By Chris Emma-
EVANSTON, Ill. (CBS) — In a curtained section of Northwestern’s Trienens Hall practice field, Jimmy Garoppolo heaved pass after pass to San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbarugh. The two ran passing patterns with the projected first-round pick showing off his arm and mobility.
A potential suitor for Garoppolo’s services, Harbaugh was one of many NFL evaluators at the pro day workout in Evanston. New Houston Texans coach Bill O’Brien was also on hand to see Garoppolo, the former Eastern Illinois quarterback who trekked north for a nearby pro day.
For Garoppolo, the stakes were high as he worked to impress NFL personnel and boost his draft stock. But this was a familiar feeling for the Rolling Meadows native.
In the summer of 2009, an unheralded and raw quarterback attended a one-day camp on that same Evanston practice field, working to garner recruiting interest. For Garoppolo, that was an important opportunity to earn a scholarship offer from Northwestern.
“I just wanted to come out here and impress the coaches,” said Garoppolo, recalling the camp in Evanston. “It’s a college close to my house. I always wanted to play for (Northwestern). Great facilities, great atmosphere here. I just got cut short a little bit.”
Northwestern had already received a verbal commitment from Orlando quarterback prospect Trevor Siemian, now the Wildcats’ starter, but had room for another. It would be Kain Colter, not Garoppolo, to later join the 2010 class.
“Like most from the Big Ten and MAC, we were smart not to take him,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald joked Tuesday. “That’s recruiting, right?”
Garoppolo’s development from under-recruited high-schooler to projected first-round pick is a testament to his work ethic. He steadily improved his game while playing at Eastern Illinois, where he finished with 13,156 career passing yards and threw 53 touchdowns in his senior season.
“A lot of things happen to guys in four and five years that change,” said Northwestern offensive coordinator Mick McCall, who scouted Garoppolo in that 2009 one-day camp.
“He just developed himself and got better and better, stronger and stronger, developed his feet.”
The talent of Garoppolo was on display for NFL suitors. It was Harbaugh — dressed in his customary black 49ers hat, sweatshirt and pleated khakis — who got the best look at Garoppolo, running along with him during private workouts.
Once an unknown quarterback from Rolling Meadows, Garoppolo is now a hot commodity on NFL draft boards.
“I love coming out here and throwing the ball,” Garoppolo said. “It’s another opportunity to showcase my talent, really. If I can do it every day, I’d love to do it.”
Four years later, Garoppolo was back at Northwestern’s Trienens Hall, but this time as an NFL talent. Off to the side, Fitzgerald and McCall watched as the quarterback they missed on continued his climb.
There was no way the Wildcats could’ve ever projected Garoppolo to be a future first- or second-round draft pick. Neither did any other FBS schools. Eastern Illinois finally took a shot on the quarterback, and the rest is history.
“They didn’t like what they saw,” Garoppolo said of Northwestern’s one-day camp. “It was a blessing in disguise, really. I ended up at Eastern for a reason, and I loved it.”
Chris Emma covers the college sports scene for CBS Chicago. Follow him on Twitter@CEmmaScout.