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With his professional football dream just around the corner, Jimmy Garoppolo went back to his roots on Thursday.
Garoppolo, who is expected to be highly drafted in next week's NFL draft, stopped by Rolling Meadows High School, where he was honored with a school assembly.
"I never really envisioned this," said Garoppolo to an auditorium that was full of current students, teachers, coaches, administrators and former teammates. "It is like a dream to be here standing before you."
Garoppolo's dream began when then head coach Doug Millsapps spotted him at a freshman football practice eight years ago.
"It was exciting to have him here," said Millsapps, who was the head varsity coach for all the years Garoppolo played at Rolling Meadows and now is an assistant at Huntley. "I knew he was a quarterback from the first time I saw him throw a ball. And the way he played, I knew he could one day make it to the NFL."
Former assistant coaches Tony Wolanski, John Harrington and Charlie Henry also reminisced about Garoppolo's days at Rolling Meadows.
Garoppolo, who received three college scholarship offers, decided to play at Eastern Illinois after a successful stint at Rolling Meadows, which included a Mid-Suburban East title in 2009. As a two-year starter for the Mustangs, he threw for 3,960 yards and 23 touchdowns and rushed for 1,115 yards and 14 TDS.
Tony Wolanski, who was the defensive coordinator for Rolling Meadows, successfully lobbied to have Garoppolo play on the varsity as a sophomore and start at outside linebacker.
"We needed him at linebacker," Wolanski said. "But he worked out at quarterback as well. In his senior year, he played both offense and defense and in our game against Prospect he never came off the field."
Wolanski also saw something in Garoppolo early on.
"I knew he was an NFL player," Wolanski said. "I told him that his sophomore year. His ability and work ethic was something special. That is how I knew he would make it."
First, Garoppolo needed to succeed at Eastern Illinois. He was given a chance to start in the Panthers' fifth game of the season and was the starter from then on. He threw for 13,156 yards, which is seventh all time for the FCS, and threw 118 touchdown passes, quite a few of which were shown in a brief highlight video shown to the assembly.
Garoppolo began to gain the attention of NFL scouts when he broke Dallas Cowboy and former Eastern Illinois quarterback Tony Romo's records in college. His acclaim on grew when he was named the MVP of the East-West Shrine game.
Garoppolo arrived at 9:30 a.m. and walked through the doors to find banners and posters welcoming him back with sayings like Roam into the NFL, along with Mustangs to Panthers to ….? and Give Goodell a hug.
That latter banner is in reference to a draft tradition where players in attendance, after being selected, come on stage before and embrace NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
"All those posters were so cool," Garoppolo said. "It is awesome that the kids here put that all together."
Garappolo also thanked his former teammates, including Neal Zeman Andrew Smaida, Chris Anderson, Chris Varitek, Patrick Wiebe, Tony Taibi, Tim Chrabot and Luigi Perfetti for helping to honor him.
"It is great to see all of you," Garoppolo said. "I appreciate you coming back. I haven't seen some of you for a while."
Taibi, though, had seen Garoppolo early that morning as Garappolo visited him at Valparaiso University. The two worked out together, with Garappolo throwing the ball to his former wide receiver.
"I watch him all the time," said Taibi, who is playing at Valparaiso. "It awesome seeing him. We stay in touch and text each other all the time."
Garoppolo is back home in Arlington Heights for the moment, savoring the chance to hang out with his brothers Tony, Mike and Billy, who is a senior at Rolling Meadows. Billy was asked by moderator Brett Olson, who helped arrange the assembly, what he was looking forward to most with his brother headed to the NFL.
"I want to pick him to play on my Madden and Fantasy Football teams," said Billy, to the roaring approval of his Rolling Meadows classmates.
Jim Voyles, the former track coach at Rolling Meadows, said he was glad Garoppolo visited.
"When you leave here, no matter where you are roaming on this planet, you will always be a Mustang," Voyles said. "Someone like Jimmy will never forget where they came from. And that is evident by him being here today."
Bobby Suchecki, who quarterbacked the Mustangs last season and is headed to Carthage College to play next year, said that Garoppolo is an inspiration to him.
"Especially being a quarterback at our school," said Suchecki, who was sitting in the front row on Thursday. "Knowing what someone from our school did and what he is going to do is pretty sweet."
Garoppolo could soon become the fourth player from the Northwest suburbs to lead an NFL team at quarterback. Expected to be drafted in the first two rounds, Garoppolo will become the highest quarterback selected since Schaumburg's Kurt Kittner was selected in the fifth round by the Atlanta Falcons in 2002. Fremd's Scott Tolzien currently is with the Green Bay Packers. He was undrafted, as was St. Viator's Brett Basanez, who finished his career with the Bears.
"It has been a whirlwind," said Garoppolo. "The past four months have been the fastest four months of my life. But I am enjoying it."