This story appears in the July 30, 2018, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine — and get up to 94 percent off the cover price. Click here for more.
Jimmy Garoppolo is standing at the 40-yard line, play sheet in hand. It’s June, mid-minicamp in Santa Clara, Calif., and the quarterback with the perfect record, swarthy good looks and $137.5 million contract is serving after-practice detention.
The punishment is self-imposed; six false starts by the offense left him no choice. Garoppolo called over left tackle Joe Staley during the third team period and informed him they would all be staying late.
So thirty-some 49ers players surround the quarterback in the black No. 10 jersey, long after the defense has gone inside, tuning their ears to the Chicago accent piercing the late-afternoon breeze. Garoppolo announces a play, then the corresponding cadence, a code of numbers and colors that refers to either a specific command or, well, nothing at all. Tense in their stances, the guys are waiting to hear their QB bark the word that means “go.”
It’s a pretty good approximation of what the rest of the Bay Area has been doing since the trade that shocked the NFL: hanging on every last thing Garoppolo does. Has there ever been so much hype surrounding a team coming off a 10-loss season? Has there ever been a veteran passer with seven starts to his name who’s carried greater expectations?
Right now, Garoppolo is just trying to make sure every offensive player is used to his cadence—he hasn’t even been here a full calendar year, after all. It’s tedious work, running through infinite combos of the same words. But for these 20 minutes, Garoppolo gets to control the tempo.
Ever since he left his Foxboro apartment at 5 a.m. last Halloween and boarded a plane to northern California, Garoppolo has been living in a sort of time warp. He was transported, in just a few short months, from being Tom Brady’s rarely used backup to being the highest-paid player in the NFL (for five weeks, at least). In this new world, a sloppy mid-summer practice is now a headline, and never mind the two banners that adorn one corner of Levi’s Stadium. Printed on one, under a photo of Hall of Famer Joe Montana, are the words “FAITHFUL THEN.” On the other, under a photo of Garoppolo: “FAITHFUL NOW.” No pressure, Jimmy.
After spending most of his career under the radar, Garoppolo, 26, has tried to limit his time in the newfound spotlight. He’s turned down multiple offers to pose for magazine covers, including from the outlet that inspired his Jimmy GQ nickname. (Like Brady, his idol and former teammate, Garoppolo has looks that created a buzz in some circles long before he ever made his first NFL start.) Through a 49ers spokesperson, he declined an interview request for this story, citing a desire to play more games and further prove himself on the field first. The biggest headlines he’s made since agreeing to a five-year contract extension in February were when cameras found him while on a mid-summer date in Los Angeles with an adult film star.
“He doesn’t have to be the star. Really, he doesn’t,” says his mother, Denise Garoppolo. “It’s just coming to him.”
As a middle-schooler in the Chicago suburbs, Garoppolo had no interest in playing QB, preferring to hit and be hit as a linebacker and running back. On the basketball court, his parents had to beg him to shoot; he was more interested in passing to his friends.
Two of Garoppolo’s three brothers, Mike and Billy, are relocating with him to the Bay Area, to help him keep pace with his rapidly accelerating life. And his parents will fly in for every home game. Last fall, the football world was taken by surprise when Garoppolo became the face of the 49ers. For the past five years, the family has been getting used to the thought of Garoppolo being the face of any franchise.
When Dino Babers ran into Tony and Denise Garoppolo in a hotel lobby on the eve of the 2013 season opener against San Diego State, it was just the second time the Eastern Illinois coach had spoken to the parents of his star senior quarterback. Tony, an electrician and second-generation Italian-American, and Denise, who worked at a natural foods store, assumed this could be their son’s final year of organized football, and so they’d made a point of attending as many games as possible.
Babers was glad to bump into them, as he had a request: “Listen, agents are going to start contacting your son. I want you two to handle all this stuff so he can focus on the season.”
Tony stopped him. “That’s very nice, but you don’t have to say those things—”
“Mr. Garoppolo!” Babers interrupted. “Your son is going to the NFL.”
This wasn’t false modesty; they simply didn’t know. Within a few days’ time, that would change. Eastern Illinois was a two-TD underdog at San Diego State, but Garoppolo led the Panthers to a 21-point victory, throwing for 361 yards and three touchdowns. After watching film of Garoppolo dissecting the Aztecs, the coach of SDSU’s next opponent, Ohio State’s Urban Meyer, announced to the nation, “Eastern has really one of the best quarterbacks I’ve ever seen.”
