Kevin Kolb: Hometown Hero

This billboard greets visitors to Stephenville, Texas. "I have a great love for that town because they taught me the game of football," said Kevin Kolb, scrambling for the Eagles, right, in a preseason game. "And, of course, that was my first taste of pressure."
This billboard greets visitors to Stephenville, Texas. "I have a great love for that town because they taught me the game of football," said Kevin Kolb, scrambling for the Eagles, right, in a preseason game. "And, of course, that was my first taste of pressure."
Posted: September 04, 2010

STEPHENVILLE, Texas - It stands there alien in this world of Cowboys.

Planted off Route 377, just a football throw from one of the many ranches that dot the Lone Star landscape, is a billboard as unfamiliar in these parts as the sight of a UFO in Philadelphia.

The idea behind the sign is not foreign in this football-crazed state. It proudly celebrates a hometown boy - a quarterback, no less - who made it all the way to the NFL.

Splashed across the top of the standard-size billboard are the words, "Welcome to Stephenville." And just below and to the right: "Home of Kevin Kolb."

What is striking is the large picture to the left: Kolb, football in hand and looking to throw, wearing his Eagles uniform. If this were Friendswood, Texas, or some other Houston suburb, the image might not seem as odd.

But this small town, labeled the "Cowboy Capital of the World," is just 70 miles west of Dallas, home of those other Cowboys. And the townsfolk of this Bible Belt community are as caught up in the heated Eagles-Cowboys rivalry as any Eagles fan.

So it's jolting to see Kolb in midnight green - although there's another picture of No. 4 in his high school days - and it's mildly surprising that his Eagles likeness hasn't been vandalized. Imagine if Tony Romo were from the Philadelphia area and a similar billboard were erected in honor of the Cowboys quarterback on I-95.

But around here, there is one team more important than the Cowboys, and that's the Stephenville Yellow Jackets. When one of their own makes it big, they make it big, too. And while Kolb has yet to make it big-big, Stephenville is standing behind him as he begins his tenure as the Eagles' starting quarterback.

"If you got right down to it that's the way everybody would be," said Mike Christian, a manager at Bruner's Motors used-car dealership farther down 377 as you near downtown. "Kevin was well-liked. Everybody's rooting for him. I don't care if he plays for the Eagles.

"There might be some of, 'I wish he was playing for somebody else' type deal, a lot of kidding around. But blood runs pretty deep around here when you're talking football."

50 years behind

A rural, middle-class town with a population around 15,000, Stephenville could pass for Odessa, Texas, the town immortalized in the nonfiction book Friday Night Lights. It's where men hang out at the Dairy Queen and talk football until it's time to head to the high school to critique practice.

It was once dubbed the "Dairy Capital of Texas," but most of the family-run dairies have either shut down or were bought out by larger corporations. Oil, cheese, and abrasives plants now employ many of the people. Tarlton State University and the high school provide some jobs.

The town gained national notoriety when hundreds of residents reported sightings of UFOs in January 2008, and CNN's Larry King covered the event.

"They interview a bunch of hillbillies from Stephenville," Kolb said recently. "And then they interview a small dairy farmer, and he's swearing to God that he saw it, and you're like, 'Aw, man, this is going to get hairy.' "

Mike Copeland is not a hillbilly. Kolb's high school coach for the player's last three years at Stephenville High, the 63-year-old is as matter-of-fact as his left arm. Born with half a limb, Copeland was never one for "I can't do it," as he says. He earned a college scholarship in baseball and shoots in the 80s in golf to this day.

He said he saw the UFOs.

"I'm embarrassed to even say it, but I saw something," said Copeland, as he scratches his neck with the nub of his left arm as if the hand were there.

"A lot of us made great sport of that," said Rick Sherrod, who teaches history at the high school. Sherrod, amiable enough to meet a reporter at the high school after a jog, is putting together a book, A Pictorial History of Stephenville.

"It's said about Stephenville in other places: If you hear the world's coming to an end, move to Stephenville. You got 50 years left," said Sherrod, 59. "I think that's a fair assessment. We're about 50 years behind the times. I mean that in a good way."

Got attention

Kolb arrived about 10 years before the UFOs. He was born on Aug. 24, 1984, in Victoria, Texas, to parents, Roy and Lanell, the younger sibling to Amy. For the next several years, the Kolbs bounced around south Texas, moving to Pleasanton and then Corpus Christi, before relocating to the northern town of Decatur and eventually nearby Stephenville.

Kolb's parents left here not long after Kevin went to Houston to play college football. They live in Flatonia, Texas, just outside Austin. Kolb did not want his family to be interviewed for this series. He said that Eagles coach Andy Reid advised against it and that his family would prefer to remain anonymous.

The Kolbs, chasing after Kevin's football future, moved here just before his freshman year of high school. The goal was to get a college scholarship, but Stephenville, in retrospect, may have helped prepare Kolb for what he's about to face with the Eagles.

"I have a great love for that town because they taught me the game of football," Kolb said. "They taught me the passion that goes into the fan side of it first. And, of course, that was my first taste of pressure."

