Not even four years ago, arguably the most accomplished quarterback in Eastern Illinois University football history was but a freshman — a freshman sitting in his dorm room flipping through the school’s record book and imagining where he might fit into the program’s history when all was said and done.
Now, as senior Jimmy Garoppolo has undertaken an all-out assault on that record book -- in the process guiding this year’s team to nearly 49 points per game in an 11-1 regular season, a 40-19 road win over BCS squad San Diego State and a near victory at undefeated Northern Illinois, its second straight Ohio Valley Conference championship, and the No. 2 overall seed in this year’s NCAA Football Championship Subdivision playoffs -- it’s safe to say where he fits in: Right at the top.
“I wrote down all the records in a little notebook,” remembers Garoppolo, the newly crowned OVC Offensive Player of the Year and the league’s player of the week no fewer than seven times this year – not to mention a definite pro prospect who has drawn a glut of national media attention and in-person scouting from each and every National Football League team.
”I just found it a couple weeks ago. I was looking through it, and I was like: ‘Well, I finally made my mark here a little bit.’”
More than a little bit.
Over his illustrious career, “Jimmy G.” has undertaken an all-out assault on the EIU record book, in the process eclipsing the numbers of program legends Sean Payton and Tony Romo. He owns nearly any single-season or career record a quarterback can conceivably own, not to mention a number of single-game marks and Ohio Valley Conference benchmarks. It’s a long list, but be sure to check the Walter Payton Award candidate’s profile on the university’s athletic website for a full rundown.
“That’s just the way I was. I always wanted to be the best, be compared with the best, and compete with the best.”
Now comes the final, biggest test for Garoppolo and the Panthers: Attempting a deep run in the FCS postseason and hopefully entering the NFL Draft with a national championship on his already extensive resume. EIU begins its postseason Dec. 7 at O’Brien Field with a second-round battle against OVC runner-up Tennessee State.
“During the whole summer and offseason, the whole team had this mindset that we were going to win a national championship this year,” said Garoppolo. “I think every successful team has to have that mindset. If you’re going to go into a season, you’re going to win a championship. If you don’t, you’re playing for the wrong reasons. You’ve got to have your sights set on the top: National championship or bust.”
The Road to EIU
Garoppolo wasn’t always a quarterback, at least not full-time. Growing up in suburban Chicago and attending high school in Arlington Heights, he was typically one of the biggest and fastest kids on the field and spent most of his time as a running back.
In the middle of a freshman game, however, his team’s quarterback went down with an injury and there was no bona fide backup on the roster. Garoppolo stepped up and filled the void; even though a dislocated ring finger ended that experiment exactly one game later, by his junior year he was back under center for good.
“I’ve only been a quarterback for what, six years now, and that’s not very long for a normal quarterback,” said Garoppolo. “I think that’s a positive, though. It means I have that much more to learn and can become that much better in the future.
The best of the best probably don’t know everything; Peyton Manning is still learning things today he didn’t know yesterday.”
When it came time to be recruited for college, there weren’t an overwhelming number of suitors. The decision to choose EIU had a lot to do with how the coaching staff at that time conducted its business.
“In the whole recruiting process, there’s a lot of deception that goes on,” elaborated Garoppolo. “Coaches will tell you one thing when it’s not true at all. (Eastern’s coaches) were just dead honest with me from the beginning.”
A Rough Beginning
With this year’s team steamrolling through its schedule -- no OVC opponent stayed closer than 18 points and the Panthers’ average margin of victory in league games was 34 -- it’s easy for Garoppolo to declare this the most fun season of football he’s ever experienced.
It wasn’t always roses for Garoppolo and his recruiting class, though. He was upgraded to the team’s starting signal-caller just four games into his freshman season, but the squad managed just four wins in his first two seasons.
“That was a rough start to the collegiate career for all of us,” said Garoppolo.
“I’ve told myself since a young age that everything in life happens for a reason. There’s a reason for everything you do, like coming to Eastern. The first couple years, maybe it was tough to see what the reason was.
“It was two 2-9 seasons, and I was like: ‘Dang, this is tough. This isn’t what I expected college football to be like.’ But then Coach Babers came in with his new staff and things turned around real fast.”
A New Era
Dino Babers, whose previous coaching stop was an assistant job at Baylor University, arrived in Charleston in 2012 following the retirement of 25-year veteran Bob Spoo. While Garoppolo is quick to sing the praises of the family atmosphere around which Spoo built his program, he is equally complimentary of the exciting new system Babers has implemented during his greatly successful two-year stint.
