How Jimmy Garoppolo went from Rolling Meadows High School to the Super Bowl

                                                                                                                                                                                                   
  • San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo meets with Doug Millsaps, his Rolling Meadows High School coach, after the NFC divisional win over Minnesota this month at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. Garoppolo's parents, Tony and Denise, are back left.

    San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo meets with Doug Millsaps, his Rolling Meadows High School coach, after the NFC divisional win over Minnesota this month at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. Garoppolo's parents, Tony and Denise, are back left. Courtesy of Doug Millsaps

  • San Francisco's Jimmy Garoppolo limbers up Thursday in Coral Gables, Fla., in preparation for Super Bowl 54 Sunday.

    San Francisco's Jimmy Garoppolo limbers up Thursday in Coral Gables, Fla., in preparation for Super Bowl 54 Sunday. Associated Press

 
By Marty Maciaszek
Daily Herald correspondent
Updated 1/31/2020 2:31 PM

There was very little fanfare or attention when Jimmy Garoppolo made one of the biggest decisions of his life 10 years ago.

There was no made-for-TV event with a grand entrance into a packed gymnasium at Rolling Meadows High School. No pulling a jersey out of a bag or playing a shell game with hats on a table that are often contrived staples of big-time football and basketball recruiting announcements.

 

Garoppolo was in a small office at Meadows with his parents Tony and Denise, head coach Doug Millsaps and a local sportswriter when he discussed his decision to attend Eastern Illinois instead of Illinois State and Montana State.

"The (pro-style) offensive system seems pretty good and they have a lot of guys returning next year," Garoppolo said then. "I have a pretty legitimate chance to start, maybe not next year, but the year after that and I don't want to ride the bench for four years.

"I'm happy with Eastern. It's everything I wanted in a school and a football program."

Jimmy Garoppolo signs on the dotted line to attend Eastern Illinois University.
Jimmy Garoppolo signs on the dotted line to attend Eastern Illinois University.

A decade later, he's directly in the spotlight of one of the biggest sporting events in the world as the starting quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl LIV. Not bad for a player who did not have one Division I FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision) scholarship offer after his senior season.

by signing up you agree to our terms of service
                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Garoppolo joins Batavia's Ken Anderson (1981 Bengals) and Mount Carmel's Donovan McNabb (2004 Eagles) as the only Illinois high school graduates to start at quarterback in a Super Bowl.

"You look at all the great quarterbacks in the NFL who didn't make it (to the Super Bowl)," said Millsaps, who will be in Miami for the game, "and here's Jimmy with an unbelievable opportunity."

Road less traveled

Jim Garoppolo fires down field in a game against Buffalo Grove High School in October 2008.
Jim Garoppolo fires down field in a game against Buffalo Grove High School in October 2008. - MARK WELSH | Staff Photographer

Garoppolo was following in the footsteps of his older brothers Tony and Mike (who played at Western Illinois) when he started at outside linebacker as a sophomore. His first season as starting quarterback as a junior was respectable but it was difficult to get on the radar as part of a deep class of quarterback prospects in the state that included Prospect's Miles Osei (Illinois), Maine South's Tyler Benz (Eastern Michigan), Marist's Mike Perish (Western Michigan) and Rochester's Sean Robinson (Purdue).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"I'm not surprised there weren't a lot of scholarship offers ... because no one knew Jimmy," said Tony Wolanski, who was Garoppolo's defensive coordinator and is also Meadows' varsity head softball coach. "Even though he had a great senior year a lot of guys already had scholarships that were given out. Teams obviously missed the boat on him."

Millsaps and Wolanski were both on the same boat about what they were watching in a senior year where Garoppolo passed for 1,888 yards and 16 touchdowns. He also displayed his toughness at safety and willingness to do whatever was needed as a punter.

"It's hard to get quarterbacks placed," Millsaps said. "With his size, arm strength and release, Tony and I said he'll be in the NFL if things go right. A big part of it is placing quarterbacks."

After his senior season it became clear that wasn't going to be at a Division I FBS program. A number of things seemed to point Garoppolo in what turned out to be the right direction to Eastern Illinois.

Roy Wittke was in his second stint as Eastern's offensive coordinator. The first time he oversaw a similar success story with Tony Romo going on to become a Pro Bowl quarterback with the Dallas Cowboys.

"Roy recruited him like he was at the University of Arkansas," Millsaps said of Wittke's tenure at the SEC school from 2003 to 2005. "He was in here once a week, made a home visit and treated him that way."

Garoppolo was also working with Eastern grad and former NFL quarterback Jeff Christensen, who runs Throw It Deep, a renowned quarterback and wide receiver training academy. The starting spot at Eastern was open because Christensen's son Jake just finished his college career there in 2009.

Throw in the arrival of Dino Babers midway through Garoppolo's time at Eastern and it all factored into his ascent to a major NFL prospect.

