ROLLING MEADOWS, Ill. — Jimmy Garoppolo sat in his weekly game plan meeting with one question on his mind. He knew his assignment, but the task was daunting. Not only was Garoppolo’s opponent older than him, but he outweighed Garoppolo by nearly 100 pounds. Knowing that the answer to his question was not going to change reality, Garoppolo asked it anyway: “Is he really that big, coach?”
This was a long time ago, far before Garoppolo got drafted by the most successful NFL team in recent memory, got traded, earned a $137.5 million contract and led the San Francisco 49ers to Super Bowl LIV.
This was Garoppolo’s sophomore year at Rolling Meadows High School. He wasn’t even a quarterback yet. He was the team’s starting outside linebacker. Garoppolo wasn’t worried about opposing pass rushers in those defensive team meetings, he was worried about offensive linemen.
It would be another year before Garoppolo became a quarterback for good, a move that set him down a path that led to a matchup with the Kansas City Chiefs at Super Bowl LIV. That journey began at Rolling Meadows High School, and though it’s been 10 years since the now 28-year-old played there, the town of Rolling Meadows hasn’t forgotten about the hometown kid.
Rolling Meadows — a Northwest suburb of Chicago — sits 40 minutes away from downtown Chicago. While that’s where Garoppolo’s football origin story began, Garoppolo grew up in neighboring suburb Arlington Heights, where his family still resides today. Both towns may lie a while outside the city, but this is Chicago Bears country.
Garoppolo didn’t start out at QB
It would take a few seasons at Rolling Meadows High School before Garoppolo made his star turn at quarterback. As a freshman, Garoppolo was a running back and outside linebacker. While he had natural talent throwing the ball, Garoppolo had no interest in being the team’s quarterback.
“When I played catch with Jimmy, he had an innate ability for the ball to come out of his hand pretty quickly, even back then,” says Garoppolo’s high school head coach, Doug Millsaps. “So I just asked a simple question: ‘Why are you wearing No. 29? You should be wearing something in the teens as a quarterback.’ And he said, ‘I don’t want to play quarterback.’”
It took an injury to the team’s starter for Garoppolo to give the position a chance. His starting stint would be short-lived. As a sophomore, Garoppolo was promoted to varsity. The team already had a senior starter at quarterback, so Garoppolo started at outside linebacker. That’s where Garoppolo would ask about opposing offensive linemen, but not because he was scared.
“I wouldn’t say he was afraid of contact,” says Garoppolo’s high school defensive coordinator Tony Wolanski. “He went after it. But he did want to know how big the other guy was.”
The QB transformation
It wasn’t until his junior year when Garoppolo got a chance to take over as the team’s starting QB. Garoppolo had the athleticism and the leadership qualities to succeed at the position, but put up an average statistical year.
That offseason, Garoppolo worked with Chicago quarterback guru Jeff Christensen — who was drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals in 1983 and spent a few seasons in the NFL. When Garoppolo returned for his senior year, he was a different player.
“We were playing Barrington, which is a big school and traditionally pretty good,” recalls Garoppolo’s high school offensive coordinator Charlie Henry. “Jimmy made two throws down the sideline to his best friend Tony Tate … we’re talking balls 40, 45 yards downfield that hit him right in stride down the sideline and I’m like, ‘Wow, this kid can play.’
“That was game 2 or 3, and from that, we kinda built the offense around being able to throw the ball.”
Despite a strong season, Garoppolo didn’t get recruited aggressively. Henry believes it’s because the team played in rain and mud — less than optimal conditions for a quarterback — at the end of the year. Garoppolo eventually chose Eastern Illinois, and NFL fans know the rest of his story.
This Super Bowl, Rolling Meadows is a 49ers town
Garoppolo’s time with Rolling Meadows football ended in 2010, but the city stayed involved with his progress. It wasn’t just Garoppolo’s former coaches who were following along, it was Rolling Meadows residents as well.
Mike Reppe doesn’t know Garoppolo personally. They didn’t overlap at Rolling Meadows High School. But when Reppe opened Rep’s Place — a restaurant and bar in Rolling Meadows — 18 months ago, he immediately hung Garoppolo’s high school jersey in the bar.
Reppe’s goal with Rep’s Place was to open up an establishment that would bring the community back together. It was only natural that Garoppolo’s jersey could be a rallying point for Rolling Meadows’ residents.
He never expected the impact that jersey would make today.
“Hanging his high school jersey up 18 months ago, I had no idea,” Reppe says. “Making it to the big game and having all this buzz about it was never in my radar. It was just, ‘Hey this guy is in the pros, he went here, let’s support this guy.’ To see how much of a buzz this created now … it’s just really incredible.”
In celebration of Garoppolo’s Super Bowl start, Reppe installed a sign outside Rep’s Place. It reads, “Go Jimmy! Good Luck.” A large No. 10 sits next to those words.
Rolling Meadows High School will also pay tribute to Garoppolo. On Friday, the school will hold a rally where students will perform a card stunt featuring encouraging words for Garoppolo, according to athletic director Jim Voyles. While Voyles says many of the students today don’t have a connection to Garoppolo, the rally is about using his success to send a positive message to students: “You can be anything.”
While openly rooting for a player on another team is dangerous around dedicated Bears fans, residents have been able to put that aside for Garoppolo. It helps that he is, by all accounts, not a jerk. Every one of Garoppolo’s former coaches say humble, selfless and always aware of his origins.
“He really hasn’t forgotten where he’s come from,” says Wolanski. “I remember one time when I went to the Packers-New England game. Jimmy and I hadn’t talked in a year and a half at that point. They lost that game, Jimmy was the backup, and the first thing Jimmy says when we sees me is, ‘Happy birthday, coach.’ It happened to be my birthday.
That’s what type of guy he is. He’s really humble and he really hasn’t forgotten where he’s come from. I’m just happy him and his family let me be a part of his greatness. Just being part of his life, it’s awesome for me.”
Those traits are the reason Wolanski — an Oakland Raiders fan — finds himself rooting for the 49ers these days. They are the reason Millsaps — a diehard Bears fan — couldn’t help but pull for Garoppolo when he started against the Bears in 2017.
All of those people will have Garoppolo’s back Sunday. Even those who don’t personally know Garoppolo will cheer him on, recognizing the impact he’s had on the community.
“He’s one of ours,” Millsaps says.
He speaks for everyone in Rolling Meadows.
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