CHICAGO Anyone worried about Jimmy Garoppolo’s ability to process the 49ers’ complex offense should consider this: He’s been running intricate systems since the 12th grade.
When he was a rising junior at Rolling Meadows High School in Arlington Heights, Ill., the coaches decided to give Garoppolo, a linebacker who never had played quarterback at any level, a shot at the position.
That fall he ran a simple, run-oriented system heavy on tight ends and read options.
His senior year was different.
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The coaches rebuilt the offense around Garoppolo’s arm, legs and brain. It featured four or five wide receivers. It leaned on the quarterback’s ability to check out of unfavorable calls. It was the “Jimmy Show” and his coaches weren’t shy about piling on responsibility.
Charlie Henry, the school’s offensive coordinator at the time, remembers a visit from an Eastern Illinois coach who was recruiting Garoppolo.
“I said, ‘Well, let me show you what we do here,’ ” Henry recalled. “And I threw up a couple of looks and said, ‘So, we’ll tell Jimmy, ‘You’ve got to get out of this (protection)’ or, ‘You’ve got to get into this one.’ And the coach was like, ‘And he does all that? That’s a lot to ask a high-school quarterback.’ ”
Henry will be one of 15 or so of Garoppolo’s former teachers and coaches at Soldier Field – about a 35-mile drive from Rolling Meadows – to watch their former pupil make his 49ers starting debut Sunday. Like most die-hard Bears fans, Henry said he wants to see the hometown team and the hometown kid succeed, and he decided a shootout would be the ideal scenario.
“I don’t care who wins if it’s a shootout because that means both quarterbacks probably played pretty well,” he said with a laugh. “It would give a little hope for Bears fans and I’d be excited for Jimmy.”
Garoppolo will have plenty of family and friends in the stands as well, and he admitted he had to put away his constantly buzzing cellphone after Kyle Shanahan announced he would start this week.
He doesn’t seem, however, like the type of guy who will fall into the trappings of the hometown hero. For one, he studied under two men who could teach a Master’s class on freezing out distractions, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, for three and a half seasons in New England.
And perhaps more important, he is firmly grounded by his working-class roots in Arlington Heights. His father, Tony, is an electrician. His mother, Denise, works at an organic foods store but was a stay-at-home mom when Jimmy and his three brothers were growing up.
“We were basically living on one person’s salary – six people,” said Mike Garoppolo, one of Jimmy’s older brothers. “I wouldn’t even see my dad some days because he was working so late and going to work so early. That blue-collar approach really got imbedded in us: If you want to do something, you’ve got to work for it.”
Tony Garoppolo is average size – about 5-10, 180 pounds – but was a two-way player at offensive guard and defensive tackle in high school, and his sons grew up hearing stories about the merits of the sport.
Mike, who coaches football at nearby Niles North High School, played linebacker at Western Illinois. The oldest brother, Tony Jr., was an offensive guard in high school. The youngest, Billy, played cornerback.
So what happened when good-looking Jimmy transitioned from linebacker to the glorified and refined quarterback spot?
“When he got switched over, we definitely gave him a hard time about it – being the pretty boy now,” Mike said. “But he worked his tail off. And the way he played the quarterback position, he was no pretty boy. In high school especially he was like their running back and quarterback at the same time. As much as it’s a pretty-boy position, he made it a tough-guy spot.”
Jimmy was a baseball player growing up, but it wasn’t necessarily his arm that convinced coaches he could play quarterback. Instead it was his overall athleticism – Jimmy was a standout in basketball and soccer, too – and the way he interacted with the other kids.
“He’s a leader,” Henry said. “The kids in his grade, I mean, they always gravitated toward him for guidance. And when you can package that – the running ability, the leadership and that talent – that’s exactly what you want to have at quarterback on a good football team.”
What Henry and his fellow coaches didn’t realize at the time was the depth of Garoppolo’s drive and his capacity for work. Between his junior and senior seasons, the boy who had never played the position before hired a quarterbacks coach, got up early every Saturday morning and made massive strides before his senior season.
Henry said he coached two of Garoppolo’s brothers and taught social studies to the third.
“They’re grounded,” he said. “They don’t take anything for granted. And they work hard. And that all showed up with Jimmy. He just got better and better and better. And I don’t think that’s stopped since he left here.”