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Jimmy Garoppolo, Tom Brady’s fill-in, learned to play quarterback by imitating him

(AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

The phone call seems surreal to him now, because small moments so rarely become the start of something so meaningful. In 2007, Jeff Christiansen received a plea from Doug Millsaps, the head football coach at Rolling Meadows High in Illinois. “I have a sophomore starting linebacker on the varsity,” Millsaps told Chirstiansen. “And I think I may want to make him a quarterback.”

Christiansen, a former NFL backup, ran a quarterback training academy in nearby Lockport, Ill. He agreed to meet the sophomore. Into his facility walked a 16-year-old named Jimmy Garoppolo, the son of Tony and Denise, a baseball pitcher and slick-passing point guard who had never played quarterback.

“It’s going to be a lot of work,” Christiansen told Garoppolo.

“I know,” Garoppolo replied.

It is borderline spooky, Christiansen said, how all of the work from then on fused together. Garoppolo transitioned from linebacker to high school quarterback. By his senior season, Christiansen told him, “You’re going to be in the NFL.” Garoppolo went off to Eastern Illinois, an FCS school. Four years later, the New England Patriots drafted him in the second round. He became the backup to Tom Brady, the coincidence Christiansen viewed as almost cosmic.

The work Garoppolo undertook since he gave up being a linebacker landed him, ultimately, smack in the middle of the biggest sports story of the year. Brady will appeal the four-game suspension the NFL slapped on him Monday for his role in the DeflateGate scandal, so nothing is certain yet. But if the suspension holds, or only shrinks by a game or two, the starting quarterback for the New England Patriots as they begin the defense of their fourth Super Bowl championship will be Garoppolo, a 23-year-old from suburban Chicago.

[Patriots can only blame themselves for punishment]

The part that makes Christiansen shake his head and gives him chills is how Garoppolo trained. He did not learn to play quarterback, really. From the start, Jimmy Garoppolo learned to imitate Tom Brady.

At the Throw It Deep academy, Christiansen made Brady the template his quarterbacks studied. He showed Garappolo “tens of thousands” of images of Brady, he said. When he needed an example of how to read defenses, he showed video of Brady. When he taught how to use the angle of your shoulders to dupe a defensive back, he showed still photographs of Brady. The proper head placement on a play-action fake? Brady. Throwing motion? Brady. Every photo, every detail, was Brady. Always Brady.

Garoppolo digested everything. By the time Garappolo became the starting quarterback at Eastern Illinois, where he continued to work with Christiansen in the offseason, his form mirrored Brady.

“If you put the film side by side, there are some throws that are just eerie,” Christiansen said. “Like, frame for frame, everything is identical.”

The Patriots can only hope Garoppolo mimics Brady on the field. Playing in a division that saw all three foes improve on paper, the Patriots face a steep challenge in holding on to the AFC East crown. They face two playoff teams – the Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys – in the first four games, plus the Jacksonville Jaguars and much-improved Buffalo Bills. How Garappolo adapts, pending Brady’s appeal, may determine New England’s fate.

“I know how he’ll handle it emotionally,” Christiansen said. “He’ll just handle it. You can bet your tail on one thing: He’ll be prepared. He’ll know his playbook like the back of his hand.

Those around Garoppolo still marvel at how he arrived here. He did not take a snap until his sophomore year of high school. “I was a decent athlete at the time,” Garoppolo told in 2013. “I could throw the ball well because of baseball, so it worked out.”

In two years starting, Garoppolo earned a scholarship to Eastern Illinois, a three-hour drive from his Arlington Heights home. New Orleans Saints Coach Sean Payton, Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo and Christiansen, a fifth-round pick by the Bengals in 1983, all attended Eastern Illinois.

[NFL suspends Brady four games, fines and strips Patriots of draft picks]

Late in the recruiting process, Garoppolo received interest from small FBS programs. But Christiansen encouraged him to stick with his alma mater, where they would build the offense around him. As a senior, Garoppolo broke Romo’s school record for passing touchdowns.

In college, Garoppolo still came back to Lockport to work with Christiansen. One offseason, Christiansen asked Garoppolo if he remembered a conversation they had years ago about mechanics: how if a quarterback doesn’t close his front shoulder, the ball will sail. Garoppolo repeated the entire conversation verbatim.

“You don’t realize he’s putting it into a photographic memory and he’s never going to forget it, because it means so much to him,” Christiansen said. “He was recording all those little things in his mind. And all those little things added up to this.”

As a rookie, Garoppolo showed the Patriots the same aptitude. He appeared in three games during meaningless action, completing 19 or 27 passes for 182 yards and a touchdown. His value came in how he prepared the starting defense.

After the Super Bowl, Patriots linebacker Rob Ninkovich praised Garoppolo’s athleticism and how he mimicked Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson. Garoppolo used his quick release to beat cornerback Malcolm Bulter on a slant pass at the goal line – the precise play Butler recognized to make his indelible, game-clinching interception.

This winter, Christiansen was talking with Garoppolo, far removed from his days as a high school linebacker. “Do you remember when I told you you would play in the NFL?” Christiansen asked him.

“He gave me the, ‘Are you stupid?’ look,” Christiansen sad. “Like, ‘That was the plan, wasn’t it?’ ”

The plan did not include Garoppolo ascending to starter status owing to suspension and legacy-tarnishing controversy. But Garoppolo’s sudden rise still makes Christiansen shake his head.

“I can’t even talk about it,” Christiansen said. “I don’t want it to end. Very few things in your life go perfect. This one here went perfect.”

More coverage of DeflateGate:

Brady offers little in first public comments after Wells Report

Wells Report: ‘Probable’ Patriots violated rules, Brady knew

The hilarious and profane texts in the Wells report

Reader poll: Punishments too harsh?