Nick Foles played tag with his friends on Friday nights in 1996 while Drew Brees starred for Westlake High School, youthful ignorance leaving the 7-year-old Foles oblivious to the budding greatness at quarterback for his local high school in Austin, Texas.
Foles knew all about Brees 10 years later, when Foles was a high school senior starring on the same field that Brees had graced.
Brees, who had become a star quarterback for the New Orleans Saints, returned to Austin for a 10-year anniversary ceremony of his championship team. Foles was the starting quarterback. He and his classmates could gawk at Brees, who would soon reach the pinnacle of the sport.
Foles and Brees first started against each other in a January 2014 postseason game. Foles had become one of the NFL’s big stories, his remarkable 27-touchdown, two-interception campaign in 2013 earning him an invitation to the Pro Bowl and his first taste of NFL stardom.
Even then, the prevailing emotion from Foles toward Brees seemed to be one of reverence. The shaggy-haired Foles wore No. 9 for the Eagles because it was Brees’ number in the NFL.
“Playing against him then, I was a younger player,” Foles said. “It’s special getting a chance to play against someone you looked up to growing up. I still look up to him. I think he does things right. A lot’s happened since then. Life’s happened. Definitely a different player. That was a learning experience for me.”
On Sunday, Foles and Brees will play against each other in the postseason for the second time, two Chaparrals trying to lead their teams to the NFC championship game. But Foles goes into the game far more credentialed this time, joining Brees in the exclusive fraternity of Super Bowl MVPs.
Foles now has the NFL’s best passer rating in postseason history — better even than that of Brees, who ranks No. 5. He is not in the same all-time class as Brees — the place cards there have names like Manning, Brady, Favre, Marino — but Foles now carries his own gravitas. If he was just entering the same club as Brees five years ago, then he has at least now joined the same private room.
“Just getting to know him through the years, we were at the Pro Bowl together, or just running into him at different things and just getting to know him as a person, that changes things,’ Foles said. “You can look up to someone and maybe they’re a celebrity. But then you get to know them as a person and you realize they’re just people. We’re all just people.”
Derek Long was the defensive coordinator when Brees played for Westlake before he was Foles’ head coach. Even then, Long said he saw “a lot of Drew in Nick,” notwithstanding the size difference — Foles is 6-foot-6, Brees 6-foot-0.
Long might not have been able to foretell Super Bowl MVP status, but when he reviewed old game film before the Super Bowl last season, he spotted a pass Foles made for Westlake that was a carbon copy of a touchdown pass along the sideline placed between defenders in the NFC championship game.
What stood out, maybe more than any of the on-field ability that Long cited, such as pocket presence and finding open receivers, was the “it factor” that both players had with their teammates and an understanding of how important the team dynamic is in football.
“When you coach 32 years, you get all types of personalities at quarterback,” Long said by telephone this past week.
“We’ve had quarterbacks that were really rah-rah-rah and really vocal in the huddle. Nick was one that was always real quiet. He’d throw a touchdown pass and he’d jog off the field. But his calmness, his composure, he always wanted to stay in the game. And the players respond to it. He comes across as being in control, whether things are going good or bad.”
When reporters went to Westlake to interview players during Foles’ prep career, Foles would suggest teammates worthy of the spotlight instead. Foles was shy, Long said, but the “reality is he wanted his teammates to get the exposure.”
Westlake awarded players helmet stickers for hitting certain statistical achievements. It would be more difficult for offensive linemen to accumulate stickers, though, given the nature of the position. Foles would go to his locker and see stickers waiting for him after another big performance. He brought the stickers to the offensive linemen to wear instead.
“For our young men, that was like a Rolex watch,” Long said. “He didn’t care if he had stickers on his helmet or not. It kind of shows his humbleness and willingness to reach out to his teammates.”
If this sounds like someone who plays for New Orleans, it might not be by accident. When Brees set the NFL’s all-time record for passing yards earlier this season, he sent commemorative footballs to 174 teammates and coaches throughout his career, telling reporters he wanted to “take care of those who take care of me.”
Brees, by the way, had the passing record at Westlake. It was broken by Foles. It has since been surpassed by Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger, who played this month in the Sugar Bowl on the Superdome turf, where Foles and Brees will play Sunday.
“It’s something in that Colorado River water, I guess,” Brees told reporters this past week.
Brees was the NFL standout in 2007 when he returned for the reunion, but he still took notice of the star quarterback at his alma mater. That was the beginning of the relationship between the two passers. In fact, it was Brees who helped connect Foles with renowned orthopedic surgeon James Andrews to repair a shoulder injury in high school.
“He's always been a pretty calm, cool customer,” Brees said. “You look obviously at what he was able to accomplish last year and certainly what he's been able to accomplish this year during the latter part of the season. He makes plays and I think he's got a lot of confidence in himself. … I stay in touch with him a little bit and have been happy for his success. He's obviously worked very hard for it.”
Foles looked up to Brees while trying to make a name for himself in the NFL. He now has that name, but Foles still admires Brees.
Foles watches Brees film and sees Brees “get better and better and better.” Brees’ 115.7 passer rating this season was the best of his 18-yard career. But it’s not necessarily the 74,437 yards or 520 touchdown passes that Foles appreciates the most — even though Foles calls Brees “one of the best quarterbacks ever.”
“The thing that’s always impressed me is who he is as a person and what he represents and how he impacts a community,” Foles said. “How he’s impacted the city of New Orleans and made it his home. That’s more impressive than anything he’s done on the field. He’s a great role model for everyone.”
Back in Austin, that description could fit both quarterbacks. The Eagles-Saints game will be appointment viewing in the Westlake community, where Long said both quarterbacks are "held in equal esteem.” Long said teenagers in Westlake now view Foles the way Foles once viewed Brees, especially after the Super Bowl “really brought out his journey.”
Foles’ story showed that his life “wasn’t all roses,” humanizing the star quarterback who always had the physical gifts to excel.
“It’s grown quite a bit,” Long said of Foles’ profile back home. “Winning the Super Bowl, and the way he performed, his status has definitely been elevated. And having Drew from the community and Nick, the community takes a lot of pride having two quarterbacks from the same high school that have won Super Bowls, won Super Bowl MVPs. He’s held in high regard — probably as high as he’s held in Philadelphia.”
That’s lofty competition. After all, there’s a statue of Foles outside Lincoln Financial Field. He helped answer the prayers of a starving fan base. He has become one of Philadelphia’s most iconic athletes.
But back home, they saw it from the start. The kid playing tag when Brees set records and admired Brees from afar then broke Brees’ records. And now he’ll play on the same field as Brees in the playoffs — again — with a career burgeoning since the last meeting.