SPORTS
05/02/2018 07:37 am ET Updated May 02, 2018

How Nick Foles Got Back Up

The Super Bowl MVP chats with a childhood friend about his unusual journey from NFL backup to star to backup again.

PHILADELPHIA ― Before he was the 2018 Super Bowl MVP and a civic hero, quarterback Nick Foles was a gentle, nurturing kid with white-blond hair and giant hands. That’s how I remember him, at least. Nick and I were childhood friends. His size always made him seem older and more imposing than he was. He was quiet and liked to play Nintendo.

Our families spent holidays together and visited each other between Texas and Louisiana. Nick’s dad, Larry, had been the manager of a Baton Rouge restaurant where my dad bartended in the late ’70s. When Nick was 8, my dad took him and my brother duck hunting in Grand Chenier, Louisiana, and Nick was more interested in caring for the injured ducks in the blind after they’d been shot than in hunting them. At one point he got upset because some of the ducks seemed not quite dead. He wanted to end their suffering. So he tried to shoot one on the floor with his BB gun, but he missed, and the BB ricocheted and nailed my dad in the forehead.

The Nick Foles who greeted me on Monday in a nondescript office at the Eagles’ Philadelphia training facility was not quite the Nick Foles I knew as a kid. I hadn’t seen him in 20 years. He is 6 feet, 6 inches now and in all ways a bona fide phenomenon. Grown colleagues of mine own shirts with his name on them. Men across Philadelphia have his face tattooed on their bodies.

We spoke for an hour about football and fame and faith, about being an apolitical quarterback in a politically charged moment for the NFL, and about his near retirement two years ago and his unusual journey since then, from backup to star to backup again. 

Nick! You’re so much bigger than the last time I saw you. I have a picture of you and my brother arm wrestling when you were children.

Eagles PR guy, on his way out of the room: I bet your brother can’t beat him in arm wrestling now.

Nick: Taylor? He and I are getting older now, so we’d probably just have a beer and call it a day.

I thought you didn’t drink.

I’ll drink sometimes, usually hard dry cider. I’ve noticed, even though I’m 29, with all the hits and everything, my body just does not feel good when I drink alcohol. We have so much to do throughout the day, and when I’m healthier and on it, I can get more done and still be a dad and a husband.

Nick Foles (far left) arm wrestling my brother, Taylor, in the '90s. 
Laura Bassett
Nick Foles (far left) arm wrestling my brother, Taylor, in the '90s. 

Do you have a vice? Do you ever just go nuts and eat a bag of Hot Cheetos?

I had two autograph signings the last two days for like eight hours, and I didn’t eat yesterday, so I got home and I was starving. And we eat gluten free ― my wife got real sick four years ago, so we’ve had to learn, and it helps me too with inflammation. But I got home and crushed a bag of chips. They were the healthiest chips you can get, made with coconut oil and stuff like that, but I’ll definitely have some gluten-free pizza.

So you don’t have a vice.

[Laughs]

What’s it like to suddenly be famous and see grown men around Philadelphia wearing shirts with your name on it and having tattoos of your face on their bodies?

It’s crazy because when I was here the first time around, we broke a lot of records, I got a lot of notoriety for that here. Philly just loves the Eagles. But when I came back after everything that happened in my career in St. Louis and being a backup in [Kansas City], I wasn’t as noticeable. I could go to the grocery store, and people would recognize me, but it wasn’t a big deal. Now I go anywhere in the nation and it’s a big deal.

Tori [his wife] and I were just in Hawaii on a pretty secluded island, and even there the locals knew who I was. A guy recognized me while I was snorkeling — it was crazy. People are always very nice. But I would never sit here and say you just get used to it — I don’t know if anyone’s ever supposed to be used to it.

What’s the weirdest fan encounter you’ve had?

The tattoo things are pretty crazy. I met a guy at a signing the other day — his whole back was me with a trophy on the “Rocky” steps.

Wow. Was it a good tat? What did you say?

I mean, it was his whole back. Forever. There’s not much you can say. I was like, “That’s cool, man.” That’s there forever.

Do you find Eagles fans to be different than fans of other franchises?

Yes. The thing I’ve always admired about Eagles fans is that it’s not fans; it’s family. It’s generational. I was at a signing yesterday and a lady started crying. She said, “I got to watch the game with my 90-year-old mother, and it was the greatest moment of her life, watching the Super Bowl.” Another woman said she was trying to have kids and couldn’t get pregnant, and after the Super Bowl she got pregnant. The doctor said something shifted in her body that allowed her to be pregnant. Stuff like that you hear, and you realize this isn’t just a game for people here.

So there are people in Philadelphia that credit you with their fertility.

This team. Yes.

I saw on Instagram that you have a “Rocky” trophy in your locker.

Yeah, actually the guy who made the real “Rocky” statue [in Philadelphia] sent me that after the Super Bowl.

