Fred’s, on the corner of Pine Street and Milwaukee Avenue, still has the “world’s best burgers.” If you sit at table No. 5, you will read all about Romo’s career and see pictures of him in high school. Fun fact: His stroke average on the golf team as a senior was a 40, a six-stroke improvement over his freshman year.
Around the corner is Adrian’s Frozen Custard, which opened in 1974. Go with the Oreo Flurrie, although you can’t go wrong with any choice.
Just off downtown is Karcher Middle School. It was the high school when Romo lived in Burlington. On the football field, kids will be playing soccer or hula hooping. One of them might be wearing a Russell Wilson jersey -- not a Cowboys jersey with Romo’s No. 9. On the track around the field some of them have drawn pictures in chalk. The scoreboard attached to the wall in the back of the school is still there and weatherworn. But the best part is this: The track is only a fifth of a mile long, so the end zones weren’t just grass when Romo played. They were tar, too, and receivers had plenty of scraped knees from catching touchdown passes.
Back on Pine Street, but closer to the high school, is Napoli’s Restaurant and Pizzeria. The square-cut pizza is almost perfect. Pepperoni and sausage would be the choice.
When you go over the Fox River, you can head to Romo’s old house. His sister, Jossalyn, lives there now. His parents, Joan and Ramiro, moved to a nearby town a few years ago. Just down the street is Browns Lake Golf Course where Romo would spend hours.
This is home.
“I actually find that you can go home again,” Romo said, a riff on Thomas Wolfe’s "You Can’t Go Home Again." “I know there’s that quote or saying that says you can’t, but I’ve found when I come back home, it’s always home. That’s the great thing.”
Last week, Romo held his football camp at Burlington High School along with the second Border Battle, a seven-on-seven tournament featuring high school teams from Wisconsin and Illinois. As he stood on the field Wednesday while middle schoolers and elementary kids ran around, a waft of chocolate was in the air from the nearby Nestle plant that has made Burlington “Chocolate City USA.”
Steve Tenhagen was Romo’s favorite receiver in 1996 at Burlington High. They combined for 56 catches, 934 yards and 13 touchdowns. Today, Tenhagen is the head football coach at Burlington. He does a lot of the planning for the camp and Border Battle.
“Obviously, we’ve changed and matured, but he’s the same person,” Tenhagen said. “He comes back to town and we hang out with our high school buddies, and it’s similar to when we were hanging out in our basements in high school after practice.”
For two days, the basement has been replaced by the outdoor living area at Romo’s parents’ house.
On the TV Tuesday was the U.S.-Argentina Copa America semifinal. Lionel Messi dominates from the beginning, and Romo’s appreciation for him is unquestioned.
“It’s like playing against Michael Jordan,” Romo told his friends sitting nearby, including Tenhagen and Ryan Hoffman, Burlington’s quarterback before Romo.
The night ends by the fire pit with Joan encouraging everybody to make s’mores.
On Wednesday, another former high school teammate, Paul Bondar, arrives with his wife and family. Scott Scholl, Romo’s center at Eastern Illinois, is there with his wife and family. Andy Vincent, Romo’s backup in college, is also with his wife and family.
In the pool, all the kids play, including Romo’s sons Hawkins and Rivers. Romo and his buddies are all in their 30s. All have children. One of them happens to be the Cowboys’ quarterback, but you would never know it. Here he is, just their friend. He lathers sunscreen on his boys.
As the music plays, a smile comes over Romo’s face.
This is home.
Pizzas from Napoli’s arrive around 5:45. When the local news channel airs its story on Romo’s camp, old footage in his black No. 16 jersey airs.
“Did you see the right side of the line there?” Bondar says, admiring his work from back in the day.
As the sun goes down and the kids go to bed or watch "Despicable Me," the topic outside turns to football. A few years ago Bondar and Tenhagen flew to Cowboys training camp when Dallas coach Jason Garrett had his players talk about the best teams they were on and the relationships that grew from those days. Almost all of Romo’s friends make a game or two during the regular season. Tenhagen was at the heartbreaking divisional playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field, as was Romo’s basketball coach, Steve Berezowitz, whose cellphone screen saver is a photo of him and his son, Joey, at the game.
“Oh, yeah, he caught it,” Berezowitz said of Dez Bryant’s overturned reception. “We’re Cowboys fans. We took some heat. We were on the 50-yard line with our Cowboys gear.”
Romo pops open his iPad and shows some plays to his former teammates. He goes into the details of what he was seeing, what he was thinking, why he did what he did. To his friends, it’s the same stuff he did when he wore Burlington’s No. 16.
This is home.
Back at Burlington High on Thursday, Romo darted between fields in a golf cart, watching the 16 teams -- eight from Wisconsin and eight from Illinois -- compete. Hanging on the back of the cart was Justin Penio, another former college teammate who drove over for the day.
After two games and a lunch break, Romo addresses the teams on the field at Don Dalton Stadium. The mic cuts in and out, so he just speaks louder. He talks about Malcolm Gladwell’s "Outliers" and the 10,000-hour rule.
He tells them he never really touched a football until his junior year of high school. He played soccer. Basketball might have been his best sport, but he didn’t start his 10,000 hours for football until much later than everybody else. He figured it took him 10-15 years to get them in.
Now he feels he is playing the best football of his life and is prepared for the best season of his career.
“Find something you love,” Romo told the players, “and wear it out.”
On Field No. 2 South, Mount Horeb (Wisconsin) and Riverside Brookfield (Illinois) are in overtime. The winner goes to the semifinals. On fourth down, Riverside Brookfield completed a short touchdown pass to win. The players went crazy, jumping in unison on the field.
“This is why you’re doing this,” Romo said. “This is awesome.”
Riverside Brookfield made the championship against Barrington High, from a Chicago suburb. At the start of the game, AC/DC’s "Thunderstruck" played from Romo’s iPhone over the loudspeakers. Late in the second half, Romo takes over as play-by-play man. A final heave from Riverside Brookfield is incomplete and Barrington wins 33-30.
That night Romo has arranged for a boat ride on Lake Geneva for all of those who helped with the camp and tournament. It’s become something of a tradition over the years. Friends and family join them. Napoli’s has catered the evening.
Somehow the discussion turns to the best players in NBA history. Romo conducts a makeshift mock draft in which six friends pick their five best players. Romo wants to know which starting five is the best. They argue. They laugh. They joke.
“People get older, but people don’t change,” Scholl said. “Not this group of guys we have. On the deck of the boat, Penio and my wife, Tony’s out there, a couple other guys were there, and I said, ‘What’s funny with this group of guys is that I have that gut laughter that I don’t have with my other friends. When I’m laughing it’s a pure, wholehearted laugh.’
“We have that bond of friendship through that mileage. We’re not close on the map, but we don’t miss a beat.”
This is home.