In the three years before, just a handful of scouts had trickled through the FCS program’s campus. Then came Garoppolo’s senior season, when 31 teams sent eyes to tiny Charleston, Ill. Sean Edinger, the team’s strength coach, recalls a Jaguars scout commenting that Garoppolo’s hands were too small and his release too quick. As for the Patriots?
“They came one time,” says Babers, now the head coach at Syracuse. “Didn’t even stay for the whole practice. But that’s classic. If you’re on the outside, you think they’re not interested. And then—Bam!”
As a case study in the making of a franchise quarterback, Garoppolo is something of an anomaly. The first time he played the position was on the freshman team at Rolling Meadows (Ill.) High, after coach Doug Millsaps saw how the ball came out of his hand when he threw. In the class of 2009, seven QBs across the state of Illinois received scholarships from FBS programs; Garoppolo wasn’t one of them. Millsaps recalls personally driving Garoppolo’s tape to Northwestern and begging the head coach to offer him. No luck.
It wasn’t until his throwing coach, Jeff Christensen, a former Eastern QB who spent a few years in the NFL in the 1980s, called in a favor from EIU’s offensive coordinator, Roy Wittke, that Garoppolo even got a look from a college program. Wittke had coached Tony Romo, a four-time Pro Bowler, at Eastern Illinois, and Garoppolo was the first quarterback he’d seen since who bore a resemblance to his former star, from his humble Midwestern manner to his quick release and excellent balance. When Rolling Meadows’ coaches described the responsibilities Garoppolo took on before each snap, Wittke gave him an offer.
Garoppolo was EIU’s starter just four games into his true freshman season; the team struggled, winning just four games over his first two seasons. When Babers was hired in 2012, some members of the athletic department wanted to make a change at quarterback. After watching Garoppolo throw five passes, Babers concluded that his quarterback shouldn’t be at Eastern—he should be at an FBS school. The quickness of his release, Babers likes to say, is second only to Dan Marino.
Babers brought with him from Baylor a spread system that put a premium on quick decision-making, and by Garoppolo’s senior season the QB was given the freedom to change plays at the line of scrimmage. But this wasn’t a check-with-me situation where he’d pick the better of two plays. If he saw a bad defensive look, he could choose something else entirely. The third game of that season included a 63-yard TD pass—a play that was made before the snap. Illinois State’s defense had been in a zero blitz, with six men rushing against the Panthers’ five-man protection. Garoppolo slid the protection and, noticing a nickel safety playing man coverage over star receiver Erik Lora, used a subtle pre-snap hand signal to convert Lora’s route to a fade. Pitch-and-catch for an easy score in a 57-24 win.
The passing records Garoppolo eventually broke at Eastern belonged to Romo and Sean Payton, but all along he was being modeled after another QB. In the film room, offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert often pointed to Brady’s unflappability. Since high school, Christensen had worked with Garoppolo to replicate Brady’s impeccable mechanics. Garoppolo himself, meanwhile, wasn’t exactly shy about his adulation for the Pats’ All-Pro. Nine months before New England drafted him, Garoppolo tweeted: “Happy birthday to my boy Tom #livingLegend #Brady.”
“Brady was his idol,” says Babers. “Even when he was picking agents, he was so excited he was going to meet Brady’s agent [Don Yee]. And that’s the agent he picked.”
Four years later, Garoppolo’s new Niners teammate, Richard Sherman, assessing the QB from a defensive perspective, sees a guy “doing his best impression of Tom.” The veteran corner, who signed with San Francisco this offseason, is referring to Garoppolo’s quick release and reads, and his ability to neutralize the pass rush by speedily getting the ball out of his hands.