It was trumpeted as “A New Era” for Panther football, but Garoppolo was understandably skeptical about the idea of playing for a coaching staff besides the one that recruited him.
“There’s always a little bit of nervousness to it when they bring in new coaches,” Garoppolo admitted.
Nervousness turned to excitement, however, when Baylor, led by Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Robert Griffin III, won a thrilling 67-56 shootout over Washington in the Alamo Bowl.
“That offense was something else, and that’s what we’re basing ours off of,” said Garoppolo, recalling how he watched the game on television. “We’re trying to get on that level that RGIII and his team were on in that season Coach Babers was at Baylor. If we can get on that level and keep rolling the way we’re rolling right now, we’ll be going in the right direction.”
The Right Choice
All in all, Garoppolo has no regrets about coming to EIU.
“I couldn’t be happier with my decision," said Garoppolo. "There’s a thrill in the air. There’s an electric buzz going around town. I love it.
"I love the town of Charleston, the community and everything. I couldn’t ask for a better situation. I’m really happy I came to Eastern.”
He says the “small-town” feel of Charleston is something he particularly enjoys.
“To go from Arlington Heights up in the Chicagoland area to Charleston; this seems like a small town to me,” said Garoppolo. “The friendliness of everyone around the community and everything.
“When I first got here – it sounds weird, but I wasn’t used to walking down the street and some random stranger saying: ‘Hey how’s it going?’ At first, I was like: ‘I don’t know that guy. Why is he saying hi to me?’ After living here for four years, I feel like this is my home away from home. I’ll say hi to anyone walking down the street. A simple ‘Hi, how are you doing?’ could change someone’s day, and I never realized that until I got here.
“It’s cool, I think. Going back up to Chicago, I catch myself saying “hi” to some people I don’t know. They might give you a little weird look as they walk away. Little things like that in the small-town atmosphere that you really come to enjoy.”
He also gets his fair amount of attention on campus, even though he doesn’t really seek it out.
“For the most part, I try to fly under the radar,” said Garoppolo. “But there are plenty of days where I’m walking and someone will say: ‘Hey good game Saturday. You’re fun to watch. It’s been a good year so far.’ Stuff like that.
“It’s cool, but I just look at myself as another one of the guys on the football team. Just a regular guy. People are congratulating us and everything, and that’s the buzz that’s going around the school. It’s exciting and it’s fun to experience; I can’t say I’ve every experienced anything like this before. I’m enjoying it.”
The Next Step
Whether Garoppolo considers himself “just a regular guy” or not, the fact remains that the conclusion of his EIU career doesn’t appear to be the last we’ll hear about him.
Much has been made of his pro prospects: He has the sound mechanics, size and athleticism, and good head on his shoulders over which NFL scouts drool. At this point, it doesn’t seem like a question of whether or not he’ll be selected in the 2014 NFL Draft – it’s only a matter of when. He’s not worried about that quite yet, though.
“I like to look at it one game at a time,” said Garoppolo. “The future is always in the back of your mind – the NFL, stuff like that. People are always talking to you about it. We just keep taking it one game at a time, and that’s why we’ve had so much success this season. If we keep doing that, we’ll be alright.”
A marketing major, Garoppolo feels his time at EIU has also set him up for the possibility of life without football.
“Hopefully, knock on wood, football is the path I’m going to stay on for a little while and be successful in that,” said Garoppolo. “But it’s always nice to have academics in the background. We are student-athletes; it’s not like we’re just here playing football. I go to class every day just like every other guy and girl. I think our business school here is a really successful program.”
Assuming football figures into his long-term future, though, Garoppolo will continue to draw comparisons to the likes of Payton and Romo. The idea, he says, is to keep working hard and become the guy to whom we all compare the next great Eastern quarterback.
“In my mind, I think of myself as my own guy,” he said. “I’m Jimmy Garoppolo. But it’s an honor to be mentioned with those two guys. They’re two legends that have gone through Eastern and are making their name in the NFL right now. Their jerseys are hanging up on the wall out there for a reason. It’s not like they were just a couple of guys who came through here.
“They left their mark on Eastern, and that’s what I’m trying to do. I’m just trying to leave a legacy here that one day I can look back on and be proud of.
"Maybe I can tell my kids: ‘Yeah I was the quarterback at Eastern when we won the OVC championship or the national championship or whatnot.’ I’m just trying to build my own legacy -- the Jimmy Garoppolo legacy. We’re on the right track this season; we’ve just got to keep it going one game at a time.”