"He took his opportunity as a chance to potentially play a lot quicker, which he did," Wolanski said of Garoppolo starting early in his freshman year at Eastern. "He looked at it as, 'Here's an opportunity and I'll get a scholarship to play something I love. It's a place where I'm going to get an opportunity to show my talents and see if maybe something good can happen after.' "

Eastern Illinois quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo takes a breather during a game in 2013, the year he won the Walter Payton Award, given to the most outstanding offensive player in the Division I Football Championship Subdivision.
Eastern Illinois quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo takes a breather during a game in 2013, the year he won the Walter Payton Award, given to the most outstanding offensive player in the Division I Football Championship Subdivision. - Associated Press

Which it did when he was drafted in the second round by the New England Patriots to serve an apprenticeship under Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.

"Going to the Patriots, he got to learn behind Brady, arguably the best quarterback ever, one of the best coaches ever in Belichick and a great offensive coordinator (Josh McDaniels)," Wolanski said. "The ability to learn and develop when you still have some growing to do, what better way to grow than with the Patriots and Tom Brady."

Since the end of Brady's playing days weren't in sight, Belichick and the Patriots gave Garoppolo another excellent opportunity by trading him to the 49ers and new head coach Kyle Shanahan during the 2017 season.

"Sometimes you have to be in the right place at the right time," Millsaps said. "Jimmy made the most of these opportunities and did things the right way."

That was true in his other athletic pursuit at Meadows.

High school hoopla

Garoppolo also played two years of varsity basketball at Meadows. He wasn't a big-time scorer but Kevin Katovich, who is in his 18th season as the program's head coach, said basketball also provided a glimpse into Garoppolo's potential success at higher levels.

"The thing I really remember is football coaches coming to practice his senior year," Katovich said, "and they were amazed at how athletic he was on the basketball court."

Katovich wondered if Garoppolo would focus on getting ready for football and possibly graduate early to get a head start on his college career.

"He said, 'No, coach, I want to play basketball. I really like playing basketball,' " Katovich recalled. "There was always a question if he would play basketball his senior year with what he had in line for football, but he wanted to compete and play basketball."

Katovich recalled two instances where Garoppolo displayed his willingness to be a team player that he still exhibits today.

In one game, Katovich wanted to design a play for Garoppolo to take a big shot. Garoppolo had a different idea since one of his teammates and best friends was Daily Herald All-Area player Richie Kemph.

"Jimmy said, 'I'll set a great screen and let's get the ball to Richie because he's our best player,' " Katovich said. "He was a great teammate who was loyal to his friends and that translated to basketball. He knew this was Richie's first sport and he wanted to make sure he did whatever he could to help him succeed."

The other was a defensive change Katovich made that season to put in a 1-3-1 zone.

"I put him at the top and he asked, 'What do I do?' " Katovich said. "I said, 'Go try and steal the ball.' He said, 'I love that.' "

Katovich currently coaches one of the country's top high school basketball players in junior Max Christie. The result is a lot of calls and visits from some of the top coaches in college basketball.

Katovich sees a lot of similarities in how Christie and Garoppolo handle the attention.

"Max is very humble and very team-oriented and Jimmy was the same way," Katovich said. "People looked at Jimmy as an amazing athlete and he said, 'I'm just a normal high school kid.' "

Maintaining his roots

Former Rolling Meadows High School football coach Doug Millsaps visited with Jimmy Garoppolo after the host 49ers beat Minnesota 27-10 Jan. 11 in the divisional playoffs.
Former Rolling Meadows High School football coach Doug Millsaps visited with Jimmy Garoppolo after the host 49ers beat Minnesota 27-10 Jan. 11 in the divisional playoffs. - Courtesy of Doug Millsaps

Katovich called this "Jimmy Week" at Meadows and said activities director Jim Voyles has done a great job of showcasing the school's most famous athletic alumnus.

Millsaps, who retired from teaching after last year, has gone to seven 49ers games this year, including the playoff games in San Francisco against Minnesota and Green Bay. Millsaps said one of the great parts is also seeing some of Garoppolo's former high school teammates and close friends at some of the games, such as Kemph, Tony Taibi, Neal Zeman and Eddy Pekovic.

"It is really a good thing and that's part of what helps him stay grounded in that limelight," Millsaps said. "Obviously his family is a huge part of that. He's got two older brothers to answer to and Mikey, he'll beat you down."

Wolanski and his wife and former Meadows offensive coordinator Charlie Henry and his son went to the game in San Francisco against the Rams in Week 16.

"He put us in a box and talked to us after the game for a half-hour," Wolanski said. "Jimmy and his family are awesome. Their family is a great family and they treat people the right way. Jimmy's said he tries to give back to everyone who has helped him."

And now he is on the verge of history where he could join an exclusive list of Super Bowl winning quarterbacks.

"It's an incredible accomplishment," Wolanski said. "It's a team game and Jimmy will be the first to tell you that.

"The best thing about Jimmy, if he has to throw the ball 40 times or 8 times, he'll do whatever it takes to win. He was like that in high school and college, too."

0 Comments
                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 
Article Comments
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.