Staley, too, has watched enough TV to know that he’s sometimes hearing a bit of Brady in the 49ers’ huddle. “[Jimmy] does have a lot of the same sayings,” Staley points out with a smirk. “Like, ‘Whatchoo say now, 1-0? . . . Let’s go now, c’mon, 1-0.’ I’m always calling [Jimmy] out on that, like, ‘Hey, that’s not your saying—that’s Tom’s saying! Get something else!’ ”
Kyle Shanahan and Bill Belichick met at the scouting combine in Indianapolis in March 2017, less than a month after Belichick’s Patriots roared back from a 28-3 deficit to defeat Shanahan’s Falcons in Super Bowl LI. They had a lot to talk about: the game . . . Shanahan’s first head coaching job, with the 49ers, which he’d accepted that February . . . and a certain backup Patriots quarterback. San Francisco, at the time, had literally zero QBs on its roster. But when Shanahan inquired, he got the same answer Belichick gave everyone else: Garoppolo, in no uncertain terms, was not available.
Belichick’s insistence on holding on to his backup, after his then-39-year-old starter had just won his fifth Super Bowl, only served to stoke other teams’ desires. Part of the Garoppolo mystique has always been this implicit endorsement from Belichick, who is notoriously hard to please and who is wary of using high draft picks on QBs. (In 24 drafts with the Browns and Patriots, Belichick has never selected a passer with a top-60 pick.)
Three years earlier, the Garoppolos had been unsure if they’d even attend the NFL draft—they didn’t want Jimmy to be uncomfortable if he slid deep into Day 3—but Gil Brandt, the former Cowboys personnel man who’s in charge of draft invites, assured them they didn’t have to worry. Ultimately the clan all flew in, and on the night before Garoppolo was announced at No. 62 he slept on their hotel suite’s couch. He let his brothers have the beds.
At a press conference the night Garoppolo was picked, Belichick uncharacteristically referenced Brady’s age and contract in discussing the Pats’ pick. Back in New York, one of Garoppolo’s brothers had come running out of the green room to find Jimmy’s EIU buddies in the audience, screaming, “He’s going to New England!” At 22, Garoppolo was going to be sharing a quarterback room with his idol.
And how did that work out? “I think they had a competition amongst themselves, and Jimmy gave Tom a little push. But it’s not like Tom Brady is some average quarterback,” says Tony Garoppolo. “He wasn’t going anywhere. Jimmy knew that. At the same time, he took the opportunity to learn from [Brady]. Tom was a mentor to him. We couldn’t ask anything more.”
In the quarterbacks room in New England, Brady would spend most of his time working one-on-one with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. Jerry Schuplinski, the assistant QBs coach, would work mainly with the backups: Garoppolo and, before he was traded last September, Jacoby Brissett. “The standard was always to Tom’s [level of] knowledge,” Brissett says. The two groups would break down film separately, then come together to share their notes. (The three QBs still have an ongoing group text chain, Brissett says.)
In 2016, when Brady served his four-game Deflategate suspension, Garoppolo got his chance to start, and in the days leading up to the season opener at Arizona he and Brissett hunkered down until 8:30 or 9 each night, going through the game plan and reads and checks. There was one run-to-pass check they spent extra time getting right, and it resulted in a 37-yard touchdown pass to Chris Hogan in the Patriots’ 23-21 win.
Millsaps, Garoppolo’s coach from Rolling Meadows, was at that game, and he saw Belichick afterward. Belichick, he says, told him how much he appreciated the QB—Garoppolo had the mentality of a linebacker and had helped them on the scout team en route to Super Bowl XLIX. “He was really happy,” Millsaps says, “which you don’t see on TV.”
It all seemed like a glimpse into a post-Brady future—until Garoppolo’s run ended prematurely with a right shoulder injury in a Week 2 victory over Miami. Even then, he was sharp in that game, too, and Belichick continued to dole out praise. Later that fall, in response to a question about Brady, he noted, “when we put Jimmy in there, it’s really seamless.” Even if no one knew when the Patriots would anoint Brady’s successor, most felt they knew who that successor would be.
Nate Solder, a fixture on New England’s offensive line for seven seasons, saw it the same way: “I thought it was a Brett Favre-Aaron Rodgers situation.”
“Looking back,” Tony Garoppolo says, “we should have realized something would happen.” On Oct. 30, 2017, the Patriots were 6-2; Brady had already tossed 16 touchdowns, showing no signs of slowing down. “With Tom playing as well as he was, do you have [Jimmy] sit for another few years?” Tony asks. “By then, it would be too late for Jimmy.”
