More times than not, the backup quarterbacks and injured players are the first ones to leave the home locker room at AT&T Stadium. I am assuming this is how it works around the entire NFL, as they are usually the only players who didn't take the field. I'm not entirely sure they even shower, there's really no need, so maybe that's why they are exiting as the media is entering for postgame interviews.
That wasn't the case with Tony Romo following the team's divisional loss to the Green Bay Packers this past January. He wasn't in a rush, in part, if not entirely, because he knew he wouldn't back. At the time, he had absolutely no idea whether or not he would ever be in another NFL locker room as an active player. This much is true. However, he knew it would never again be with the Cowboys.
The moment Romo couldn't return to this team came on Monday, Nov. 14, when he was informed by head coach Jason Garrett that he wouldn't be allowed to compete for the team's starting quarterback job despite the fact he was healthy. At that point, there was no turning back. They could deal with the awkwardness for two months or however long the season went, but that would be that. I mean, Garrett and Romo weren't really talking, which is not a sustainable situation for success.
Back to that final game in January. After hugging several teammates and team employees, telling several, "Thanks for everything over the years," Romo turned and walked out of the locker room. There, he stopped for a moment with former Cowboys running back and team consultant Calvin Hill and his wife before then sharing a big hug with the woman who has long served as the guardian of the Cowboys locker room.
After that, he walked alone in the bowels of the building he so often owned. A building in which he created excitement and competition when the team around him didn't merit either. A building that also saw him suffer physical and mental torment time and again.
Walking to his truck, Romo didn't miss a single team employee, thanking them all, a handshake here, a hug there. Everyone sensed this was goodbye, not see you again next season. This was something else entirely. This was the end.
Romo arrived at his Ford pickup truck, signed a towel for a parking lot attendant, and took a few photos, smiling warmly in each. At one point, he was in the driver's seat ready to depart when another asked for a photo. Romo opened his door and jumped out and took once last picture. Then, at 7:32 p.m., he drove off.
In professional sports, and I guess in life, the end usually isn't pleasant. That's why it's the end.
I originally wrote this column, at least parts of it, about a month ago, when we all thought Romo would be released and/or traded on the first day of free agency. At the time, I wrote that he was going to play in 2017. More than likely I was wrong, although it's worth noting that Romo himself didn't use the word "retire" during his conference call on Tuesday.
This certainly feels like the end, though, and that would be fitting in terms of Don Meredith, Roger Staubach, Danny White and Troy Aikman. None of them ever played for another NFL team besides the Dallas Cowboys.
Romo certainly falls within that group in franchise lore, for my money third behind the two Super Bowl winners, and honestly, with a gun to my head, I would take Romo over Aikman for a single game, both of them in their prime. I know the majority would disagree, but that's my two cents.
For whatever reason, NFL quarterbacks are judged by postseason success. I can't explain why, and frankly, I think it's kind of absurd. We don't hold it against the likes of Ernie Banks, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Elgin Baylor and Barry Bonds.
I have many, many times written about how underappreciated Romo was. Those three 8-8 teams stand out for me because the overwhelming majority, both nationally and locally, media and fans alike, view them as a disappointment, talk and write about them as a failure against Romo. Here's the reality: Those teams weren't good. The defenses were terrible and the offensive line was rebuilding. It's one of the great accomplishments in franchise history that those teams never played a game that didn't have playoff implications.
Over that three-year stretch, three NFL quarterbacks completed 65 percent of their passes, threw at least 90 touchdown passes and tossed fewer than 40 interceptions: Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning and Romo. The combined record for the former duo was 57-15. For me, common sense says that Romo played at a high enough level those three years to have that kind of winning percentage, nearly 80 percent. It was just those around him, including a defense he had zero control over, weren't good enough.
In some ways, we have all failed these last 24 hours, myself included. The storyline here should be what Romo has accomplished, how he represented this franchise, even last season when it could have been handled much differently, the pain he played through, and really, the absurdness of his story: Undrafted free agent signed for $10,000 to making nine figures as the longtime face of America's Team. That's some magical stuff.
Instead, the broadcasting aspect has been the headline. Look, we have the next 20, 25 years to talk about how he's doing in the booth. This should be a time for celebrating his career.
The next time we will be writing this much about Romo will be for his Ring of Honor ceremony, and my guess is that won't be long after he retires, maybe two years. This is an absolute, mortal lock. And it's well deserved, even minus the postseason success. He'll join Don Perkins and "Dandy" Don Meredith as those enshrined who don't own a Super Bowl ring.
And in the end, for many, that's what his legacy will be. Romo himself has acknowledged as much many times over the years. As I wrote last August, after his injury in the preseason game against Seattle, Romo deserved better, but life is unfair and the world doesn't pause for sentiment.
A class act, though, does pause for one last photo request before driving his Ford pickup out of AT&T Stadium in what was the final time he'll wear the uniform he brought so much dignity to.
Follow Jeff Sullivan on Twitter, @SullyBaldHead, or email him at email@example.com.