ORLANDO, Fla. – Nick Foles has surprised pretty much everyone this season.
“He killed us!” Minnesota Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes said after Pro Bowl practice here on Wednesday. “He was airing it out. He was clutch, accurate in his throws, didn’t make too many mistakes. Playing great.”
Rhodes said the quarterback the Vikings saw in person last Sunday in the NFC title game was not the quarterback they saw on tape.
“When we studied him on film, he was throwing a lot of checkdowns, short routes,” he said. “Trying to get in the flow of the game. When he was playing against us it seemed like he was already in the flow. He had a lot of confidence. He was just going deep.”
This is the story of Foles’ career arc, and that story starts with what is now a historic prep program. Foles will be the second QB product of Austin’s (Texas) Westlake High School to start in the Super Bowl. The other is Drew Brees. Together, Foles and Brees are the second Super Bowl quarterback duo from the same high school. The first, of course, is the Manning brothers.
“I like that,” Brees said with a grin Wednesday. “We’re proud of that. We’re very proud of that.”
It gets more surprising: of all the stud passers to come out of Texas, only these two have earned a chance to start on the game’s biggest stage. And it’s not like either man was a top recruit; Foles went to Michigan State (followed by Arizona) and Brees went to Purdue.
One man coached both at Westlake: Derek Long was the defensive coordinator when Brees was in school, and the head coach when Foles broke Brees’ passing records. Asked by phone this week what they had in common, Long said this:
“They’re both slow,” he said laughing. “Drew will probably come after me. The offensive coordinator wouldn’t let him run the ball.”
There is some truth there. Neither Brees nor Foles looked like speed demons in high school, so they relied on their eyes and minds (and arms) to win. Foles excelled at basketball at Westlake, but he has never been flashy.
“They never take the accolades on themselves,” Long said. “They will always say the offensive line did a great job. That’s a leadership style people can really relate to. If I know it’s not all about him, I’m going to play harder. I think those teammates played harder.”
Westlake coaches would hand out helmet stickers for good plays through the season, and Foles promptly passed his stickers on to blockers. By the end of a season, the team would show up for a playoff game with tons of helmet stickers, and Foles had none.
“It doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it’s huge,” Long said, “Those offensive linemen would have walked through fire for him.
The receivers, too. There’s a story from Foles’ high school days in the Austin-American Statesman where Foles is quoted as saying, “I could throw the ball with my eyes closed, and they’d catch it.”
Foles played most of his senior season with a torn rotator cuff. He led his teammates to the state title game anyway.
The Super Bowl’s Westlake connection does not end with Foles. One of his teammates in high school was kicker Justin Tucker, who has a ring with the Baltimore Ravens.
Westlake’s football program began in 1969. Long said the team’s nickname, the Chaparrals, is from the roadrunners that dot the area among the hills and cedar trees. A lot has changed over the decades, as Austin has sprawled outward and a prep sports power has grown. In fact, nearby Lake Travis has produced this year’s Heisman Trophy winner, Baker Mayfield.
And now Foles’ records belong to Sam Ehlinger, who just finished his first season at the University of Texas. The momentum seems to only build.
“Those third and fourth graders running around in the stands? They want to grow up and be like that [quarterback],” said Long, who is now retired.
Foles and Brees are both walking motivational messages for those kids. Brees was never the lantern-jawed giant that most scouts want. He was dismissed in some circles as a product of Joe Tiller’s “basketball on grass” offense at Purdue, then dismissed in other circles after a career-threatening shoulder injury in San Diego. Foles’ road has been even more winding. He was traded by the Eagles, then released by the Rams, then discarded by the Chiefs, and now he’s starting in Philadelphia only because Carson Wentz got hurt.
“He was a Pro Bowl-caliber player back in Philly,” Brees said, “and then kinda journeyed back around. I was really impressed [at how he played Sunday].”
Long worried about Foles during his time with the Rams, saying it was “pretty obvious he wasn’t a good fit.”
Now he commands an offense that relies on the RPO – the read-pass-option – that wasn’t even around when he played at Westlake. Some systems evolve to match the passer; for Foles it’s the opposite.
“He’s kind of had a rough road,” Long said, “and for him to have this opportunity again, it’s just tremendous. Says a lot about him working his way through his adversity.”
Now the adversity lies in trying to beat him. When asked how the New England Patriots should game plan against Foles, Rhodes laughed.
“I can’t tell you anything,” he said, “because as you can see, they destroyed us.”
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