It’s funny that you saw that on Instagram. I’ve never been great at social media. With what Tori and I want to do, with helping the community and maybe starting a foundation, it’s important to expand that stuff. But I don’t want it to be a highlight reel of me, I want it to be real. My wife gets sick, Lily [his 10-month-old daughter] hit her head the other day — stuff goes on. Though beautiful pictures of beaches are wonderful, I want to post things that inspire me — whether it’s a song or something I read. I’m just trying to home in on using the platform to help people. Because football — though this is awesome, and it’s great to be in the NFL — I knew a long time ago this wasn’t where my heart would be. But now because of this, I can help a lot of people through other avenues. I can go and speak, and people want to see me.

You’ve said that you want to be a youth pastor after the NFL, right?

The media sort of ran with that. People were like, “Oh, you want to be a pastor! God bless you!” When I was in Kansas City and having a tough time in my career, I decided to go to seminary to continue my spiritual growth. And the youth pastor thing — we have a great local church at home, and I always thought it would be cool to volunteer at the church. I could teach some sermons in the high school, but it’s more just to be one-on-one and help those kids at that point in their life.

There are so many people on your team from different backgrounds, different religions, different political views. Do you find yourself being a spiritual leader on the team or more kind of leaving everyone alone?

I think everyone knows I’m a Christian. But I just really want to show love to my teammates and show I genuinely care about them and that I’m not trying to be better than anyone.

When I’m on a team, it’s all about relationships and just getting to know each other. If you ask me about [University of] Arizona, I probably won’t remember a lot of games, but I’ll remember the locker room. I’ll remember working hard with those guys and that friendship. The NFL’s a little different because guys are in and out all the time, but when I step in the building, I just want to get to know people. I’ll go in the equipment room and chat. When you actually love each other and you go into a game, it’s easier to play. When adversity hits, like in the fourth quarter and stuff goes bad, no one freaks out because you’re like, eh, I got it. We all care for each other. We know we can play. Every team says they’re like family, but this team really is more than any other that I’ve seen. That’s why I believe we won the Super Bowl — because of the relationships in the locker room. That’s the coolest part of the game.

The number one thing I tell kids when I go speak is, if you’re doing this for money, fame, girls, boys, cars, whatever, you’re going to be very empty at the end of it. I can tell you that because I’m who you want to be if you want to be an athlete. I’m a professional athlete. And there’s nothing in there. The newest car’s not going to be good enough. For me it’s my relationship with Christ and my family, that’s what it’s all about.

 

A sign held up during the Eagles' Super Bowl victory parade on Feb. 8 in Philadelphia.
Patrick Smith via Getty Images
A sign held up during the Eagles' Super Bowl victory parade on Feb. 8 in Philadelphia.

Do you and your teammates joke around and make fun of each other? Do they have any nicknames for you?  

Everyone knows I’m sort of goofy. Some guys are really serious when they play. I’m not. In practice, when I’m throwing with receivers, I’ll work on some no-look throws — I’ll look left and throw right. No one will ever do that in a game, but to me it’s just sort of fun, and there might be a day I do do it and everyone’s like, “HOW DID YOU DO THAT?” It’s just off-the-wall stuff. We played ultimate frisbee the other day, and I got to be a kid and run around like crazy. Even in games, I try to keep things humorous. If I throw a really bad ball or a long out-of-bounds ball, I’ll say: “Oh wow, that was really good, Nick. Wow.” But I won’t be down on myself, I’ll sort of laugh.

An example is, during the Super Bowl I threw a touchdown to Corey Clement, our running back, that was between three defenders, and everything happened so fast. But I went through my reads, and I went to throw to Corey and in my head was like, This looks horrible. This is not how we drew it up. I’m not throwing it. What do I do? And all of a sudden the safety slipped a little bit, a tiny bit, and I was like, Oh I got this. And I threw it, but that’s what went through my head in a split second. And it landed between three guys and he caught it. 

I have to touch on Colin Kaepernick and The New York Times story about the owners’ meeting, the talk about going to the White House or not going to the White House. There’s obviously a super politically charged environment in the NFL right now. Some of your teammates have been pretty outspoken about politics, but you’ve stayed out of the fray. Do you think it’s possible to remain apolitical as a star quarterback in the NFL?

I just don’t know a lot about politics, it’s something that I just don’t have a great knowledge in, so I just listen and observe. That’s really it. If I spoke about it, I wouldn’t have a lot of knowledge in it. The character of people, the heart of people, that’s where my focus is. When it comes to political issues, I look at things differently. It’s not necessarily for me to speak. I might have opinions, but I like to listen in those situations, because a lot of times you can say something, but you’re not going to be right either way. So it’s pointless.

So you’re staying out of it.

[Laughs] So far.

How do you go from Super Bowl MVP to being a backup again? How do you flip that switch emotionally?

