If Dallas were a monarchy, Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo would reign as its king. On the off-season, one would expect him to hold court at the best BBQ joint in town, or at a country club with his gorgeous wife and young son. The absolute last place you’d think he could be spotted is at a Jewish Community Center. But that’s exactly where you can find Romo one night a week this summer, dripping sweat and running court lengths as he plays basketball in a league made up of predominately Jewish players.
Though the competition Romo faces at the JCC might be a little less famous than the players he faces at Cowboys Stadium, the all-star is not using that as an excuse to hold back, according to 22-year-old David Naxon, Romo’s opponent a couple of weeks ago. “He’s extremely physical,” Naxon said. “He’ll push you around. He’s not going to hold back just because you’re a young Jewish man.”
Asked why the Cowboys quarterback would choose to play basketball at the JCC of all places, Jordan Prescott, Naxon’s teammate, said: “I know that he loves basketball. He was looking around town to find a competitive league, and someone said that the J would be a great place.” (Romo did not respond to request for comment.)
Itzy Ribald, a lawyer and former all-state high-school player, has a less probable theory: “I think he’s jealous that he never had a bar mitzvah so he is taking it out by kicking the Jews’ butts on the court.”
Romo holds the second best all-time quarterback rating in the NFL—but no Super Bowl rings yet, a constant source of consternation for Dallas fans. Being the Cowboys’ quarterback is about as close as an athlete can get to living on a razor’s edge: Romo has the opportunity to achieve the same sort of immortal glory as Roger Staubach or Troy Aikman, but those Hall of Famers set the standard that every Dallasite is now appraising him by. Everyone in town, probably down to Romo’s own barber, is grumbling about when the star will carry the team to its first championship in over a decade.
So, you wouldn’t begrudge Romo if he wanted to lie low during the off-season to preserve his multimillion-dollar body. But he remains active during the summer, most notably as a semi-pro golfer. The quarterback’s played in pro-am PGA tournaments, some as Tiger Woods’ partner. This hasn’t thrilled Cowboys fans, whose greatest fear is that Romo might get injured: The Cowboys are a losing team without him, and so he gets a lot of flak for playing golf.
In the beginning, players on the JCC team were worried about the same thing. “At first, I thought I don’t want to injure him because I’m a big Cowboys fan, and I would be devastated if he got injured,” said Naxon, who was the guy who could dunk in my 30-person class at Yavneh Academy, an Orthodox high school in Dallas. “But when I saw that he wasn’t holding back, I decided not to either.”
Back in his high-school days, Ribald, the lawyer, was the best Jewish basketball player in Texas—perhaps the country. Is Romo better than him?
“No,” Ribald, 6’1″, who played Division III college basketball for Yeshiva University, told me. “But he’s shockingly good from what you would expect from a football player. He’s probably one of the best shooters to play at the JCC.”
Romo’s opponents at the JCC all implicitly understand that the quarterback is a Dallas treasure and try to hold back when defending him, but apparently Romo doesn’t let up. Ribald agreed, noting that, “he plays like a point guard, he’s very physical and big.” Still, he added that the quarterback plays “cautiously.”
Dallasites can say their Hail Marys for the JCC referees who reportedly call the games very tight for Romo, preventing any sort of fouls that might result in catastrophe. Romo makes sure to remind them every once in awhile of their job. “He was talking to the refs a lot, saying, ‘this was a foul, that was a foul,’ and he’d expect a foul call that he didn’t get,” Naxon said.
Prescott, 18 years old and a recent graduate of Yavneh Academy, recalled being intimidated by Romo at first but that “he actually ended up being a super, super nice guy.” Prescott, who is the second leading scorer in Yavneh history (behind Ribald), said that Romo acts, “like the team’s floor general,” during games. “If there’s a mismatch on defense, he’ll scream at people and take care of it really quickly,” Prescott said. “He’s a competitor.”
And how did Naxon and Prescott’s team of young Jews—all younger than 23 and two still in high school—do against the three-time Pro Bowl quarterback? They lost by six. “Throughout the entire first half it was neck and neck,” Prescott claimed, “but after the first half they pulled away. Romo’s team is really good.”
According to Naxon, Romo intends to play at the JCC until the start of Cowboys training camp toward the end of July. As far as the league’s players are concerned, they would be happy for Romo to stick around even longer. “He has given the J’s league a spark,” Ribald told me. “He’s turned a typical, semi-competitive league into an extremely competitive, fun, championship-type tournament. You feel like you’re going to play against Jordan, a superstar.”
And who knows? Maybe spending his off-season flattening the occasional high-schooler at Jewball will give Romo the confidence boost he needs to carry the Cowboys all the way to the Super Bowl this season. A fan can hope.
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