MIAMI — It didn’t take long for the coaches at Eastern Illinois to be sold on Jimmy Garoppolo.
“I saw it the first time in our first spring practice,” said Syracuse coach Dino Babers, who became EIU’s head coach before Garoppolo’s junior season. “He threw five passes and I said, ‘This guy shouldn’t be here. He’s a godsend.’ ”
NFL teams aren’t so quick to warm up to FCS talent. He threw for 3,823 yards and 31 touchdowns as a junior, but there were still the predictable questions about how he’d fare against tougher competition. Then the Panthers traveled to face San Diego State in the first game of Garoppolo’s senior season in 2013.
Garoppolo played a great game and Eastern Illinois won. That game, more than any other, helped boost his profile in NFL circles.
“Oh, a ton,” Garoppolo said this week. “We had a couple scouts there before that, but once that game happened that’s when a lot of scouts started to come.”
It sounds strange to say Garoppolo wouldn’t be starting in Super Bowl LIV for the San Francisco 49ers without beating a Mountain West Conference team first, but it had a big impact. His draft stock soared.
“That put him on the map, playing up like that,” said Sean Lewis, then the outside receivers coach at Eastern Illinois and now the head coach at Kent State. “That was the knock on him at that point.”
Lewis remembers EIU inside receivers coach Andrew Sowder, the team’s NFL liaison, keeping a calendar on the wall to track NFL visits that season.
“Before that game, it was really, really blank,” Lewis said. “After it, it was filled with a who’s who of NFL personnel.
“You knew something was happening.”
Jimmy Garoppolo’s big breakout
The Panthers didn’t just beat San Diego State. They went to San Diego and blasted them 40-19. The Aztecs didn’t end up being that bad either. They went 8-5 after an 0-3 start, went 6-2 in conference and won their bowl game. And Eastern Illinois drubbed them.
“They had no clue what was walking into their stadium,” said Erik Lora, Garoppolo’s top receiver at Eastern Illinois. “We caught them by surprise. I don’t think they expected us to beat them, and write us a check too.”
Garoppolo was fantastic. He threw for 361 yards and three touchdowns. He rushed for 20 more. He made a few passes that fit very well on an NFL field, like a shoulder fake and deep pass for EIU’s first touchdown, a great read and release on a deep pass that was fumbled and a pretty fade route for another score. He was the best player on the field.
Anyone who didn’t happen to notice that game did take note of then-Ohio State coach Urban Meyer’s comments a few days later, before the Buckeyes played San Diego State.
"Eastern has really one of the best quarterbacks I've ever seen,” Meyer said then. “I didn't even know who he was until I watched him. He's a great player."
“I think Urban Meyer, give him a ton of credit,” Garoppolo said this week. “He gave me a shout out and that really took off.”
All of a sudden, Garoppolo was a hot name. NFL teams were coming to Charleston, Illinois. Lewis recalls that 48 or 49 NFL scouts and general managers came to see Garoppolo. The QB doubled down with 450 yards and six touchdowns against a nationally ranked Northern Illinois team later that season. Those performances against FCS teams helped him get invited to postseason all-star games like the East-West Shrine Classic and the Senior Bowl. He ended up as a second-round pick of the New England Patriots, still the highest drafted quarterback of the Bill Belichick era in New England.
“I think it boosted him,” Babers said of the San Diego State game. “I think Jimmy Garoppolo would have landed on NFL football team regardless. The people who watch and evaluate talent would have recognized his talent. But no doubt those games helped him become a second-round pick of the New England Patriots.”
Garoppolo rises up draft boards
In that game NFL scouts could see Garoppolo’s arm talent and athleticism, but it was more than that. That game was not easy for EIU. It had a couple of costly fumbles early, including one on a great deep pass by Garoppolo. But Garoppolo was unbothered.
“Just his poise and command of the moment,” Lewis said. “The stage wasn’t too big.”
Garoppolo had questions to answer before his senior year. When Babers and his new staff got to EIU, Lewis recalls people telling him they might be “a little disappointed” in their new quarterback because the Panthers had won only four games the previous two years. And, like Babers, Lewis couldn’t believe what he saw that first spring practice.
“We all looked at each other like, ‘What the hell is everyone talking about? That’s the guy,’ ” Lewis said.
Babers had come from Baylor, which had Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Robert Griffin III. So the bar was high.
“I knew what good looked like,” Babers said. “And I knew I was looking at an excellent talent.”
The San Diego State win created a buzz. NFL teams wanted to come by. Included among the visitors to practice that season was a Patriots representative. He left halfway through the practice, Babers recalled.
“He left like he didn’t like anything he saw.” Babers said with a laugh.
The Patriots picked Garoppolo. Tom Brady continued to play at an excellent level so the Patriots traded Garoppolo to the 49ers. Now he’s one win from becoming a legend.
Garoppolo didn’t have the typical path for an NFL quarterback, most of whom play on a big stage at a football factory Power Five school. But he made the most of his opportunities.
“I think I was always biased being on the receiving end of his passes, but he made my job so easy,” Lora said. “I know he’s doing the same thing in the NFL and it’s so cool to see him doing the same things on the best level of football.
“I’m so excited for my buddy this weekend.”
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