BRADENTON, Fla. — Jimmy Garpopolo’s history with Sean Payton traces, of course, to their roots as Eastern Illinois quarterbacks.
“I met him, he probably doesn’t remember it, but my freshman year. He came back and got his number retired at Eastern,” Garoppolo recalled.
Has Garoppolo’s No. 10 jersey hasn’t gotten the same treatment at their alma mater?
“No. No. I think I’ve got to do a little more, first. Ha!” Garoppolo said.
Nothing is more pressing for Garoppolo than leading the 49ers (10-2) to a win Sunday in New Orleans against the Payton-coached Saints (10-2).
Garoppolo has never played in the Superdome. He’s been there as a backup with the New England Patriots – “I’ve heard the loudness, and it’s incredible” – and he’s faced the Saints in less-loud joint practices at training camps.
“I was familiar with his success at Eastern,” Payton said on a media conference call. “I really followed his senior year, partly because it was an evaluation on our part, and then also just following him and the team’s success.
“We trained with the Patriots three or four times and I had a chance to spend time and visit with him.”
Sunday’s reunion comes with massive ramifications. The NFC’s No. 1 playoff seed could be at stake. Or, if the 49ers lose for the third time in five games, they could be ticketed toward a potential wild-card berth and even more frequent-flyer miles.
The 49ers are coming off a 20-17, walk-off loss at Baltimore. It was only the fourth loss in Garoppolo’s 20 starts for the 49ers since his Halloween 2017 trade from the Patriots.
“He’s playing very well. He’s playing extremely well,” Payton said. “He’s someone who’s extremely accurate. The ball gets out of his hands quick. He’s athletic in the pocket where he can move and climb and make off-balance throws.
“The one thing you look for in that position is, ‘Can he win?’ And clearly he’s done that at the college level and he’s doing that now at the NFL level.”
Garoppolo is making sure the Superdome’s decibel level doesn’t hinder the 49ers. An emphasis in practice this week – at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. – is “clean communication” between he and coach Kyle Shanahan, which can lead to smooth play calls in the huddle.
“We got a good test last week and it will help us out this week,” Garoppolo said.
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Garoppolo has passed enough tests that, even though his Eastern Illinois number isn’t retired like Payton’s, the campus bookstore does sell Garoppolo’s No. 10 jersey.
Another former Eastern Illinois quarterback: Shanahan’s father, Mike, who tutored Garoppolo last season after the 49ers’ franchise QB sustained a season-ending knee injury in Week 3.
Needless to say, Garoppolo knows Mike Shanahan better than Payton, although they do share the same agent.
“We’ve met a couple times in the league. Great guy,” Garoppolo added. “Awesome representation of Eastern Illinois.”
Both represent well inside the Panthers’ record book. Payton threw for the most yards in a game (509 in 1989 vs. Saginaw Valley), Garoppolo threw the most touchdowns in a game (seven in 2013 vs. Illinois State), and Garoppolo amassed the most career passing yards (13,156) while Payton was next (10,655) and Tony Romo third (8,212).