offensive line, and a good running game.”

Wurm said he knows Garoppolo has been focusing on this opportunity.

For about four to six weeks this offseason, Wurm said, Garoppolo was completely unreachable.

“He didn’t want any distractions,” Wurm said. “It’s a big spotlight, and he loves the spotlight. I think he’s going to blow up. No doubt.”

Here’s some initial Twitter reaction to Garoppolo after Wednesday’s court ruling:

Above: Former EIU quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo warms up on the first day of training camp last year. He is projected to start for the New England Patriots when Tom Brady (background) serves a four-game suspension for his role in Deflategate.  (Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)



Sean Jensen

Sean Jensen is a freelance writer based in Minneapolis.