Eagles' Foles got his start on the basketball court

The Eagles' Nick Foles (9) was once regarded more as a prospect in basketball than football. An injury changed all that. YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
The Eagles' Nick Foles (9) was once regarded more as a prospect in basketball than football. An injury changed all that. YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
Posted: November 23, 2013

How does this just happen?

That's what everyone's asking about Nick Foles these days, isn't it? Third-round draft pick. So-so rookie season. A 6-foot-6 beanpole slower than chilled molasses, playing in a funky offense that at first glance would seem to fit him as perfectly as a pair of capris with a 50-inch waist - this is the guy who threw seven touchdowns in one game, who has led the Eagles to first place in their division, who may yet persuade the franchise's decision-makers that it isn't necessary to draft a franchise quarterback next year? This doesn't just happen, does it?

Of course it doesn't.

Every surprise in sports has a backstory, and Foles' is more interesting than most. He broke most of Drew Brees' records at Westlake High School in Austin, Texas, even though he played most of his senior season with a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder. His arm still weak from the surgery, he transferred to Arizona from Michigan State for a chance to be closer to home and to play more. He lost his preseason competition with Michael Vick when he threw an inexcusable interception against the Carolina Panthers - no small irony, considering he hasn't thrown one during the regular season.

But in explaining Foles' ascension, maybe the best place to begin is, of all places, a high school basketball court. At Westlake, Foles was a Division I recruit as a small forward, and he and those who coached him and coached against him draw a connection between his talents in the two sports.

"I think my basketball background helps a lot," he said last week. "On a basketball court, of course there are designed plays, but you have to make plays within those plays. You've got fast breaks, different throwing lanes. You see a lot of point guards, like Chris Paul, look one way and throw it another. You see how the eyes and the body can be so deceptive on the basketball court, and I just try to take that and use it."

Indeed, Foles' vision in the pocket might be his greatest strength as a quarterback, even dating back to high school. That intrinsic sense of what to do and when to do it became essential to him after he injured his shoulder. Thereafter, Foles would lift a medicine ball and toss a weighted football before games just to loosen up his arm. It became so sore during a playoff game that Westlake head coach Derek Long didn't call a pass play in the second half.

Without his usual velocity, Foles learned to throw with more timing and touch, said Sul Ross, his quarterback coach at Westlake. "He was able to see the field a little bit better, and I think that has to do with playing a lot of basketball when he was young."

It wasn't until basketball season began that Foles learned how serious his shoulder injury was. One day at practice, he tried to throw an inbounds pass from the baseline to midcourt - and couldn't. An MRI revealed the torn labrum. James Andrews, the renowned surgeon to the sports stars, repaired it. The rehabilitation lasted six months.

With that, Foles' basketball career was finished. It had been more than promising. (Georgetown, among other schools, recruited him.) Tres Ellis was the boys' basketball coach at Austin High School while Foles was at Westlake. The schools remain fierce rivals, and Foles, Ellis said, was the best player in their entire district - an unselfish post player who had enough range to take and make shots from behind the NBA's three-point line with ease.

"He could just walk in the gym and be better than a lot of guys," said Ellis, who is now Westlake's head coach.

Foles, in fact, was initially regarded as a better prospect in basketball than in football. As a freshman, he had started on Westlake's varsity basketball team but played sparingly on the football team. "When his first season was over, I really worked with him in the offseason," Ross said. "I told the other coaches, 'He's a Division I quarterback.' They kind of laughed at me."

It wasn't the last time people scoffed at the suggestion that Nick Foles was an elite quarterback. It might not turn out to be the last time they were wrong, either.


msielski@phillynews.com

@MikeSielski

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