To understand how a single high school in an affluent community of Austin, Texas, could produce -- a decade apart -- the two quarterbacks who face off Saturday night in the playoffs, it might help to know the way in which this extraordinary intersection of arms is being received back home.
"Interestingly enough, I don't think anybody is shocked, really," said Darren Allman, head coach of the Westlake Chaparrals.
Maybe not, but when Drew Brees' New Orleans Saints visit Nick Foles' Philadelphia Eagles, it will mark what is believed to be just the second time in NFL history that two quarterbacks who attended the same high school will oppose each other in a playoff game. (Terry Bradshaw and Joe Ferguson, progeny of the same high school in Shreveport, La., did so in a 1974 postseason bout between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Buffalo Bills.) So even by the legendarily large standards of Texas high school football -- where some schools have facilities so posh that the Dallas Cowboys leave their own training site to use them in bad weather, where fan chat rooms and blogs track the movement of high school coaches across the state -- this is a rarity, something to be celebrated and gawked over and maybe held up as an example of the school's achievement.
"It's very unusual to have a quarterback starting in the NFL, much less to have two of them at the same time, much less playing in the playoffs," said Randy Allen, the coach at Highland Park High School in Dallas and one of Texas' most successful high school coaches. "That's hard to believe."
Not, it seems, at the school of focus. Westlake, which has a student population of about 2,600 and is ranked by several magazines as among the best in the country, is nestled in an area where many former University of Texas players have settled into adulthood, creating a high-grade DNA pipeline of athletic talent into a school that already has a relentless drive for achievement, according to another alum -- Justin Tucker, the Baltimore Ravens kicker.
"There is definitely something about how competitive everybody seems to be in that whole school system," Tucker said. "I graduated with over 600 kids in my class. Getting that top 10 percent, you had to be grinding it out, with a ridiculous AP course load, all the extracurriculars in the world. It seems like everybody is competing there to build the greatest résumé to go into their post-high school education."
It is a dream environment for a football coach, Allman says, because the school is rife with intelligent kids possessing some athletic ability -- and with parents who understand how academic and athletic success can be interwoven. The school has had a good history with quarterbacks -- Tanner Price, another Westlake graduate, just completed a fine college career as a four-year starter at Wake Forest -- and Tucker estimates that 10,000 to 15,000 people attend their games. The Westlake stadium has a Jumbotron.
Learning to balance it all -- the relative celebrity and pressure with a heavy class load, the need to be part of something bigger than oneself -- is a lesson Tucker says he gleaned from playing football at a place like Westlake.
Allman did not coach Brees or Foles at Westlake -- Allman played high school ball at fabled Odessa Permian and returned to coach there; when he took the Westlake job, Foles had already left -- but on the wall of his office is a photo of a 12-year-old Brees on Allman's shoulder. As a college freshman, Allman took a job as a counselor at a camp that Brees happened to attend. Brees was one of the six boys assigned to Allman's cabin for six weeks.
"Drew would wake me up before any of the other campers got up, we would get up and go to the basketball courts, and we would play '21' basketball games until it was time for everybody else to wake up," Allman said. "He was pretty hard to beat. I was a college football player, and I had to work pretty hard. It's a true test of how competitive he was, even when he was 12."
Nothing changed much at Westlake, where Brees lettered in baseball and basketball but became a football star, setting nearly every significant passing record while leading his team to a 16-0 mark and a state championship. Texas, where Brees had hoped to go, did not offer him a scholarship because of his height, and so Brees went on to stardom at Purdue instead. Foles would come along 10 years later, hearing the legend of Brees, and shattering, one by one, Brees' records. Brees said this week that he watched from a distance and followed Foles' career and those of others who attended Westlake, but despite their shared lineage, the two did not meet until last year, when the Saints and Eagles played.
"I've always watched him from afar," Foles said earlier this week. "He's a great player and one of the best to ever play the game at the position. He's a guy I've watched and learned from and he's done a lot of great things throughout his career, on and off the field, and he's a great role model for fellow players, kids and adults."
Foles and Tucker, though, were on the same team. And during Foles' senior season, the team was galvanized when one of their offensive linemen, a close friend to Foles and Tucker, collapsed on the sideline during the game and stopped breathing. The boy's parents, both doctors, raced down, and Tucker's father, a cardiologist, joined them. Somebody found a defibrillator and the player was resuscitated. He never played football again, but the team rallied around his scare to make a run to the state championship game.
When Brees and Foles return to Austin, they usually head straight to the weight room to work out amidst the current high schoolers. Last summer, just before Foles left to head back to Philadelphia for training camp, he visited his family for several days. One day, he spent three hours in the Westlake weight room, and then went to the field to throw with some of the current Westlake players. It was a thrill for them, Allman said, but when Brees and Foles are there, they surely walk down a hallway near the coaches' offices and are reminded, again, that their incredible fortune is not seen as terribly unusual here -- and was, perhaps, expected all along. In those offices, covering the walls, are 6-by-8 framed photos of every former Westlake player who went on to college and had a college football photo. There are framed magazine covers.
But out in the hallway, there is a series of much larger team photos. There is one from 2006, Foles' senior season, when his friend nearly died on the sideline. Tucker said that watching Foles that season convinced him that his teammate was one of the most impressive quarterbacks he'd ever seen -- able to break tackles and move around, while also being calm and cool during the game's tensest moments. Allman's Odessa team lost in the semifinal round that season, but he had scouted Foles by then and saw the same thing.
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And there's another notable photo in that hallway, taken 10 years prior: the shot of Brees' senior-season team. Westlake went 28-0-1 with Brees as a two-year starter, and the 1996 installment led the entire state with an average of 465 yards per game. That team won Westlake's only state title. And just a few days before Brees and Foles face off on a much bigger stage, for -- theoretically -- a much more important prize, the Saints signal-caller was asked if he knew that his Eagles counterpart had broken his high-school records. Brees' reply reveals just how closely he's followed Foles and how much Westlake still resonates.
"Yeah, he went to the state championship, but lost," Brees said. "We had a great high-school program. I know they went to at least three or four state championships after my class left. They haven't won another one, though. We have the only state championship victory. He has done great things, great things."