PHILADELPHIA - NFL fans in Austin, Texas, aren't sure whom to root for in tonight's Eagles-Saints wild-card round playoff game at Lincoln Financial Field.
Eagles quarterback Nick Foles and New Orleans counterpart Drew Brees both played football at Austin's Westlake High School.
"I'm going to be cheering for the offenses," former Westlake coach Derek Long told the New Orleans Times-Picayune this week. "I hope both quarterbacks throw seven touchdowns. They are both such special guys. I hate it that somebody has to lose, but if they can both just play real well and do well, then that's the best you can hope for in that situation."
Long was Westlake's defensive coordinator in 1996, when Brees led the Chapparals to the Texas State 5A championship before accepting a scholarship to Purdue University.
Ten years later, while in his first season with the Saints after five with San Diego, Brees attended a 10-year reunion of the state title team that was held at halftime of a Westlake game. Long was the head coach, and Foles was the quarterback. Foles wound up leading the team to the 2006 state finals, where they lost to top-ranked Southlake Carroll at the Alamodome in San Antonio.
""You grow up in Westlake, you know who Drew Brees is," Foles said this week. "High school football in Texas is a big deal, and he was a great player. I'm 10 years younger than him, but I've always looked up to him. He did a lot for Westlake, winning a state championship, and that was something I always aspired to do.
"He's a guy I've always watched and learned from. He's a great player, one of the best to ever play the game at the (quarterback) position. He's done a lot of great things throughout his career on and off the field. He's a great role model."
The admiration has been mutual.
Foles, 24, has been one of the NFL's most surprising players this season.
After starting the year on the bench behind Michael Vick, he has gone on to enjoy an outstanding season. Foles finished the regular season as the league's top-ranked quarterback with a 119.2 passer rating while throwing 27 touchdown passes against only two interceptions.
Foles' passer rating was the third-highest ever in the NFL behind that of Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers (122.5 in 2011) and Indianapolis' Peyton Manning (121.1 in 2004). He posted the lowest touchdown/interception ratio (0.63 percent) in league history. He tied the NFL record by throwing seven touchdowns in a game against Oakland this season.
Brees was among those Foles impressed.
"I've always followed him from afar because he was breaking all of my records in high school," Brees said with a laugh during a phone interview this week. "But what he's done this year has been amazing. I mean, those are pretty unprecedented numbers, especially for a guy who's in his first year as a starter.
"I'm very happy for his success. Not just the fact that we're from the same high school, but I kind of know the road he's traveled, and he seems like a tremendous young man. You can see just by the way he plays that he's mature beyond his years. It's been fun to watch his success."
Brees also had an outstanding season.
The 34-year-old completed 446 of 650 passes for 5,162 yards with 39 touchdown passes against 12 interceptions while earning a 104.9 passer rating. He led the NFC in passing yards, completion percentage (68.6) and TD passes.
The Saints' offense is loaded with talented players such as tight end Jimmy Graham, wide receiver Marques Colston and running backs Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas. But the fiery Brees is their unquestioned leader.
"When he's out there, he's a warrior," Foles said. "You can just tell with the intensity he shows when he plays the game. You can just see his leadership. That's something I've always looked up to him for. He's a leader, a great guy and a great quarterback."
They have a lot on the line when they square off tonight.
The winner advances to the NFC divisional round of the playoffs next weekend. The Eagles would play at Carolina on Sunday, Jan. 12 at 1 p.m. The Saints would take a trip to face Seattle on Saturday, Jan. 11 at 4:35 p.m.
Foles and Brees also are fighting for bragging rights in their hometown.
"I imagine it's pretty rare for two quarterbacks from the same high school to be facing each other in an NFL playoff game," Brees said. "Football has always been a big deal in Texas. There are towns that shut down on Friday nights to watch high school game, and I'm sure a lot of people in Westlake are excited to watch us play. It's pretty cool."
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