10:33 PM CST, January 1, 2014
The Philadelphia Eagles will play host to the New Orleans Saints on Saturday night in the first round of the NFL playoffs. The game will feature a quarterback duel between No. 9 from Westlake High in Austin, Texas, and …
No. 9 from Westlake High in Austin, Texas.
Not only do they share the same number, but Drew Brees of the Saints and Nick Foles of the Eagles share the same high school alma mater. It's the Halley's Comet of NFL coincidences, with the last such occurrence being in 1974, when Pittsburgh played Buffalo in a first-round game showcasing the Steelers' Terry Bradshaw and the quarterback who succeeded him at Woodlawn High in Shreveport, La., Joe Ferguson of the Bills.
Foles and Brees never competed for the same job. At 34, Brees is 10 years older, but he did come back to his high school when his team was honored on the 10th anniversary of its most recent state championship season. That halftime celebration was in 2006, when Foles was the starting quarterback for Westlake.
"Drew was playing a game that weekend at either Buffalo or New England, but he flew in for the first half and halftime ceremony," recalled Derek Long, who was Westlake's defensive coordinator when Brees was quarterback and Foles' head coach. "[The championship team] was there on the track, and I know that Nick and everybody else on the team probably spent more time looking at Drew than they did watching the game. Fortunately, we won."
Brees and Foles won a lot at Westlake. Brees led the team to a 13-0 record as a junior before suffering a season-ending knee injury, then a 16-0 record and championship as a senior.
Foles, too, led the team to the state championship game, in which it lost. By Long's recollection, Foles threw 280 passes with only four interceptions as a senior.
"They make good decisions," Long said. "When they're in the pocket, they feel that pressure and they can still find the receivers downfield. They don't throw a whole lot of bad passes. They don't make a whole lot of bad decisions. That's another similarity with those two guys."
That's reflected in the statistics this season. Brees finished the regular season with 39 touchdowns, 12 interceptions, and 5,162 yards, second only to Peyton Manning's 5,477.
Foles, who at 6 feet 5 is considerably bigger than the 6-foot Brees, had 27 touchdowns, only two interceptions, and a league-leading passer rating of 119.2.
"Those are pretty impressive numbers, especially for a guy who's in his first year as a starter," Brees told reporters of Foles. "I'm very happy for his success. Not just the fact that we're from the same high school and I kind of know the road he's traveled. But he seems like a tremendous young man. I don't know him that well. … You can see just by the way he plays he's mature beyond his years."
The Eagles have won eight of 10 games with Foles starting and are in the playoffs for the first time in three years, successfully digging their way out of a 3-5 start.
"It goes back to believing in each other," Foles said. "Believing what we're doing and staying the course. And that's the big thing. You don't want to implode in those situations."
As for his jersey, it might be that Foles wears No. 9 simply because that was a number that was available. He grew up idolizing John Elway, and wore Elway's No. 7 in high school. Michael Vick has that number with the Eagles.
Brees wore No. 15 in high school and at Purdue, but switched to 9 in the NFL, first with San Diego, and then New Orleans. He said he made the change in honor of Hall of Fame baseball player Ted Williams.
The only current NFL player who wore No. 9 at Westlake and still wears it is Baltimore kicker Justin Tucker, who made six field goals in a victory at Detroit last month, including one from 61 yards at the end to clinch an 18-16 victory.
"I was in my reclining chair for that," Long said. "But when he made it, I was probably on the ceiling."
Long figures he'll be similarly spring-loaded Saturday night. Since retiring in 2009, he has had more time to watch NFL football, and this game obviously holds special meaning.
"I'll have my best friend, my wife, here," he said. "She's been through a lot of football seasons. So I'm sure we'll holler and scream. If there isn't anybody else over here, the neighbors will probably think there is."
His only lament about this first-round matchup?
"I wish it had been in the Super Bowl," he said. "Because they're such great guys, such outstanding young men who have done everything right. You hate to see one of them not continue on after this weekend.
"I guess the perfect scenario would be they both throw seven touchdown passes."
Make it nine.
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