As the trade deadline approached, all was quiet. Any rumblings of a move had died down after the draft. That’s when Belichick reconnected with Shanahan, offering Garoppolo in exchange for the 49ers’ 2018 second-round pick. “It was almost too good to be true,” says Shanahan’s father, Mike, the longtime NFL head coach who fielded a call from his stunned son after the proposal was made. (Mike, too, had played quarterback at EIU, and he’d attended the same suburban Chicago high school as Tony Garoppolo.) It took no more than 10 minutes for Kyle and 49ers GM John Lynch to decide to accept the offer.
Only a day earlier the 49ers had gotten clobbered in Philadelphia, falling to 0-8. Now they were pulling off the exceedingly rare midseason trade for a young franchise QB. “I’d watched him play,” tight end Garrett Celek says of Garoppolo, “and I thought, Man, when Brady is done, this guy is going to be good. When we traded for him, I was like, Sweet. I mean, they had to have known what they were losing.”
It would seem they did. Garoppolo had become something of a weekday legend in Foxboro. “One of the more enjoyable [parts] of practice was watching Jimmy rip ’em downfield on a tightrope [on the scout team],” says former Patriots center Bryan Stork. When the backup prodded the offense in his thick Chicago accent—“Let’s go fellas!”—Stork couldn’t help but think of the old Bears Superfans skit on SNL. In games, even in the preseason, Garoppolo brought a “whole next-level kind of competitiveness,” recalls Matt Patricia, then the Patriots’ defensive coordinator. And the team responded.
The surprise in New England when the trade went down echoed that respect. On one hand, a move had to be coming: Garoppolo’s rookie contract was set to expire after the 2017 season, and he hadn’t yet signed an extension. The Patriots could either franchise him, thereby paying their backup more than their legendary starter, or they could swap him before his contract expired. But Belichick had just traded Brissett, a move that suggested they had long-term plans for Garoppolo. So what changed?
ESPN reported in January that Patriots owner Robert Kraft had mandated that Belichick trade Garoppolo. (The team denied the story but has not commented on specifics. Belichick, through a spokesman, declined to be interviewed for this story.) But even longtime players and staff members have no idea what went into the decision, and Belichick never addressed the trade with his team.
One thing is for certain, though: The coach didn’t go through his normal process. Which is to say, he didn’t milk the asset for every last drop. The Browns, as has been widely reported, were willing to offer more for Garoppolo than what the 49ers exchanged. Was Belichick’s hand forced? Was he determined to place Garoppolo where he’d have the best chance of success?
“Bill really, really liked Jimmy,” says Denise. “Not like they were warm and fuzzy—but they both knew it was there.”
Many around the NFL believe the move came from Belichick’s respect for Kyle and Mike Shanahan (he and Mike had ascended the coaching ladder concurrently, and Mike defended him to the NFL during the Spygate scandal) and from his belief that Garoppolo would thrive under Kyle’s tutelage. And “if that is true,” says the elder Shanahan, “it’s the biggest compliment you could receive as a coach.”
Last December, following the trade, a sort of weekly ritual began: After each of Garoppolo’s starts for the 49ers, he received a text from the coach who had traded him, congratulating him on another win.
On Dec. 3, 2017, Garoppolo made his first start with the 49ers, at Soldier Field, just 30 miles from where he grew up . When Mike Shanahan describes what makes Garoppolo’s potential so high, he focuses on both the QB’s quick release and his ability to spot seams. And the very first completion Garoppolo made in red-and-gold provided a clue of what was to follow: On third-and-10 he sliced a 15-yard zinger to Marquise Goodwin, beating two converging defenders.
Among the 50-odd friends and family in attendance for the 15–14 victory that day was Tony Garoppolo, celebrating his 61st birthday and wearing binoculars around his neck. Millsaps had just been released from the hospital two days earlier, but he was there, too, as was Lora, the old EIU teammate, and a group of Garoppolo’s college roommates from the old brick house on Seventh Street where they’d gather after games and make Jimmy John’s runs. (The “Italian Night Club” sandwich for Garoppolo, obviously.)
