IRVING, Texas – The beads of sweat were pouring down his face, as if he was a kid having a run through the backyard sprinkler on a hot summer day.
His eyes were bright and expressive, the enthusiasm in his voice was that of one of those undrafted free agents who had just come through The Ranch for rookie minicamp the previous weekend not that of a salty veteran preparing for his 12th NFL season.
But going within reason, of course.
“Yeah, feeling good, good to go,” Romo said, having caught my attention while in between sets out here in the weight room early Wednesday afternoon. And let that sink in for a moment: The guy who had micro-discectomy surgery to repair a herniated disk at the L-5 level of his back way back on Dec. 27, 2013, was in the weight room lifting weights.
So it will be five months to the day of that surgery when Romo joins his teammates for the first of three OTA practices next week, 21.5 weeks. Normally doctors performing such a surgery project rehab to be eight to 12 weeks, unless of course the athlete is not in season and has the time of day, as Romo does, since the Cowboys don’t open the season until Sept. 7, which will make him 36 weeks removed from the surgery.
He’s fired up, but understands he’ll be on a “pitch count,” the term he uses for logical caution being displayed at this time of year. That means while he feels as if he can do anything, don’t fall into hysterics when you are told he didn’t do everything. Meaning, taking as many snaps, throwing as many passes as he might have if he wasn’t in post-surgery rehab.
Romo, the gym rat that he is, had to learn the hard way. When he initially was cleared to throw and start a more normal athletic workout, evidently he forgot new best buddy Dr. Drew Dossett basically stuck a knife in his back (OK, surgical instrument) to reach the problematic disk. Hey, the disk is just fine, even better, but the muscles in front had been violated, needing time to get back to themselves. And then there is the resulting scar tissue to deal with on top of that.
Not surprisingly, he was sore, and had to back off. So the Cowboys trainers put a harness on him, and Romo on himself, too, realizing he had to slow down a bit. As is with most athletes, shockingly finding out that they are human, and in Romo’s case maybe also discovering he no longer is a young spring chicken at 34. Lesson learned and to be implied at the start of these OTA workouts.
Said he had spoken on the subject of the back surgery with Troy Aikman, who underwent similar surgery at the same spot on June 19, 1993, almost six months after winning his first Super Bowl but seven months prior to winning the second – something to remember. Much of Troy’s problems back then stemmed from his overly tight hamstrings, learning stretching wasn’t just for a bunch of sissies.
Romo admitted his was not so much a degenerative deal from body part imperfection, as it was the wear and tear from something he feels he might have suffered back in his teens or so. Romo said he has been aware of the condition for a good seven or so years, and that his back first spoke up nearly midway through this past season.
He took a hit from the blind side while throwing a pass. Worse, he was not anticipating the hit since he thought the blitzing linebacker had been accounted for with the protection. Sort of like unsuspectedly getting rear-ended in an auto accident without bracing for the impact. On top of that, “My body was contorted,” having just released the ball before taking the hit from the left.
Yet Romo didn’t miss a beat, not to mention a game nor a practice. And remember, not even a down after suffering the crowning blow in that valiant Game 15 effort against Washington when he hung in long enough to throw the game-winning touchdown pass with 1:08 remaining to push the season in balance to Game 16.
While nothing definitively was said about his injury after the game, only that his back had tightened up, he told me walking, uh badly limping, away from his postgame press conference “it’s bad,” and that he wasn’t very optimistic about being able to play that final game of the season. He knew then, and two days before the winner-take-the-East game against the Eagles he had the surgery.
Time at least is on his side, and Romo is encouraged that he will be 100 percent sooner rather than later, and later to him means another month.
Back in that summer of ’93 time was not on Aikman’s side. Back spasms the first week of June kept him from participating in that week’s Quarterback School sessions, the forerunner to OTAs. Doctors initially recommended six weeks rest.
But the pain persisted, and after locking up and much consultation, Aikman, age 26, traveled to L.A. where Dr. Robert Watkins – yep the same Dr. Robert Watkins who most recently performed the discectomy surgery on Tiger Woods – performed the microlumbar discectomy surgery on June 19. Watkins estimated Aikman would need anywhere from six to 12 weeks before he could play football again.
At the time, Watkins pointed out explicitly that Aikman’s herniation was not the result of an “isolated incident,” as some were trying to blame on squatting a mere 300 pounds, but from repeated wear and tear.
That meant Aikman was looking at a mid-August release to resume playing football. That also put the Cowboys in a tizzy, needing to find a veteran backup since Steve Beuerlein had just signed a free-agent deal with the Cardinals. The Cowboys turned to veteran Hugh Millen and some red-headed rookie from Princeton named Jason Garrett, son of Cowboys scout Jim Garrett, having just spent the 1992 season on the Cowboys practice squad.
Not only were the Cowboys interviewing for backup duty, they also were holding their breath because of Emmitt Smith’s summer of discontent, holding out for a new contract.
Well, by July 27 Aikman began throwing at camp in Austin. He would miss the first two preseason games, including the trip to London, but insisted he was ready the next week for the Raiders. He might have been, but head coach Jimmy Johnson sort of irritated his quarterback by holding him out one more game.
Finally on Aug. 21, Aikman returned, just nine weeks after his surgery. He played the first half against the Oilers in San Antonio, completing 12 of 17 passes for 141 yards while under strict orders not to be straying too far from the pocket. But Troy being Troy, getting flushed out of the pocket on one play, took sail, diving, of all things, for a first down. Jimmy about blew a gasket while most everyone else in attendance held their breath.
Come on, that was 26-year-old Troy Aikman. He was fine.
So fine, he was ready to start the season on Sept. 6, three months following his surgery. You know the rest of the story that back-to-back Super Bowl season, including the Cowboys cutting Millen on the final roster reduction and going with Garrett as the backup. That is, until trading for Bernie Kosar after Aikman suffered a severe hamstring injury the second half of Game 8 against the Giants. Garrett would finish off that victory and start his first NFL game the next week vs. then Phoenix, until relieved by Kosar, who finished off that win and would start the final game Aikman missed the next week, a loss to Atlanta in a game Emmitt Smith was knocked out of with a hamstring of his own after one carry for one yard.
But all was well that ended well that season.
Now, for sure all eyes will be on Romo come Tuesday. Chances are how many balls he throws will be documented. His snaps taken, too. Each throw will be analyzed for strength and accuracy. And help us all if he even rubs his back once. No wincing allowed.
The percentages are with Romo recovering just fine. As for longevity he said in his radio interview on 105.3 The Fan later that day that he thinks he can play for five more years. His contract structure says, for the Cowboys’ sake, he needs to be good for three more years, otherwise serious cap implications will apply.
Oh, and if you still are wondering if Romo was wondering about the Johnny Manziel thing that first round of the draft, like would they select the Aggie QB, he wasn’t. He knew the scoop since he had been attending those draft meetings leading up to the first round. Or as he said later this past Wednesday afternoon on radio, “I might have had a little more information on who we liked.”Yeah, and now you, too, have a little more information on Romo’s back thingy heading into Tuesday’s OTA.