Tony Romo and the Importance of Failure


A high school quarterback is sitting on the bench. It’s his team’s second game of the season. He’s a junior. He’s on the third string. That doesn’t phase him though. The kid is a born competitor. Since the age of six he’s been playing every sport he can. Growing up in small town Wisconsin, that’s what you do. Soccer, Basketball, Baseball, Golf; he competes in all of them. It’s not just a love of the game though, the kid loves to win.

One high school teammate (a wide receiver who earned a first team All-State selection the year he spent with the quarterback) will some day reminisce:

"“You wanted to be on his team…That dated back to when we were 6 or 8 years old. Whether it was pickup basketball to tennis, if you played on his team, then you’d win.”"

A natural competitor. But he’s sitting on the bench. Football was never his first sport. He tried out his freshman year for quarterback and was penciled in as a safety. He had a chance to take the starting job his sophomore year but he broke his finger. Now, it’s year three and he’s looking up.

The coaches like the other guys better. But, after combining for 12 yards passing the week before, the two starting quarterbacks haven’t exactly been lighting it up during the first half of the second game. The coaches figure why not give the kid a shot. He proceeds to throw for 308 yards in one half, more than anyone has done in the county in 10 years. And it’s the first game of organized football he’s ever played.

He is the starter for the rest of his high school career. During that time, he earns AP All-State honorable mentions twice and is selected as the Player of the Year for his county. He throws for 3,720 yards and 42 touchdowns over a two year period as a starter. However, he fails to succeed in the postseason. Nonetheless, the kid who didn’t play a game of quarterback till his junior year gets a scholarship to Eastern Illinois University.

He goes on to claim the career touchdown record for his university and conference with 84 and wins Ohio Valley Conference Player of the Year three times in a row. His senior year brings the Walter Payton Award, 1AA’s Heisman equivalent. But, like high school, he fails to have notable postseason success. Come the NFL Draft, he is passed over by all 32 teams. Following the draft, he gets inquiries from a couple of teams but decides to be a walk on for the Dallas Cowboys. Dallas’ quarterbacks coach and Eastern-alum, Sean Payton, knows about his potential and convinces head coach Bill Parcells to give him a try.

Dec 23, 2012; Arlington, TX, USA; Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

As you’ve probably figured out by now, the quarterback in question is our very own Tony Romo. Most of you know plenty about his time in Dallas, so I don’t want to dwell on that. The point I want to make is how amazing his path has been from 3rd string high school quarterback to the face of one of the world’s most popular sports franchises and a $100 million contract. We take it for granted because Romo hasn’t had success in the playoffs, And to be honest, he might never get his due if the Cowboys don’t have another Super Bowl by the end of his career. Such is the cruel reality of sports.

The pundits will tell you Romo has a weak mind. That he isn’t clutch, And that he can’t get it done in the big moment. They have plenty of evidence. Even his amazing high school and college stats show glaring holes when it comes to playoff victories. His record in the NFL is no better with a 1-6 mark when everything is on the line. You can talk all you want about the team around him or the teams the Cowboys were playing against. But the reality is he had a chance to win those games and he didn’t. In those games, yes, he wasn’t “clutch”.

There is something working for Romo throughout these struggles though. The wonderful thing about sports (and life in general) is that we are not defined by our failures unless we allow ourselves to be. Failure in the past should never be used as the sole reason for why someone will not succeed in the future. To write off the careers of anyone that has ever failed at something would be to write off the whole of humanity. Failure is simply a result of your performance in a given situation. Once it has happened to you it becomes a memory. An experience, like all other experiences, which can be drawn upon to help or hurt you. What sets a successful person apart from someone who continues to disappoint is not that one fails and one does not. It is that the successful person learns from their failure. They channel the pain of losing towards the goal of winning. Here a few quotes on the topic:

"Michael Jordan: “I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”Jerry Rice : “The fear of failure is the engine which has driven me throughout my entire life.”Babe Ruth : “Every strike brings me closer to my next home run.”Lee Jenkins on LeBron James: “When James lost in the Finals in 2007, with the Cavaliers, he remade his jump shot. When he fell again in 2011, with the Heat, he built a post game. James was born with supernatural ability, but he lets none of it lie dormant. He extracts every ounce, through a distillation process created and refined by failure.”"

The point I want to make is that Romo’s failures will not define the rest of his career. What he has learned from those failures will be the story that we remember him by. So how will he respond to the failures of his NFL career? Well, if his past is any indication, Romo will use them to his advantage. This was a guy who never should have had a chance to be an NFL starter. He was a third string quarterback as a junior in high school. But he never let other people’s observations influence what he thought of himself. While most people would have given up their dreams, Romo kept trying to get the starting job. When he had it, he didn’t let it go. Sure, Romo never won in his high school and college playoffs. And he has disappointed us time and again when the season was on the line. But the fact that he is in the position where he is today is testament to the fact that Romo has a winner’s mentality. One that embraces failure and uses it as a tool to improve.

Here he is talking with Troy Aikman in 2011:

When asked by Aikman: “Looking over the course of your career, is there anything you would do differently? Any situation you would handle differently looking back on it?” Romo’s answer? (Paraphrasing) “No. (Smiles, laughs) There’s a lot of great answers to that but until you’re done, and I’m sure they’ll be things, but without all those things and decisions you’ve made and stuff like that you probably wouldn’t be where you’re at. You know saying that, I mean, there’s obvious ones that I’m not going to give any credence to, but I do think that without having gone through some of those things I wouldn’t be as…(pause)…well versed in the situations that I am to come to the thought process I am…you know, I know, just in a roundabout way of…” And then Troy mercifully cuts the question short by talking about his wedding.

Granted…not exactly eloquent (watch the video if you want the contextual version). And you can tell he is nervous talking about something like this, especially with Troy asking the question. But I love that he gives a straight up “No” to start off. Tony knows the value of the mistakes that he has made and he wouldn’t give them up in a second. He embraces the challenge of overcoming those obstacles because he has confidence and a competitive nature.

These are the same traits that made Romo’s friends want to play on his team as a kid. The same qualities that let him take over a game in high school and never look back. The same character that kept him grinding as a Cowboys 3rd stringer till he finally got his shot. Tony Romo knows failure in the NFL The pundits will never let us forget that. But he also knows how to turn failure into success. It’s how he got to where he is today and hopefully it will lead him and the Cowboys to another Lombardi Trophy. As the man himself once said: “It’s not whether you get knocked down, it’s whether you get up.”

Writer’s Note: The article Tony Romo: The Natural by Peter Simik was very influential on this piece. If you haven’t read it before, I highly suggest it.