The quarterback has what Babers, his old college coach, describes as “this weird charisma” that seems to cross all barriers. During that 2013 trip to San Diego, knowing it would be many of his players’ first chance to see the Pacific Ocean, Babers scheduled a surprise detour to Mission Beach after their Friday walk-through. He only told Garoppolo, and instructed him to keep it a secret from the rest of the players. But when the buses pulled up, the entire offensive line hopped out and started stripping down to their Speedos. “Garoppolooooo!” Babers boomed. “C’mon coach, those are my hoggies,” the quarterback replied. “I had to tell them.” At Eastern, his housemates were all defensive players. In New England, he developed a friendship with Alyssa Silva, a Patriots fan living with a rare neuromuscular disorder, after she interviewed him for a feature on her blog. (“No one had really heard of the quiet leader that was Jimmy Garoppolo,” she says). His best buddies on the Patriots were Stork and fellow lineman Cam Fleming (“probably the most diverse/random group of three you’ve ever seen,” says Stork), who started a ritual of Papa Gino’s pizza and pool each Friday night before a game. During the week of Super Bowl LI in Houston, Garoppolo piled into a six-passenger car with seven linemen for a taco run. As guard Joe Thuney conversed in Spanish with their female driver, Solder, sitting in the front seat, quickly discerned that they were talking about Garoppolo, whom the driver—like so many women—had taken a liking to. “We made fun of him because he was viewed as this ladies’ man,” Solder says, “but we know he’s a goofball—an offensive lineman at heart.”
It’s been the same in San Francisco. Garoppolo and three teammates—Celek, tight end George Kittle and guard JP Flynn—have assembled what they call “the Dream Team.” Only this is no nod to the 2011 Eagles; the Dream Team is their squad name in the popular multiplayer video game Fortnite. “Jimmy is the guy that saves everybody,” Celek says. In the game, “there’s a thing called the storm, and it hurts you every second you’re in it. And he always runs into the storm, hurts himself, but saves all of us.”
If this all sounds too good to be true, then the same could be said of Garoppolo’s five wins in five starts for the previously 1-10 team he joined in the middle of last season. And he seems determined to make sure this idyllic image holds up. Note the offseason throwing sessions at San Jose State. And the time spent with Celek watching a Brady-Rob Gronkowski highlight reel, discussing the possibilities of being creative within their playbook. (“I have never talked so much with a quarterback about every route, which is awesome,” says Celek.) And the extra 20 minutes spent on his cadence on the next-to-last day of the Niners’ offseason program.
Watching this all puts into perspective what Garoppolo accomplished last season. Some of Shanahan’s play calls are eight or nine syllables long, and there are 100 different cadences. Yet the QB became conversant enough in this complicated language to win every game. On his first day with the 49ers he stayed at the facility until midnight with QBs coach Rich Scangarello, learning the offensive formations. Just a few weeks later he was leading a two-minute march against the playoff-bound Titans as an NFL Films microphone caught him advising his receivers on how to get open against Tennessee’s safeties. Gilbert, Garoppolo’s old EIU coordinator who’s now at South Florida, watched the tape in his office and recognized the Brady-like demeanor he’d so often held up as an example.
“I’ve been around here a couple offseasons where we’ve just been like, Man, I hope this year goes well,” says Staley, a 49er since 2007. “But now we’re working for something. Have a bad play and it’s like, We have to get this right.” The last time he felt like that? “Probably [Jim] Harbaugh’s last year,” he says, back in ’14. “But even then, there was some stuff going on that was just like, all right, this is going off the rails a little bit. It wasn’t so much the QB situation or anything like that, but [now] you can see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Now the question being asked across the Bay is: How can you measure improvement from 5-0? From a completion percentage north of 67? From a passer rating of 96.2? “I don’t know how you live up to that,” says Kyle Shanahan. “Does that mean we have to have 600 [yards in] these first five games to improve? I don’t know what the numbers will be. I think we’ll be a better offense. I feel pretty confident in that.”
On the final day of minicamp Garoppolo is again lingering on the field, this time for some extra red-zone reps, after some misfires in practice. A few throws later, he’s satisfied that he and his receivers have gotten the timing right. As he finally heads inside he passes Celek, who pauses mid-sentence in a conversation with a reporter. “I was telling her all your deepest and darkest secrets,” Celek says to his quarterback.
“Just the good ones, right?” Garoppolo jokes. He flashes his cover-model grin and excuses himself, letting that air of mystery linger. While he still can.
Robert Klemko and Albert Breer contributed reporting to this story.
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