Nick Foles walked into the basement of Barnes & Noble in Devon wearing a shirt with a biblical phrase: “Iron Sharpens Iron.”
I should have known it would be prophetic.
Only after our one-on-one interview had ended did I Google it, touched to realize just how profoundly that all-white caps phrase on Foles’ black, long-sleeve jersey had foreshadowed my 15-minute conversation with one of the most adored men in Philadelphia sports.
It’s an expression from Proverbs: “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.”
This daughter of a deli man, and that Eagles Super Bowl MVP, whose dad worked in restaurants, talked about family, tough times, tenderness, and hope.
I asked questions. He answered them. I dug deeper. He gave of himself, to a non-sports-crazed stranger, raw gold. I came away believing that this man and his unfiltered memoir, Believe It, are wondrous miracles of kindness and inspiration at a time when our country, with journalists being gunned down and schoolchildren being murdered en masse, so badly needs both.
“I’m not going to nerd out with a lot of questions about football,” I said, almost apologetically, as Foles sat alone at a table to sign a bunch of books before heading upstairs to greet 500 fans. “I want to ask you a bunch of personal questions.”
“Which is perfect,” Foles replied with a smile, the long fingers of his lanky, 6-foot-5, former basketball-playing frame swiping a Sharpie across page after page of stacks and stacks of books. “I need a different perspective right now.”
I wasn’t there because Foles had scorched the New England Patriots with a trick play called “Philly Special” and a win that showed some so-called smart-guy coaches how wrong they’d been to underestimate and cut him from prior teams.
I was there because there’s something more to this guy. Something at least as special as what he pulled off with the rest of that extraordinary football team.
To me, this was the man who held his baby daughter, Lily, beneath the confetti after the Eagles’ first-ever Super Bowl win earlier this year. I’d been hugging my own boy as Foles led the team to victory; now Foles was cradling his own child on the field as though absolutely nothing else mattered in the world.
In his book, this man cries. He prays. He gives up. Thinks he’s a failure. Wonders who he is apart from the NFL’s brutally data-driven valuations of his talent. Worries about his wife after she is diagnosed with a rare, at times debilitating, disease. Gets back onto the field. Again and again and again.
Fearless at just 29. Compassionate beyond measure.
“I couldn’t quite believe that you were putting all that out there: ‘I’m giving up. I’m leaving Michigan State. No. No. I’m back in now. I’m giving up, I’m leaving the Rams. No. No. I’m back in now,’ ” I told him. “I mean, there are people at your level of elite accomplishment who would never put that out there. Right?”
Nick: “One hundred percent.”
One thing that makes Foles such a marvel is how he was cut by the Eagles’ Chip Kelly, then shelved by the St. Louis Rams, then picked up by Andy Reid in Kansas City, only to return to Philly and win the Super Bowl as the backup to an injured Carson Wentz.
But he’s also a zen and smiley Luke Skywalker type. This isn’t how big-gun CEOs portray themselves, let alone tough guys in the NFL. That’s the “Huh?” factor.
He says he’s an open book, in part, because of a childhood buddy he played basketball and football with back in Austin, Texas. The kid became an Iron Man triathlete but had a cycling crash a few years ago. Seven or eight surgeries later, with part of his brain removed, he is wracked by seizures.
A year ago, he texted Foles.
“He said, ‘Nick, I’ve got to talk to you. I’m really having a tough time, really struggling,’ ” Foles remembered. “And I said, ‘Hey, I want to talk to you, let me just get through meetings, I’ll call you right away.’ So I talked to him and, he’s had a pretty rough go of it. I was listening to everything going on, as people should do – listen. And I said, ‘Let me share something with you.’ And I told him the story about how I almost stepped away from the game, the emotions I felt, what I felt when I was traded.”
And how Foles nearly walked away from football.
His friend was stunned.
“He’s like, ‘Nick, I’ve known you forever. You’ve always been the guy who’s been a leader … you’re the guy that all of us looked up to. You’re the guy that brought us to victory. You’re the guy that we thought never struggled. You never showed it,’ ” Foles said. “Knowing that I struggled just like him made everything that he was going through doable. It took all the weight off his shoulders and he felt better. And his life changed in that moment.”
“I thought, ‘Wow, why hadn’t I put that out there [before]?’ ”
One of his favorite Bible verses, he says, is 2 Corinthians, 12:9: “For my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
I chided Foles after he told me he has yet to eat a hoagie — and calls them subs. He says his diet won’t allow it; I say we have to fix that — and soon. My dad was a poor Greek immigrant who ran a deli just outside of Philly, I tell him, just as his own dad, who didn’t graduate from high school, was a self-made restaurant entrepreneur.
I asked about the part in the book where he remembers his father would come home from work at midnight smelling like food. And how the man never complained, even after losing his first business two years before Nick was born.
“My mom and dad both worked when I was little. … My mom, her mom died when she was 11, so she had a rough childhood as well. She put herself through college in three years at the University of Texas – while working a job to pay for it. … My dad was a great athlete growing up and he could never fulfill his dreams of playing professional baseball … So whenever I had an opportunity growing up to go do something like party, or go do crazy stuff, which would be fine and all that, I was instead training, working, going to the field late at night, trying to just excel, trying to get better,” he said. “Because I knew the sacrifice they had given me.”
As we wrapped up, Eagles fans greeted Foles with applause as we emerged from an elevator. They had stood in long lines amid stacks stuffed with books such as Edgar Allan Poe Collection or Tales From the Arabian Nights. Others waited, in Eagles jerseys, at the store cafe, seated beneath a mural of Carl Sandburg and Edith Wharton.
They were there not just for a gridiron genius. But for a man so special, he may just manage to civilize us all.
>>SEE MORE: Photos from Foles’ book tour stop in Devon.