Well, it’s never been done, ever in the NFL, for a Super Bowl MVP to be a backup quarterback. I thought I might have been traded a month ago, because I saw everything in the news, and we’re aware of that because that’s our life. We just moved into a great home here last off season, we have a ten-and-a-half month old, a great place. And if you’re going to be traded, you have to be on your toes. But now that we restructured our deal, and we’re here for at least another year, it’s honestly a great opportunity to impact a lot of people, because a lot of people are gonna look at me and say, “Alright, let’s see how he really responds. Let’s see how he really acts. Let’s see who he really is.”

And pride does seep in, you know. You see a Super Bowl ad and you’re like, wow, that’s crazy! And you’d love the opportunity to start. But you have to reel back in. I think everyone deals with that in some sort of fashion. You know, it’s humbling. I have to humble myself daily to come in here and be a backup quarterback, sit in meetings, and I’m not the starter, though two months ago we were on stage holding the Lombardi Trophy. But it’s good for me. I’m learning a lot about myself and growing in ways I never could imagine. Everyone else looks at it like, “Oh, you should be starting, you should be getting paid this,” and it gets in your head a little bit, and then you have to get it out. Because it doesn’t matter. You really have to just focus on now and just being grateful. It goes back to perspective, like my family — seeing my daughter and my wife. We’re happy. We have great people here. Just sort of enjoying the moment, because eventually football will be over. 

What was it like going up against Tom Brady after having been a backup in the same season? How did you not crack under the pressure? Were you nervous?

I didn’t know how my body was going to respond, because it’s such a big stage. You know how you’re going to prepare, but you never know until you step on that field how it’s going to happen. Because you always prepare to succeed, but guys have bad games. My focus was staying in the moment, staying present. It’s easy to look at the big picture and freak out, but we say, “Be where your feet are.” Like right now, I’m present, I’m talking to you. That’s where I am. My mind isn’t wandering. And with that it sort of clears the clutter in your mind. Every day I get up, make coffee, read scripture. I was journaling every day during that time, because there were so many emotions I was dealing with, for leaving the team and being in that situation.

So I felt good going into the game, but I remember sitting there for the national anthem, and I was taking everything in. And I knew the first play of the game was a pass, and on that play I’d sort of get an idea of how my body’s doing, how my heart’s doing, how my mind — like, is everything calm? Then I dropped back, our first read was covered and did a hard reset all the way across the field and threw it to Nelson Agholor for a completion, and I remember right then I thought, I feel really really good. It was probably the most relaxed I’ve ever played in a game, was in the Super Bowl, because I was just very present. The stage didn’t get too big.

And I really believe the reason I was so calm is because I have great teammates and that they’re very talented and work hard and do what they’re supposed to do. Not once this year did the offense get mad when the defense played bad, or the defense get mad when the offense played bad. That showed our team we always had each other’s backs.

Is that different from other teams you’ve been on?

Yeah. I’ve been on teams, I don’t want to name them, but the attention to detail wasn’t great. Schematically, we weren’t great. Great guys, good people, but we didn’t have a strong identity, and going into the games was very stressful, very tough. And I remember having a lot of trouble — like I’ve always thrown for 300-400 yards a game since I was in high school, and it was this one year of my life playing the sport where we could barely get over 150 in a game, where I was used to throwing for that in a quarter. And it was very tough. But there’s a lot of growth that happened that year.

I talk a lot to younger guys, and money can blind them. I mean, when you play, you should get paid for what you do. But make sure you go somewhere with a good system, good coaches. The grass isn’t always greener on the other side. It’s miserable if you get on a team and you aren’t playing well and everyone turns against each other. And I’ve experienced that. I thought I was going to retire two years ago. That was real. That was 100 percent. I was done.

It is because you lost faith in yourself and thought you weren’t good anymore?

I knew I could still play ― they knew I could still play at an extremely high level. I just did not like football. I couldn’t touch a football. Someone would throw me a football, and I would just drop it. I’d had enough, I’d lost the joy. I can’t do something without my heart. I think something inside me was going on, there was so much fear to play again. It wasn’t that I didn’t think I could play, I just had a horrible experience and it just blinded me. But I knew there would be more growth in playing than in stepping away.

And I knew I brought so much joy to my dad and my father-in-law and my family and the people watching, and [the idea of taking that away from them] hurt. They’ll watch me play the game, and it provides so much happiness and escape. My dad has rewatched the Super Bowl probably a hundred times. My father-in-law just watched it again last night.

Nick Foles celebrates with daughter Lily after the Philadelphia Eagles win the Super Bowl on Feb. 4.
Kevin Lamarque / Reuters
Nick Foles celebrates with daughter Lily after the Philadelphia Eagles win the Super Bowl on Feb. 4.

That’s really sweet! My dad spent years trying to teach me how to throw a football correctly, giving me physics lectures about how my arm is like a whip. Are you going to do that to your daughter?

I’ll probably teach her how to throw a football. I really just want to do everything I can to love her and just be daddy. But I think she’ll have some good athletic genes — my wife is more athletic than me. She played volleyball at Arizona. She’s 5-foot-10, can run, jump. And Lily’s like, top percentile in length. She’ll just get a toy and throw it across the room.

You want to see some pictures of her?

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