- During his senior year at Westlake High, Foles watched as one of his offensive linemen—and the best player on his team—was forced to hang up his cleats after a cardiac arrest. Foles, typically a leader by example, stepped up both on the field and as a leader, leading his team all the way to the Texas state championship.
AUSTIN — A former coach describes him as a “Paul-Bunyan, God-like figure.” Mack Brown offered him a scholarship to play at Texas on site after only watching his warm up. He was the larger-than-life, vocal leader of the Westlake High football team in Austin, and at 6’ 5” and 300 pounds in his prime, offensive lineman Matt Nader could outsprint his quarterback, Nick Foles—Nader’s quiet counterpart, a leader by example. Then the unimaginable happened.
Westlake was playing A&M Consolidated High in College Station in the third week of the season. The team had just finished a long scoring drive, and like he does after every offensive possession, Nader conferenced with Foles and co-offensive coordinator Sul Ross and then took a seat on the bench. Moments later, Nader fell backwards off the bench and went into cardiac arrest.
Nader’s mother and father, both physicians, climbed out of the stands and rushed to his side. They performed CPR on their son while Westlake High athletic trainer Brad Hawkins retrieved an automated external defibrillator (AED). While Nader’s body was fighting for what would have been the last few gulps of oxygen, the AED revived him. Coaches had agreed to call the game on the spot, and players wept as the teams prayed together at midfield. “We thought, there’s no way,” says senior safety Joey Feste. “He’s a gladiator, how can he go down? People were in shock. People were crying. It was traumatic.”
Nader woke up in a College Station hospital surrounded by his family, coaches and a handful of teammates, including Foles. Doctors told him he had a heart rhythm disorder, ending his football career. Heartbroken, Nader kept showing up to practices; he remained a team captain and watched an improbable run for Westlake that ended in the state championship game.
“To see me go down, I think, was shocking on multiple wavelengths,” Nader says. “The mortality of the whole situation. The fact that life is fragile kind of sets in for everybody that was there. My teammates were like, ‘if the biggest strongest guy can go down, anybody can.”
Nader’s brush with death was a transformative moment for Foles, who was suddenly tasked with twice the responsibility for the success of the football team missing arguably its top player.
“Nick has a close relationship with God and I think seeing me go down and survive was a big deal to him,” Nader says. “[It] gave a lot of people perspective, and made guys think there was more to life than football.”
Foles, who will start at quarterback for the Eagles in the Super Bowl on Sunday, has long been guarded with the press. His parents declined to speak with the media for this or any other story during the Eagles’ improbable run to the Super Bowl led by Foles, who spent most of the season as a backup to Carson Wentz before the latter tore his ACL. Some friends trace his family’s reluctance to a 2014 Philly Magazine profile by Buzz Bissinger, in which the Friday Night Lights author argues that Foles didn’t have the personality to be successful in the NFL. In later interviews Bissinger described the quarterback as “chicken-shit” and “non-aggressive.”
But the picture painted by high school teammates in the aftermath of Nader’s collapse and diagnosis paints the picture of a quarterback who was anything but. He spent every day at the hospital while Nader was being cared for, and then he went to work. A week after Nader’s episode, he tore the rotator cuff in his throwing shoulder; he told no one and played the next 12 games through the injury.
"Never said a word,” says Derek Long, the former Westlake head coach who is now retired. “And so, we went through the season and threw the ball and he never complained. The only thing was, sometimes he'd go on a certain day in practice, and say ‘Coach, can we just throw some shorter routes today? My arm’s a little sore.’ Sure, fine. We didn't have a problem with that.”
In Westlake’s offense, Steve Ramsey called run plays, screens and draws, and his co-offensive coordinator, Sul Ross, called passing plays. At some point around midseason, Foles became fed up with the passing calls and started changing plays in the huddle and received little objection from coaches.
“When Matt went down, Nick had to take on that role of being in charge and making sure everything was done the right way,” says Ramsey, who is now the principal at Westlake. “When certain passes would go in, maybe it wasn’t the best call, so Nick took a lot of latitude to say hey, let’s run this. He would change the plays.
