Leon “Red” Romo remains a legendary figure in Navy athletics history.
Romo served as head athletic trainer at Navy for more than four decades and treated such renowned athletes as Joe Bellino, David Robinson, Roger Staubach and Napoleon McCallum.
Romo retired in 1997 following an illustrious 41-year tenure supervising all four of the Naval Academy’s athletic training rooms and the training staffs for 30 varsity sports. After Navy upset California to win the 1996 Aloha Bowl, members of the football team carried Romo off the field on their shoulders.
Romo died July 11, 1999, at the age of 78, succumbing to complications related to a stroke and Alzheimer’s Disease. Navy had previously named the renovated athletic training room on the ground floor of Ricketts Hall in his honor.
Jamie Romo was born in 1999 and thus never knew his grandfather. However, he grew up hearing all about the trainer who was a beloved figure for literally hundreds of Navy athletes.
Rusty Romo has photographs and articles about his father hanging on the walls of his popular downtown Annapolis restaurant, Harry Browne’s, and his eldest of three children has viewed them many times.
That background serves as the backdrop for a very special moment that took place Saturday at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. When the Navy offense took the field for the first time against East Carolina, Jamie Romo ran out to make his first career start at left tackle.
The 6-foot-5, 275-pound junior took all 51 offensive snaps and helped pave the way for the Midshipmen to rush for 345 yards, the team’s second-highest total this season.
The St. Mary’s High graduate protected the blind side of quarterback Tai Lavatai, who completed all four passes he attempted and was sacked just once.
Navy assistant Danny O’Rourke, who coaches the offensive tackles, said Romo graded out highly in his first career start.
“Jamie was ready when his number was called. He’s been practicing well and went out there and knew what to do,” O’Rourke said. “I thought Jamie played really well. He was in the right spots, went to the right man and blocked very effectively.”
Romo learned last Wednesday he would become the fourth different player to start at left tackle for Navy this season. The Annapolis native decided not to tell his parents, wanting them to be surprised come game time.
Rusty and Sharon Romo were watching from their private box in the south end zone when they saw No. 61 trot out with the rest of the offensive starters. Rusty Romo immediately had flashbacks to all the times he saw his father treating an injured football player on the field.
“It was great seeing a Romo run onto the field at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium without a saline bottle and a pair of scissors,” said Rusty, repeating a line he uttered when Jamie signed with the Navy football program as a senior at St. Mary’s High. “Seriously, it was a very proud moment and one of the greatest highlights ever for our family. To see a legacy like my son out there playing football for Navy was beyond words.”
If Red Romo had lived to see a grandson starting for the Midshipmen, he would probably have been overwhelmed with emotion and unable to speak about the experience through all the tears, his son said.
“I know my father was there watching on Saturday,” Rusty said. “My father loved the Naval Academy, loved the athletics program and dedicated his life to both.”
For three years as a member of the Navy football varsity, Jamie Romo has been receiving treatment in the Leon “Red” Romo Athletic Training Center. He has met dozens of former Navy athletes who were taped up by his grandfather and naturally thought about those ties on Saturday.
“It meant everything to me. It was kind of a childhood dream come true,” Romo said of earning the start. “I looked up at the box and could see my parents were cheering like crazy. I thought it was awesome to kind of carry on that family legacy.
“I was thinking before the game that my grandfather would be super proud, and I didn’t want to let him down. I could definitely feel his presence on Saturday.”
Rusty Romo believes his son has been trying to live up to that legacy ever since he arrived at the academy. Jamie Romo did not see any varsity action as a freshman or sophomore but was nonetheless one of the hardest workers on the team.
Coach Ken Niumatalolo said Romo is almost always the first player in the weight room, arriving at 5:45 a.m. for offseason sessions that start at 6. Romo is also an outstanding student and has never got into any trouble in Bancroft Hall, Niumatalolo said.
“I was really proud of Jamie getting the start on Saturday because he’s a great kid who has paid his dues,” Niumatalolo said. “It’s great to see a local kid doing good things in our program.”
Romo showed up at the Naval Academy Prep School overweight and incapable of operating as a tackle in a triple-option offense. He worked hard to get into better shape, but still tipped the scales at 290 pounds as a plebe in Annapolis.
O’Rourke had always stressed that Navy tackles must be athletic and possess the footwork and agility to work up to the second level. He praised Romo’s diligence working with the Navy strength and conditioning staff “to physically change his body.”
“I’m playing at around 273 and it feels a lot better. I have more movement in my hips, which makes it easier to scoop and get to the backside cutoff quicker,” he said.
Romo entered August training camp second on the depth chart at right tackle behind Kip Frankland, but a slew of injuries have shaken things up across the line.
Navy has now used nine different starting lineups along the offensive line and not even Niumatalolo knows for sure what the makeup will be for Saturday’s game at Temple. O’Rourke has full confidence in starting Romo at left tackle again.
“I’ve always trusted Jamie because he’s known where to go and what to do,” O’Rourke said. “Jamie is a very meticulous player who always asks the right questions in the meeting room. He earned the right to start based off practice performance.”
Romo had played 10 snaps all season before East Carolina, seeing action at the end of blowout losses to Marshall and Notre Dame. He proved Saturday the ability to get the job done over the course of an entire contest.
“I had a chip on my shoulder when I came here. I was scared to death that I wasn’t good enough to play at this level,” he said. “I always showed up to practice with the mentality of proving to myself and the coaching staff that I belong here. It definitely felt good to finally get some real-time playing experience under my belt.”
Rusty Romo, whose younger son Reed is a plebe member of the Navy heavyweight crew team, applauds Jamie for the “commitment, discipline and work ethic” he demonstrated in going from scout team player as a sophomore to starter as a junior.
“It’s a testament to the values his mother and I have instilled that the harder you work, the more you achieve,” Rusty said. “I also think Jamie realizes how important his grandfather’s legacy is around the Naval Academy and he was never going to let that down or disappoint anyone.”
TV: ESPNU Radio: 1430 AM
Latest College Football
Line: Navy by 12 ½