Romeo already a success

Nick Romeo reads his opponents eyes, knowing any mistake could be the deciding factor. The fifth-year center on the Syracuse football team carefully prepares his play. With one quick move, though, he's beaten.

His linemate, junior tackle Matt Tarullo, stares him down before a grin spreads across his face.

"Checkmate," Tarullo says.

While Romeo lost that chess match (he customarily does when he and Tarullo play on road trips and in between position meetings) the senior comes out on top most often in other aspects.

Romeo, entering his fourth season as SU's starting center, has carved out a unique niche among his teammates. He's the geek that helps you with homework, but also the laid-back buddy you fire up the PlayStation 2 with. Romeo's already earned his degree in engineering, and he's also the only married man on the team. On July 25, he wed his girlfriend of three and a half years, Lisa Costello.

Sure, a married and graduated college football is a little different. Then again, that's how Romeo's always been.

On his first college visit, he arrived on SU's campus with parties and girls his for the taking, knee-deep in a social smorgasbord.

Nick Romeo's partners on the excursion, Joe Donnelly and Christian Ferrara, liked what they saw. They'd hit some bars, familiarize themselves with Greek symbols – a Dixie-cup sample of college life for high school seniors.

Before the trio drenched themselves in campus life, Romeo envisioned his ideal night.

"Hey," Romeo said, turning to his cohorts, "you guys wanna play laser tag?"

"That's when I knew Nick was an interesting kid," Donnelly said. "People do things some ways. Nick does them different. He's out in left field."

Never was that more glaring than his wedding day.

Romeos and Costellos adorned Hendricks Chapel for a traditional Catholic wedding. Romeo prepared to walk down the aisle. All the late-night phone calls and three-hour drives had come to this, Nick and Lisa ready to join in the most sanctimonious of bonds.

Then, Romeo sat down and split his pants.

"I couldn't stop laughing," said Matt Tarullo, a Syracuse tackle and a groomsman for the service. "They just split down the middle, wide open."

Tarullo ripped off his suspenders and offered to switch slacks, but the 6-foot-5 Tarullo's pants sagged off Romeo. Eventually, Romeo swapped with backup lineman Tim Carignan, who stands a more manageable 6-foot-3 (Carignan has since transferred to New Hampshire).

"Nick didn't freak out or anything," Tarullo said. "He just stayed calm. I couldn't believe it."

Easter weekend of Romeo's freshman year, Costello, then a student at Moravian College in Pennsylvania, visited her best friend at Syracuse, who also knew Romeo. The trio met at Romeo's South Campus apartment, then went to another friend's place for the night.

Immediately, Romeo and Costello connected. They stayed up the whole night just talking.

"I guess it was kind of love at first sight," Romeo said.

From there, a relationship blossomed. Since they were both full-time students and lived three hours apart, they relied on phone calls. Costello attended all of Romeo's game she could during the season, and in the offseason Romeo drove to Moravian almost every weekend. They'd go on camping trips together, perhaps a movie if they felt less adventurous.

The cycle continued. An attachment grew.

"Last summer I took a look at our relationship," Romeo said. "I realized it was getting more serious."

So, this Winter Break, Costello visited Romeo in Florida, where he grew up, in Clearwater Beach. One morning, Romeo escaped to the beach carved "Will you marry me?" into the soft, white sand.

Awash in tension, he escorted Lisa to the beach later that day, making sure her eyes remained shut until she reached his message. With Lisa facing the words, Nick dropped down behind her. Lisa opened her eyes and read the proposal.

When Lisa turned around and opened her eyes, there Romeo was, on bended knee with a ring in his palm. His nerves melted away.

"She said yes," Romeo said with a straight face, "so that was a good thing."

Now, Costello and Romeo live together in Syracuse. Romeo's had to cut down on his favorite pastime (playing video games, either Halo or NCAA Football 2004, with his linemates) to spend time with Costello. It's a sacrifice he's happy to make.

"It helps relax me on and off the field," Romeo said. "There's always someone looking out for you. It's a good support base."

Not that his foundation isn't already rock solid. Romeo, who redshirted his first year at SU, graduated with a 3.5 grade-point average in engineering last spring. He's pursuing a graduate degree in engineering management. He appears just as excited talking about a possible future in engineering than a possible NFL future.

His high school coach, Tom Keeler, calls him, "an athletic nerd." He participated in the math club at East Lake High School in Tarpon Springs, Fla. and made the National Honors Society. He didn't drink and stayed away from drugs.

At East Lake, Romeo enrolled in an engineering program called Trysics- half trigonometry, half physics. The unique curriculum led him to compete in robotics tournaments in which a group of students constructed a robot to complete a random task. Then, the robot entered into a national competition.

"It's like BattleBots," Romeo said, "but less violent."

Romeo, who operated the robot in tournaments, competed three times, each time advancing to the national stage of the event. At his best showing, Romeo's team finished fifth out of 300 teams nationwide.

At each tournament, Romeo was the only football player in the room.

"He fits in well with anybody," Keeler said. "He could talk and joke around with football players, and he also could hang out with nerds."

High school teammates teased Romeo, but only playfully. They respected him too much for the barbs to really stick.

"He takes football as seriously as anyone I've ever seen," Donnelly said. "I keep telling him to relax out there, because he's going to explode."

"Off the field, I'm a totally different person," Romeo said. "On the field, it's business. Something has to be done, and you've got to get it done one way or another."

Committed to football, Romeo joined his high school's weight lifting team. As a freshman, he could bench press 290 pounds. By the time he graduated, he hadn't missed a single workout and he benched 475 - a Florida high school record. Now, he can press 555.

"It's extraordinary," SU offensive coordinator and line coach George DeLeone said. "He's not the tallest center in the world, but he's one of the strongest."

Being several inches shorter than most behemoths who play offensive line, Romeo needs that strength. Thanks to his weight room prowess and technical precision, he's a candidate for the Rimington Award, given to the nation's top center.

"He's got his life in order," DeLeone said. "He's going to be a success when football is over."

That's wrong. Nick Romeo is already a success.

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