FOXBOROUGH, Mass. - Jimmy Garoppolo handled the crush of media surrounding him on the first day of Patriots training camp like a seasoned pro. The second-year backup quarterback said please and thank you and looked reporters straight in the eye.
Garoppolo comes off as modest, patient and polite. In other words, he comes off as everything starting quarterback Tom Brady is not.
Yet there is one important trait that Garoppolo shares with the future Hall of Famer. Garoppolo fiercely believes in himself, say those who know him well, even when it seems almost everyone else has doubts.
"Jimmy is special. You have to be a special sort of person to get yourself ready to step in for Tom Brady," said Doug Millsaps, who coached Garoppolo at Rolling Meadows High School in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. "When the big lights come on, that's when you see Jimmy."
It's hard to imagine a bigger light than the one that could be shining on the 23-year-old Garoppolo at the start of this season. If Brady's four-game suspension in connection with DeflateGate is not overturned in court, or even if it's only reduced, the defending Super Bowl champions will open the season with Garoppolo -- a former Division I-AA quarterback from Eastern Illinois University without an NFL start to his name -- in charge.
Talk about baptism by fire: Two of the Patriots' first four games are against the Steelers and Cowboys. Even Garoppolo's biggest supporters realize how daunting a challenge that is.
Eastern Illinois is not an unknown school to NFL fans. It's the alma mater of Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo and Saints coach Sean Payton.
"Can he handle this? That's the one thing that people keep asking me," said Roy Wittke, the former EIU offensive coordinator who recruited Garoppolo and Romo. "On one hand, I say yes because of his makeup and character. On the other hand, he's entering a world where something like this has never happened in history."
It was Garoppolo's makeup and character, and specifically his belief that he had the talent to play quarterback beyond the high school level, that ultimately led him to become one of the most unlikely of second-round draft picks by the Patriots in 2014.
Garoppolo had never taken a snap until his sophomore year of high school and didn't start at quarterback until his junior season. The third of four brothers to play high school football at Rolling Meadows, Garoppolo was a pitcher and the starting linebacker during his sophomore year when he started throwing the ball around with Millsaps during practice. The team didn't have a quarterback lined up for the next season, and Millsaps liked what he saw.
Millsaps then called Jeff Christensen, a former NFL backup quarterback with the Bengals and a few other teams who ran a quarterback academy in the southwest suburb of Lockport, Illinois. Christensen began working to convert Garoppolo to quarterback. Though he progressed quickly, he was late to the recruiting game and got offers from only a handful of schools. A few Division I schools took a look at him, but they were not interested in playing him at quarterback.
In the end, only three FCS schools -- Illinois State, Montana State and Eastern Illinois -- made offers. Garoppolo chose Eastern Illinois, which was only three hours away from home and had launched Romo, Payton and Christensen's football careers.
"I think the experience of not being heavily recruited ended up really helping him," said Tony Wolanski, a family friend who was on the Rolling Meadows football staff for the three years Garoppolo played there. "He's had to work hard to get where he's at. He doesn't take anything for granted."
It didn't take long for Garoppolo to make his mark at Eastern Illinois. As an 18-year-old freshman, Garoppolo was elevated to starting quarterback with the team's record at 0-3. Though he struggled at times, he eventually broke all of Payton's and Romo's passing records.
"We recruited the living daylight out of him, but he exceeded expectations," Wittke said. "I knew he was the first guy since Tony to have a chance to have a future in football, but I would be lying if I said I knew he was going to be in this position."
It's hard to think of a more pressurized situation in sports than the one in which the 6-3, 226-pound Garoppolo now finds himself.
There was a fair amount of head-scratching from Patriots fans when the team took him in the second round last year. It was quite a transition as Garoppolo went from a team that didn't have a playbook in college to one of the most difficult offensive systems in football. He appeared in six games, completing 19 of 27 passes for 182 yards and one touchdown.
Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said there has been a progression since last season.
"He's not a rookie," McDaniels said. "Any player at any position their rookie year, they're trying to figure out how to process all the information that we give them, how to process what the defense is doing and then actually physically play the game and the position that they're playing . . . Last year was a lot of trying to figure that out, and it's a struggle for any player as a young guy.
"Then you come back -- OTAs and minicamps and those kinds of things -- and it's the fourth, fifth or sixth time you've heard those things and so the game seems to slow down when that's the case. He's certainly a second-year player now."
A second-year player thrust into the most extraordinary of circumstances. Yet it is something that Garoppolo refuses to dwell on, at least publicly.
Said the man who would replace Tom Brady: "Right now, I'm going to stay focused on what I can control and what I'm trying to learn and improve on."