“I think that gave him some edge with our kids where it was more of the Varsity Blues, I’m in charge, I know what’s right, follow me. He didn’t have to say those words, but when he would do that the kids were like yeah. Nick’s always had more of an edge than people think.”
That was never more apparent when compared to his father, Larry Foles. Larry, a successful restaurateur, had always been a dominant presence in Nick’s athletic career—that is, until Nick and the team received a talk from Long.
Typically a calming presence, Long once lost his temper with a parent who walked into his office to lecture him about the performance of the defense and what needed to change—it was one of the first and only times anybody in the program can remember him being that angry.
“One of the dads came in and told us how to run our defense and Coach Long lost it on him,” Ramsey says. “After we were done for the day, Long told the kids, ‘If you’ve got any problems with me you need to quit.’”
Every player handled the talk differently, Ramsey says. Foles asked Larry to take a step back, and his dad obliged.
“I think Larry is an intense man, and a very successful man, and he's been super hands on in everything he's ever done and he's been able to reap the benefits of that,” Nader says. “Nick is very different than Larry. He's always been confident, but he walks softly and carries a big stick. I think Larry's nature and Nick's nature were not the same. So I think in order for him to accomplish what he wanted to accomplish, he needed to be independent. So I think that's what drove Nick to have those sorts of conversations.”
Ramsey says Nader’s collapse turned the team into “old souls” who looked upon their high-school careers with more finality than was typical for kids their age.
“All that year, Nick and a lot of other people did things more out of their comfort zone,” Ramsey says. “People thought, well, life’s pretty short, let’s not make excuses and just keep doing what we’re doing. If you need to say something and make a change, say it.”
Throughout Westlake’s season Nader kept coming to practices and walking out for the coin toss, hand-in-hand with Nick and two other captains. Westlake kept winning. After losing to Austin High 31-24 in the fourth week of the season, they won 10 out of their next 11. When injuries struck the defense, the staff resolved to put politics aside and start wide receiver Ryan Swope—who was selected in the sixth round of the 2013 NFL draft by the Cardinals—on offense and defense, inviting criticism from parents’ whose kids were next in line to start on the defense.
“We had Swope play safety, moved some other kids around,” Ramsey says. “We’ll coach ‘em up. We’re not gonna worry about mom, dad, everyone’s feelings, lets just go win and give them the best chance. Lets put the kids in the best position to win and not worry about any of the politics. We started to really take those risks that were best for the kids and not worry about any of the fallout.”
The road to the championship was an unforgiving grind. They beat Churchill by two points, Jay by 14, Los Fresnos by 26, Reagan by 14, and Pearland by three. By the time they faced Southlake Carroll in the title game at the Alamodome, they were missing three of the original five starting lineman to injury. Foles was still slugging along with his injured shoulder, and despite taking a lead into halftime, Westlake couldn’t keep up. They fell 43-29 in what was Carroll's third-consecutive title victory and 48th win in a row.
UT and Mack Brown honored Nader’s scholarship, and he tried football once more going into his sophomore year. After months of training, he decided to sprint at 100% speed at DKR stadium—but he went into cardiac arrest again, with the implant shocking his heart back into rhythm and saving his life once more.
Today Nader works for Abbott selling the implant that was inserted into his chest and has been replaced twice now—the Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator (ICD). He dresses in scrubs and acts as a technician in hospital surgery rooms when the devices are installed. He bears a half-dollar sized scar over his heart, and he knows what those last gasps for air were called: “Agonal respiration,” he says.
He’s slimmer now, still smiling. When Nader sees old Westlake teammates around Austin, they fall back into the same routine. They talk about the goofy pep rallies, the come-from-behind wins, Coach Long, Coach Ramsey, Nick and his “intense” dad. They think Hollywood should make a movie out of it.
Oddly enough, Friday Night Lights director Peter Berg, who adapted Bissinger’s book to the screen, had spent the 2003 season shadowing Westlake as research for the movie. If he’d been three years later, he might have tossed the book for a modern story just as compelling.
“That season was magical,” Nader says. “I remember some people saying around Thanksgiving time, after I went down, I’m not thankful for shit. But everybody rallied around it and used it as an opportunity to grow and mature and become stronger as a team. That story puts the Friday Night Lights season to shame.”