From five spots back on the depth chart, Garoppolo quickly passed Eastern Illinois records set by Tony Romo and Sean Payton. (Photograph by Stephen Haas/AP)
Jimmy didn’t own a car in college, so he would walk 30 minutes from his place to the football facility and still be the first one there, hours before the rest of his teammates. The day after a game, Jimmy was at the facility by 7 a.m., breaking down tape. If there was a 6 a.m. workout, Jimmy would be there by 5:30, lifting weights. And he was still in routine by sundown, cooking up chicken on a George Foreman Grill—yes, with a side of spinach and rice. His teammates called him “Leaves.”
Jimmy had started keeping a small journal in his dorm room, jotting down the school’s passing records—single-season and career, held entirely by Eastern Illinois legends Tony Romo and Sean Payton—during freshman year. Two seasons later, as a junior, he’d already broken some.
“And, obviously, he got the girl attraction,” says John Wurm, an EIU linebacker and Jimmy’s current best friend. “It was ridiculous. Jim never led a girl on, though, or dated a girl.”
“I definitely got attention just by being next to him,” says Jerone Williams, an EIU D-lineman known as Juice to his buddies.
“Pretty small school,” says Niko Foltys, Jimmy’s former roommate and teammate. “Word gets out.”
“Jim’s the most laid-back, cool dude you'll probably ever meet,” says Pete Houlihan, an EIU cornerback and former roommate. “On the football field? Complete opposite.”
“Historical schools … put these guys on pedestals, and it was unfathomable to us that Jimmy could play with those guys,” says Adam Gristick, another former roommate and now the linebackers coach at EIU. “Jimmy was the guy from day one.”
Jimmy’s squad—Wurm, Juice, Niko, Pete and Gristick—would keep him in check with nightly games of Super Smash Bros. on the Nintendo 64. (He played as Samus.) They would make fun of his white K-Swiss sneakers, a pair of which he bought before every year of college, and called him “Swagless Swiss.” (“My freshman year, I bought some Vans and they asked me if I was a skater,” Jimmy says. “I was just like, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing. Somebody help me.’”)
Jimmy’s squad. From left, Jerone Williams, Pete Houlihan, Garoppolo, Adam Gristick, John Wurm and Niko Foltys at the NFL draft in 2014. (Photograph courtesy of John Wurm)
For the 2014 NFL draft, Jimmy invited his roommates to New York City, registering all five of them as his brothers. The night before, the group came over to his hotel room, which featured a king-size bed, a wheel-in cot and a lumpy couch. Gristick, the 227-pound linebacker, sat down on the couch, only for Jimmy to give him a gentle nudge. “Hey, Gristick, you’re in my bed,” Jimmy said. “That’s where I’m sleeping tonight.” Yes, Jimmy had ceded the bed and the cot to his older brothers, and yes, Jimmy Garoppolo is still that kind of guy.
On Day 1 of the draft, Roger Goodell approached the Garoppolo table in the green room. Juice Williams, who is 6’7”, black and clearly not Italian, looked up at the commissioner. “Eight brothers, huh?” Goodell said with a laugh. (The NFL disputes this.)
On Day 2, when Jimmy expected to be selected, he walked into the bathroom of Radio City Music Hall and felt a tap on his shoulder. It was former Patriots Pro Bowl linebacker Willie McGinest, who was there to announce the team’s pick.
“Garoppolo, right?” McGinest asked.
“Yes, nice to meet you,” Garoppolo said.
“I’ve got a feeling I’m about to call your name here in a bit,” McGinest said, 40 minutes before the Pats’ second-round pick.
“I thought he was BS’ing with me, being a nice guy,” Jimmy says now.
Three picks before New England went on the clock, Jimmy received a call on his iPhone—location: Massachusetts. “Oh, it’s the Patriots!” he thought. He took the call and Bill Belichick was on the line.
“Everyone was making noises, and I couldn’t hear half the things,” Jimmy says. “It didn’t matter what was being said. I made sure to say, ‘Yes, sir. Yes, sir. Yes, sir.’”
The first time Jimmy Garoppolo met Tom Brady was during a predraft visit. They shook hands, exchanged pleasantries, then disappeared into other meetings. Over the next three-and-a-half seasons in Foxborough, he mostly tried to stay out of the GOAT’s way. “I was going to watch and literally absorb everything I could from him without being an annoyance,” he says. “I didn’t want to ask a ton of questions. I didn’t want to ruffle any feathers. You have to play the politics a little bit.”
As Jimmy’s oldest brother, Tony Jr., says: “You gotta look up the ladder and see who’s done it well, and I think he just tried to duplicate as much as he could at what Tom did, and that’s not going out too late on the weekend and getting in trouble.”
Brady and his backup did, however, develop a competitive relationship. After practice, the two quarterbacks would often play the bucket game, which requires landing a football into a trash can in the back corner of the end zone. “There would be days where one of us would win and you wouldn’t talk to the other for a little while,” Jimmy says. “We’d be fine the next day, but it was one of the best things for me. We would push each other and we got two Super Bowls out of it.”
Jimmy spent most days at Gillette Stadium and did not keep any food in his home. During the offseason, Brady would call once a week to check in on his progress, ask him how he’d been working to get better. In the three full seasons with Jimmy backing him up, Brady produced arguably the best stretch of his career, completing 65.1 percent of passes, throwing for 97 touchdowns against 18 interceptions and posting a QB rating of 103.1…all at ages 37 to 39. (Through the Patriots and the agent he shares with Garoppolo, Brady declined to comment for this story.)
“The competitiveness between the two of us was very similar. If I’m playing my best friend in one-on-one basketball, if we are both into it, by the end, we are going to hate each other,” Jimmy says. “That’s how it is. All the good competitors have that. We got along, but there were always times where we wanted to kill each other. It was a healthy, competitive relationship.”
“We got along, but there were always times where we wanted to kill each other.”
—JIMMY GAROPPOLO, ON HIS RELATIONSHIP WITH TOM BRADY
While Jimmy certainly learned a lot on the field, he received the most advice from Brady off it. He has not adopted Brady’s notoriously stringent diet (“Let me tell you, avocado ice cream is not bad,” Jimmy admits), but he picked up tricks of a modern celebrity life, from the finances to the locker room and, of course, the women. “I can’t tell you that,” Jimmy says with a wide smile, when pressed about veteran dating tips from the husband of one of the world’s most famous supermodels. “That’s top-secret stuff.”
And in New England, you try to not piss off the other GOAT, either. Belichick was a supporter, to be sure, but he and Garoppolo kept it strictly professional. “There was no BS’ing around,” Jimmy says. “I related to him in that way, as crazy as it sounds. He’s different than he is with the media. He has dry humor—he would say some stuff that was borderline mean. He would put up a lowlight clip every once in a while, and it was always your worst throws from practice. He would put it up there, and you already knew what was about to happen. Any position, there are so many people on the outside hyping you up and saying good things, that everyone needs to be brought back down.” (Belichick also declined to comment for this story.)