When it comes to the town's priorities, the locals say, "It's God, then family, then football." However, when current Stephenville head coach Joe Gillespie is asked for the real order, he rattles off the aforementioned list with the use of his fingers. Except when he says, "family," the No. 3 ring finger is up and when he says "football," it goes with the No. 2 middle finger.

He laughs.

That's why when the Kolbs came to town, with Kevin in tow and Roy as the new junior varsity high school basketball coach, hardly an eyelash was batted.

"We knew it was a package deal," said Josh Haringa, Kolb's tight end for one season. "That's how it happens in the Ville."

Sure, a few families were jealous, but "future NFL quarterbacks," as Sherrod says, "are hard to come by."

"The first I heard about him was there's a kid that can throw the football flat-foot 50 yards down the field, and he's a ninth grader," Sherrod says. "That immediately gets everybody's attention in this town."

When Kolb showed up, the Yellow Jackets were the defending Class AAAA state champions and had won three of the previous six crowns. He had come to play for celebrated coach Art Briles but sat for most of his freshman year as Briles' son, Kendal, ran the offense.

That team went on to claim Briles' fourth state title and gave the town an identity it had previously lacked.

"There's not a whole lot of money in Stephenville," Sherrod said. "I think that's one reason why we are such a football town. You have to look at where the successes are. After Art Briles, which was sort of like the second coming, the whole town changed. . . . It gave the town an identity that it had never had before, and it gave the town a cause for justifiable pride."

In all, Kolb spent just four years in Stephenville. But those were four life-altering years, he said, even away from the gridiron.

It's when Kolb and his father raised the white flag and learned to peacefully coexist. It's when Kolb, two years younger, met and started dating his future wife, Whitney. Sure, there were some down moments. The Kolbs sometimes struggled to make ends meet.

And there were a few dustups. Kevin trashing the truck his grandfather had just given him. The time he and Whitney got caught cutting class. But mostly it was just fishing and hunting, hanging with Whitney and his buddies and football. Most of all, football.

Rooting for Kevin

From the outside, the high school looks like any large public school. But there's the Mike Copeland complex devoted solely to athletics and inside a king-size weight room. The walls outside Gillespie's office are adorned with photographs and mementoes marking sporting success - mostly of football.

"I like to think of this institution as a football program with a small academic arm," Sherrod said, only half-kiddingly. "We're here to serve the needs of Texas football fans."

There's a large framed picture of Kolb arching a pass skyward. His No. 4 navy and gold jersey hangs from a wall inside a case next to Jevan Sneed's. Picked up by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in April as an undrafted rookie free agent, Sneed is trying to become the second Stephenville quarterback to play in the NFL.

A mere mention of the first, however, lights up the face of every local.

"He was a great student," said Jan Vaughn, Kolb's junior-year keyboarding teacher and now the school's assistant principal. "A little mischievous, but who wasn't?"

Kolb never won a state title in his three seasons as the starting quarterback - a fact residents don't mind pointing out. But he's a celebrity whenever he ventures back to do a commercial or sign autographs for Bruner's Motors. (He has a home about 30 minutes away in Granbury.)

Christian, goateed and as Texan as his boots, remembers Kolb when he used to come by the house to hang with his daughter, Tara. Now the manager of the car dealership and Kolb are friends.

"The dude's making a lot of money now - a lot of money - and when he comes back here we don't get the New York Yankee-Philadelphia breed in here," Christian said. "I'm not being mean. When Kevin's coming here he's just regular old Kevin, wears his T-shirt and shorts. And when we talk, we talk about hunting and fishing."

Haringa, Kolb's old tight end, still lives here, and he recently ran into Kolb at the Which-Wich? sandwich shop on West Washington Street.

"We had a close bond playing together," Haringa said. "A lot of people in the Ville glorify him now, but I don't think of him that way. I root for the Cowboys. But if he did beat the Cowboys, I'd hope he'd go on to win the Super Bowl."

Haringa is inside the Bull Nettle Bar and Grill, also located on Route 377. Just over his shoulder is a framed Kolb Eagles jersey that rests below a neon Cowboys light fixture that is surrounded by other Dallas mementoes.

The locals followed the Eagles' off-season soap opera at quarterback with one eye. It wasn't hard to pick sides. In one corner, there's the hometown hero. In the other, there's Donovan McNabb, the player they were conditioned to hate.

"I actually started having a little liking for [McNabb]," said Greg Bruner, owner of Bruner's Motors. "He's almost a little underdogish. And then Kevin said, 'Nah, he's an idiot. Don't worry about it.' "

Bruner laughed and then added: "No, I'm just joking."

In the end, the search to find a Stephenvillian who has converted to being an Eagles fan proved fruitless. There are plenty of Kolb fans, however.

"I'm still rooting for Kevin, except when the Cowboys play him and he can take his one ass-whooping," Christian said. "But when I'm rooting for Kevin, I'm not rooting for the Eagles."


Contact staff writer Jeff McLane at 215-854-4745 or jmclane@phillynews.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Jeff_McLane.

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|